|Jones and Hightower represent two of four significant decisions facing the Pats over the next two offseasons|
Day three of the 2015 NFL draft fell on a Saturday. As Nate Ebner would know, Saturday is a rugby day, and as result I found myself enjoying the Newport sunshine with my fellow ruggers, following the draft on my phone as we waited for our next match in the annual NERFU tournament. Aware of my status as a football nerd and PatriotsLife writer, several teammates had asked me about the Patriots draft so far. Opinions were mixed except for a few constants; everyone loved the Malcom Brown pick, the Jordan Richards reach confused most of us, and nearly everyone agreed that they needed to finally address their major need on the offensive line.
The Logan Mankins trade wound up landing the Pats the second pick of the fourth round, and it wasn't long after Day 3's noon start that the Patriots pick flashed across my Twitter feed. "With the 101st pick in the NFL draft, the New England Patriots select Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas" I read aloud to my teammates.
"What?!" one teammate exclaimed. "Still no O-Line?!". "Another one?!" yelled another teammate, referring the late third round selection of athletic project Geneo Grissom.
I too was surprised by the pick. I was mildly aware of Flowers, both as a CFF darling and a player projected by many to go a little earlier in the draft, but had admittedly not spent much time evaluating the edge rushers leading up to this draft due to what I had perceived as a lack of need. Starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were set to return with Jabaal Sheard added to the mix, and they already had a couple of intriguing developmental prospects in the pipeline in Michael Buchanan and Zach Moore. With Ninkovich, Jones and Sheard all seemingly in line for major roles, there was already a bit of a logjam for snaps there without adding two more prospects to the roster.
However, it's important to remember while evaluating Patriots draft decisions that this organization has always drafted with long-term roster building a far higher priority than filling immediate needs. The fact that Flowers and Grissom figure to play very little in 2015 if all goes according to plan means very little to them, and predictably didn't prevent them from pulling the trigger on either pick. A draft pick is typically a three to four year investment in a player, and the Patriots will take that entire window into account when adding any prospect to the roster.
Remembering that, I quickly thought about the Patriots long-term roster situation, which at this point is impossible for me without considering the Big 4. That number doesn't refer to Tom Brady's championship rings, but rather to the four standouts who will all be due for big raises from their rookie contracts over the next two offseasons: Nate Solder, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
Solder, Tom Brady's blindside protector and a well above-average player at one of the league's premier positions, is due to hit the market next offseason after playing out 2015 under the fifth year option of his rookie deal. At $7.34 million, Solder's cap hit is already the third highest on this year's books (trailing only Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski), and he figures to be due for a significant raise considering the importance of his position and rising salary cap. The Pats recently exercised the fifth year options for Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, meaning they'll retain their services for the next two seasons for a relative bargain (neither will have a cap hit exceeding $8 million in 2016) before they both hit the market the following offseason. As a non first round pick, there is no fifth year option for Jamie Collins, and he's currently scheduled to hit the market along with Jones and Hightower after the 2016 season.
There are worst problems to have than having too many talented home-grown players to be able to pay, but it's wishful thinking to imagine that all four of those guys remaining Patriots over the long-haul. The Pats have always been selective about which players they show the money to, and have been unafraid to swallow hard and step away when they feel a player's market value is no longer a wise long-term investment. They've always been wary of handing out too many big contracts, as doing so inevitably results in top-heavy rosters with questionable depth and little roster building flexibility. In essence, they never want to become the Saints, who were forced to gut a talented roster due to their terrible cap situation. There's evidence of that careful methodical long-term strategy throughout the Belichick tenure, with perhaps no decision standing out as much as shipping out Richard Seymour less than a year before giving the younger Vince Wilfork a top-of-the-market deal.
I've already spent some thinking about the upcoming "Big 4" predicament, and it's clear that the Patriots have spent much more time than me. Robert Kraft has hinted publicly about how those upcoming decisions played a factor in the team's approach to the Darrelle Revis, as matching the Revis deal would have made it significantly more difficult to keep even half of those four. The structure of Jerod Mayo's recent restructure also appears to be negotiated with the future in mind, as it makes it likely Mayo's sizable cap hit will come off the books next offseason; right when Solder hits the market and Jones, Hightower and Collins all enter contract years. The Logan Mankins trade was also likely made with cap considerations in mind, as it erased the remaining three expensive years of his exorbitant contract (Mankins has a $4 million dead money charge this year before coming off the books entirely next offseason).
However, even with the organization clearly bracing for the financial commitments in their future, I find it hard to believe they'll make the necessary offers to keep all of the "Big 4" around long-term. Doing so would result in significant long-term contracts for Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, Solder, Jones, Hightower AND Collins, even before factoring in Tom Brady's cap charge and a future extension for either Brady or (gasp) Jimmy Garoppolo down the road. Needless to say, roster-building flexibility would be crippled for the foreseeable future.
Looking at the future from the Pats presumed perspective, it finally became clear to me why loading up on edge players could prove beneficial down the road. If the Patriots aren't able to keep all of the "Big 4", they'll clearly have to prioritize those players in terms of how expendable they are down the road. From that line of thinking, it seems more and more likely that Jones could wind up being the odd man out.
As good as Jones has looked at times in his NFL career, I can't imagine the Patriots not taking his history of injuries and inconsistency into account when considering his long-term worth. Jones has missed time due to injury in two of his three pro seasons, including a significant six game stretch in 2014, and is spending this offseason rehabbing from an undisclosed surgery. He's been productive when on the field, but has never quite translated his obvious physical talent into sustained, consistent dominance.
Despite that, Jones is bound to get paid when he eventually hits the market. Pass rushers are always in demand, and guys with Jones' freakish skill-set don't grow on trees. If he gets an offer in line with the market for upper-echelon pass rushers (a market which is rapidly rising in accordance with the salary cap), I find it hard to see the Patriots matching given those aformentioned concerns.
Losing a guy with his ability to be a mismatch off the edge would undoubtedly be a hit, but one easier to swallow with a number of pass rush threats elsewhere on the roster (Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, and likely at least one if not both of Hightower and Collins). Likewise, the Patriots ensured on Saturday that they'll have a well-stocked cubbard of prospects with at least two years of development under their belts at defensive end should it come to that.
Of course, this is all just a theory on my part. It's possible that the organization likes Jones enough to match that kind of financial commitment to him, and the Flowers and Grissom picks were merely a case of a "best player available" robot-like drafting mentality. However, I doubt that any of those decisions were made by coincidence and not with the long-term plan in mind, and a quick glimpse at the roster certainly suggests that they're making sure they have insurance should Jones become the one of the "Big 4" that becomes too expensive to keep.