Even though Patriot fans had become accustomed to Bill Belichick's cuthroat approach to roster-building by 2009, trading Richard Seymour merely a week before the 2009 season opener was still a shock. Viewed by many at the time as a potential Hall of Fame candidate, Seymour was already a five time All Pro and a foundational piece of the defensive core that won three championships in four years. He had also shown no signs of slowing down yet, coming off of a particularly strong 2008 season in which he tied his career high in sacks (8).
However, two factors ultimately combined to make trading Seymour a possibility: his age and contract status. With Seymour set to hit free agency following the 2009 season, the Patriots were forced to consider their options. At age 30, Seymour was still an excellent player worthy of a Pro Bowl level salary, but keeping him beyond 2009 would likely mean paying him at that level at least until 2012, at which point Seymour would be 33. With 126 NFL games already under his belt, it wasn't unreasonable for the Patriots to bet against Seymour remaining a dominant player into his mid-thirties.
The contractual situation of Seymour's defensive linemate Vince Wilfork also helped nudge the Pats towards moving on from Seymour. Like Seymour, Wilfork was entering a contract year in 2009, as his six year (hello, old CBA) rookie deal was set to expire at the end of the year. Essentially forced to choose between their two stars, the Patriots clearly favored making that type of long-term investment in the 28 year old Wilfork over the 30 year old Seymour. They made that clear the following offseason, as they kept Big Vince with a 5 year, $40 million deal that made him one of the league's highest paid defensive tackles.
While the timing of making such a deal so close to the season still seems curious, the logic behind trading Seymour made sense. Faced with the likelihood of losing him for nothing after the season, the Pats instead decided to turn their aging star into a future asset. When the floundering Oakland Raiders came calling with an offer of a 2011 first round pick, the Patriots pounced.
It's easy to see why the Patriots viewed the future Raiders pick as a desirable asset. The Raiders hadn't won more than 5 games in a season since losing the Super Bowl in 2002, and had averaged merely 4 wins a season during that six year span. Their average first round pick during that span was seventh overall, an average that was actually pulled up by a trade down from to the 23rd pick in 2005. Use the Raiders original 2005 pick (seventh), and that average drops two full slots to fifth overall. With Jamarcus Russell still under center for Oakland at the time, the Patriots had every reason to believe the Raiders would continue to play their way into top 10 in the foreseeable future.
However, a funny thing happened on the way to New England's path to a seemingly inevitable top 10 pick. Oakland stumbled into a season of competent QB play from Jason Campbell in 2010, who combined with a ferocious defense led by Seymour, Kamerion Wimbley and Nnamdi Asomugha to lead the Silver and Black to a competitive 8-8 season. Oakland would finish 8-8 the following year, concluding a two-year outlier of competitive play sandwiched between nine years of sub .312 play, which includes their current three year streak of landing an assigned pick in the top 5.
To sum it up, the Patriots were unlucky enough to land the Raiders first round pick in the first year since 2003 that their assigned first rounder fell outside the top 10. In the end, they wound up with the 17th pick in 2011 in addition to their own first round pick (28th) and a high second rounder (33rd) acquired in a previous trade with Carolina, giving them maximum flexibility to move around the board. They stayed pat at 17 and took Colorado LT Nate Solder, who has emerged as a solid player at one of the game's most critical position. With one pick already in the books, they then traded their own pick to New Orleans, who moved back into the first round to land reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. In return, the Pats received the Saints second round pick (54, RB Shane Vereen), along with a first rounder the following year that would be used to move up and land DE Chandler Jones. To prove that the draft is a crapshoot even for a legend like Bill Belichick, the Pats used the 33rd pick on Ras-I Dowling. Can't win them all.
Landing four years of good, cost-controlled play at left tackle certainly hasn't been a poor return for an effective but aging defender who has been out of football for two years now. However, it's difficult to not look back at the historic draft class of 2011 and wonder what could have been had Oakland had a typical Raiders season in 2010.
Imagine if the Raiders 2010 had been representative of the previous six years and finished 4-12, rather than providing an 8-8 outlier. In that scenario, Oakland would wind up picking somewhere between 2nd and 5th overall, depending on tiebreakers. Those four draft slots landed (in order) Von Miller, Marcel Dareus, AJ Green and Patrick Peterson, all four of whom have developed into dominant, Pro-Bowl level players.
As tantalizing as those names are, there wouldn't have been any dropoff had the Raiders finished between 5 and 7 wins. The list of non-quarterbacks drafted in the top 15 of that draft is jaw-dropping. From picks 6 to 15, Julio Jones (6), Aldon Smith (7), Tyron Smith (9), JJ Watt (11), Nick Fairley (13), Robert Quinn (14) and Mike Pouncey (15) went off the board. Yes, the Titans and Jaguars took Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert respectively with JJ Watt on the board that year, and yes, that will never not be funny.
What's not funny is thinking of what could have been if the Raiders pick had put Belichick in position to land Watt in 2011. The past four years have undoubtedly been great to Pats fans, but a core of Brady/Watt/Gronkowski would have had the potential to challenge the Pats unprecendented 2001-2004 run. It's terrifying to think of the ways Belichick would come up with to use a defensive chess piece like Watt, whose versatility would make him a perfect fit for the Pats varied schemes, and even more frightening to imagine pairing that kind of defense with a Brady-led offensive attack. The rest of the league should be pulling a Rex Ryan and kissing Jason Campbell's feet every day for unknowingly preventing this from happening.
So, when you see Watt wreaking havoc alongside Wilfork on the Texans next year, remember how that combination almost had a chance to come to fruition in New England. Lastly, remember that Belichick nearly pulled it off, and likely would have if it hadn't been for Jason Campbell's surprising competence under center.