Opinion: Without more information, Collins trade doesn't add up
The Patriots lost rare playmaking ability by trading away Jamie Collins
Patriots fans and media alike have had over 24 hours to process yesterday's shocking news, but most throughout New England are still pondering the same question:
Why the hell would you ever trade Jamie Collins? In the middle of a potential title run, no less?
While some have immediately jumped to defend the wall with cliche after cliche, no explanation for this move makes sense given the information we currently have. No matter how sure the team was that Collins would be gone as a free agent following the season (pretty damn sure, by the sounds of it), there's no plausible way to defend this trade as a football move.
Was Collins not playing up to his potential? Absolutely, although that really says more about how much potential he truly has than anything else. This is a guy with Defensive Player of the Year talent, talent he flashed back in Week 3 with a dominant display in the Pats shutout win over Houston. No, his play the rest of the season hasn't lived up to that standard, or even the standard he set over the past two seasons, when he established himself as one of the top linebackers in the league. However, he's still been better than the vast majority of the linebackers out there.
The stats bear this out. In a game predicated on passing more now than ever, Collins might be the best all around linebacker on passing downs. Cynics can point out the occasional busted play (Owen Daniels has never been talked about more than in the past 24 hours), but on a down-to-down basis Collins has proven to be one of the league's top coverage linebackers. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2014, Collins has finished no worse than sixth amongst linebackers in quarterback rating when targeted. In fact, this "down" season has been his best yet in that metric, with opposing quarterbacks accumulating a dreadful 57.1 rating when throwing against his coverage, the second lowest rating in the league.
Combine that with his ability to rush the passer and you have a unique player suited for the nickel sub-packages that have replaced "base" defenses as the dominant personnel grouping in the NFL. While Collins was better on passing downs than as a run stuffer, the misconception being spread by certain fans today that he had become a liability against the run is laughable. Inconsistent would be the better term to describe his 2016 output against the run, as there was the occasional bad angle or misread mixed in amongst plenty of good snaps on tape.
Presumed Collins replacement Elandon Roberts has shown considerable potential as a downhill thumper against the run. However, he's nowhere close to Collins in pass coverage. Considering that few players in the league compare to Collins in that department, it's no surprise the Pats lack a proven replacement for his coverage role.
Want proof that the "Collins simply wasn't that good" angle is a load of manure? How about the Patriots reportedly offering Collins a significant contract extension this summer? We don't know and likely will never know exactly what the Pats were offering- some reports have said they started talks at $11 million per season- but the consensus is that it was a significant offer. Much less than the Luke Keuchly-to-Von Miller range that Collins is supposedly seeking and will likely get this spring, but still a significant chunk of change, especially coming from a franchise that is notoriously picky when handing out big long-term deals. Certainly not a contract they would offer to any player they didn't view as a cornerstone for years to come.
So, while still very good, Collins hadn't quite lived up to the very lofty expectations his talent set forth for him this season. Was Collins traded to send a message to a defense that has underperformed as a unit? Perhaps that angle was considered, but the same effect could have been had by temporarily banishing him to the bench. It's hard to imagine that being the primary motivation for shipping out such a uniquely talented player for such a minuscule return.
Yes, the return. That's what separates this from the Chandler Jones situation, who like Collins was shipped out of town in advanced of a seemingly inevitable departure via free agency. Like Collins, Jones was in a situation where both the team and player knew a split was likely, given the player's expected value on the free agent market and the team's glut of players up for new deals at the seasons end. In Jones' case, they got ahead of things, trading him to Arizona for a second round pick and former top 10 pick Jonathan Cooper.
Reviews of the Jones trade are mixed at best so far: Jones has taken off in Arizona, where he's been able to rush the passer more often, while Cooper was let go by the Patriots after plantar fasciitis sidelined him throughout training camp and into the regular season. The second round pick was traded for third and fourth round picks, yielding left guard Joe Thuney and Malcolm Mitchell. Thuney has started from day one at left guard, helping to solidify a previously troublesome offensive line, while Mitchell has impressed behind the scenes but remains more potential than production so far in his rookie season.
However, the second round pick originally sent back to New England for Jones is clearly a better return than the compensatory pick (late third round) they likely would've received had Jones played out the final year of his contract in New England before signing elsewhere as a free agent. One can debate whether having Jones around this season to lift up the Pats sagging pass rush would be worth sacrificing that sizeable jump-up in draft value, but simple math can tell you that the 61st overall pick is worth more than a pick in the late 90s range (for reference sake, the Pats took Vincent Valentine with the 96th overall pick this spring, a pick they got in return for losing Darrelle Revis as a free agent).
If the current reports are to be believed, the Patriots essentially got no tangible return for Collins, who like Jones would have likely generated a late third round compensatory pick for the Patriots had he left as a free agent following this season. Instead of taking that route, the Patriots will receive...a late third round compensatory pick from the Browns this spring. That's of course if the Browns do in fact receive a compensatory pick that high, which they are in line for as long as center Alex Mack stays healthy in Atlanta. If not, the pick will revert to the Browns 2018 fourth round pick, an even lesser value than the projected third round pick losing Collins in free agency would yield.
Yes, this trade ensures that the Pats got some sort of return for Collins. As CSNNE's Phil Perry pointed out, compensatory picks are not in any way a guaranteed return, as the Patriots could theoretically balance out the loss of Collins as far as the compensatory formula is concerned by making another noteworthy signing. Making this trade guarantees that the Patriots get a draft pick in return for losing Collins.
So, for those keeping track at home, the benefit of the trade from a Patriots perspective is ensuring that the team got the same compensation that they would have in all likelihood received had Collins played out this season and signed a big money deal elsewhere.
You can try to convince yourself that assurance was worth giving up a half season and postseason run of having Collins patrolling the Patriots defense. You can try to convince yourself that this matches up with Bill Belichick the GM's notion of value. I remain thoroughly unconvinced.
In fact, the Patriots lack of return tells me something. It tells me that, for whatever unknown reason, the Patriots wanted Collins out of their locker room, and were willing to throw "value" out the window to make it happen.
Was the reason Collins' tendency to freelance on defense, as Belichick confidant Michael Lombardi has suggested? Did it stem from a disconnect between Collins and the coaching staff? There's a report out there that Collins recently "got into a heated argument" with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. If true, could there have been a disconnect over his role, which certainly didn't turn him loose as a pass rusher as much as a guy in a contract year might want? Was there concern that his contract griping could bring a negative effect in a locker room filled with guys similarly seeking the first significant contracts of their careers? Perhaps a demotion to being a part time player (Collins was removed from the Buffalo game in favor of Roberts in obvious running situations) was coming, and the team was concerned that Collins' resulting frustration would become a distraction. Was there something else, something no one has even speculated about, that led to his immediate removal from the organization?
As the always vague Belichick said himself during yesterday's interview on WEEI, "I think you could bring up a lot of things and they all probably play into the conversation at some point."
The fact is, we don't know and probably will never know what prompted Collins' sudden exorcism from the 2016 Patriots. Players and coaches have had nothing but good things to say about him following the news. Even if there is some sort unknown, behind-the-scenes drama to explain everything, it would do far more harm than good to the franchise to air out a contract year player's dirty laundry.
However, one thing is clear: for whatever reason, the Patriots had reached a point where they were intent on moving Collins, regardless of the value (or lack thereof) they received in return.