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What If Bill Belichick Made a Mistake?

That’s the best explanation for why the Patriots coach traded Jamie Collins to the Browns

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Getty Images

We told you it wasn’t going to happen, but then it did. And of course if anyone was going to pull off a massive trade deadline deal, it was always going to be Bill Belichick. The Patriots sent All-Pro linebacker Jamie Collins packing for Cleveland on Monday, grabbing a conditional third-round compensatory pick in exchange. (If the Browns aren’t awarded a compensatory pick, reports say the Patriots will get a fourth-round pick instead.)

Typically, if Belichick makes a trade, we default to “Belichick is a genius. He knows what he’s doing. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.” Except, this feels like a legitimately terrible trade for the Pats. New England currently ranks 18th in defensive DVOA, and it just cut bait on one of the game’s better linebackers for a 2017 draft pick.

So, let’s see if we can come up with a rational reason to make what seems to be an irrational move.

Belichick always does this!

Belichick’s personnel philosophy has been well documented: He frequently trades or releases players that are still in — or slightly past — their primes, sacrificing short-term gains in order to build for the future.

He cut safety Lawyer Milloy in 2003. He cut cornerback Ty Law in 2005. He traded former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch to the Seahawks in 2006 for a first-round pick. He traded five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour — a cornerstone piece of the team’s defense — to the Raiders in 2009 for a first-round pick two years down the line. That same year, he traded starting linebacker Mike Vrabel (along with backup quarterback Matt Cassel) to the Chiefs for a second-round pick. He traded Randy Moss and a 2012 seventh-rounder to the Vikings in 2010 for a 2011 third-round pick. He traded six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to the Bucs for a fourth-round pick and tight end Tim Wright in 2014. This year alone, Belichick has released productive defensive tackle Dominique Easley and traded Chandler Jones, his best pass rusher, to the Cardinals for a second-round pick and guard Jonathan Cooper. And that’s only a brief summary.

On one hand, it’s hard to argue with Belichick’s track record of success: six Super Bowl appearances and four wins. The Seymour trade produced the pick that was used to select mainstay tackle Nate Solder, and the Patriots used picks acquired in the Jones trade to add offensive lineman Joe Thuney and receiver Malcolm Mitchell, two pieces for the future of the current team. On the other hand, you have to wonder if New England could have won a few more Super Bowls if not for the decisions to move on early from experienced, productive veterans.

In 2014, Law said that he believes Belichick’s personnel philosophy has cost the Patriots championships because, at times, they relied too heavily upon young, inexperienced replacements. And that should be the primary fear with the Collins trade: He hadn’t played at an All-Pro level thus far this season, but the drop-off to “the next man up” may end up proving to be a fatal blow to an already-struggling defense.

Collins was expendable.

Coming into the season, Collins was widely considered one of the five or so best linebackers in the NFL. But another seven games appear to have eroded that belief in some corners — and obviously in New England.

After Sunday’s win over the Bills, Belichick expressed his displeasure with the linebacker corps: “It was good at times and then at other times I think we really — I think we’re all disappointed, so we really just need to do a better job.”

Former Patriots executive Mike Lombardi was quick to point out that Collins’s freelancing on Sunday allowed the Bills to pick up 28 yards on the second play of the game. And through eight games, the New England defense has been worse against both the pass and the run with Collins on the field:

Rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts, a sixth-round pick from April’s draft, played 28 snaps on Sunday, subbing in for a healthy Collins (who played just 48 of 70 possible snaps, a departure from his normal every-down usage) in certain New England defensive looks. Maybe the strong play by the rookie made the Collins move possible from a depth point of view. With Collins gone, we’ll likely see a platoon of Roberts and Barkevious Mingo, with Roberts bringing the physicality on run downs, and Mingo bringing the athleticism to cover and rush the quarterback on passing downs. New England’s defense also features a versatile group of players like Shea McClellin, Rob Ninkovich, and Kyle Van Noy, all of whom can help fill in to replace Collins’s unique skill set.

However, despite some perceived struggles or freelancing, Collins still has a sack, four quarterback hits, two interceptions, a pass defensed, a forced fumble, and four run stuffs this season, and he has allowed just 61 yards in coverage on 13 targets. Pro Football Focus has him as its ninth-ranked inside linebacker. Even if he’s dropped off a bit, it’s going to be difficult to replace the elite athleticism that Collins brings to the table, and his ability to play the run, move in coverage, and rush the passer with equal effectiveness meant that New England could leave him on the field for all three downs, which helped the Patriots avoid getting caught in the wrong personnel groups on defense. Collins wasn’t named a second-team All-Pro last year because he jumped over the line on a field goal attempt; it’s because he was a productive, explosive, makes-plays-all-over-the-field player for New England.

OK, fine, but the Patriots weren’t going to re-sign him anyway.

Reports Monday suggested that Collins, who will be a free agent after this season, was looking for “Von Miller money,” or something around six years and $114.5 million. That’s a laughable demand, considering Miller is one of the most dominant edge rushers in the game and Collins is a stand-up, off-the-ball linebacker — two totally separate position groups with vastly different contract structure precedents. New England already, reportedly, had “a lot of trouble” in early negotiations with Collins over a long-term contract extension, and Collins apparently turned down an $11 million per year offer from the Pats.

Even still, most — if not all — negotiations begin with outrageous demands by both the players and the teams. As deadlines approach, the two sides soften, landing on an agreeable number. It’s the end of October, and there would’ve been little reason for either side to back down until free agency begins in March.

Perhaps the Patriots never intended to re-sign him in the first place. One of the biggest questions about New England’s upcoming offseason was which pending free agent it valued more: Dont’a Hightower or Collins? And this trade gave us an answer.

Except, making the trade now really does only one thing: accelerates the draft-pick payment one year, to this upcoming draft instead of the 2018 draft. If New England had let Collins walk in free agency, it would have almost certainly received a compensatory pick in 2018 commensurate to the amount of money Collins would’ve gotten in free agency — likely somewhere in the third- or fourth-round range based on his early demands and the fact that he was an All-Pro in 2015.

So, by trading him now, the Patriots likely get a third-round pick a year earlier, but they lose his talents and abilities for half a season and a potential playoff run. Tom Brady is still playing at an elite level, but the championship window won’t be open for too much longer. (Right?) Is the difference between a 2017 third-round comp pick and a 2018 third-round comp pick equal to half a season of Jamie Collins? That’s tough to believe, but Belichick apparently thinks so.

All right. He just meant to send a message.

This is my favorite (and least believable) rationalization. And I hope it’s the truth: Collins was dealt to Cleveland to teach Patriots players a lesson. It’s a Draconian Belichick ploy: Play better and ask for less money or you’ll be sent packing to the football equivalent of Siberia.

Hm, OK. Maybe Belichick just made a mistake?

The move really doesn’t make any sense on the surface; you have to really reach for any of it to add up, even if Belichick’s decision came down to a combination of these various reasons. He just dealt an experienced, productive, and relatively cheap member of his defense for dubious future gain in the form of a late-third-round pick in (presumably) one of Brady’s final seasons playing at an elite level. New England’s number of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball is dwindling. The depth at linebacker just got a lot thinner. Even though Belichick has earned the reputation as someone not to be trifled when it comes to trades, this actually feels like a big win for the draft-capital-rich Browns.

Belichick has made a career out of doing things his way, but that doesn’t mean he’s never wrong.