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The Patriots’ Blueprint to Mastering Pick-for-Player Trades

How does New England keep outsmarting everyone in draft dealings? It both embraces the unknown and covets certainty.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Years from now, when the Patriots’ 2017 draft class is little more than an entry on Pro-Football-Reference, those who stumble upon it will be justified in wondering, “What the hell?” New England made only four picks, none coming before the 83rd overall selection. Even for a front office with a history of wheeling and dealing in the draft, this was a bizarre outcome.

The reason the Patriots’ class was so sparse is that Bill Belichick turned into the equivalent of a bored Madden player screwing around in franchise mode during this offseason. Via a flurry of trades, he came away from the draft with more veterans (five) than rookies. Shipping the 32nd pick and the team’s third-round selection (103rd overall) to New Orleans as part of a deal to get wide receiver Brandin Cooks was the highest-profile move, but it was far from the only one. Edge rusher Kony Ealy, tailback Mike Gillislee, and tight ends Dwayne Allen and James O’Shaughnessy all joined the Pats thanks to pick-for-player trades or restricted-free-agent signings, the latter of which requires the signing team to surrender a pick. The result is a draft haul that looks sparse on paper but provides a fascinating case study into how picks can be used as team-building capital, as well as a glimpse into what executives consider when determining a player’s value.

With all the attention paid to the Cooks trade, it’s probably best to start there. The narrative surrounding the deal was that New England used the 32nd pick to land the 23-year-old speedster. Let’s unpack that a bit. First of all, how is Cooks only 23? He’s been in the league for three seasons and has 2,861 career receiving yards. Everyone in America has, at some point, had Cooks on their fantasy team. But back to the stuff that matters.

As part of the deal, New England also exchanged picks with the Saints to move from 103rd overall to 118th overall in this draft, dropping from the bottom of the third round to the top half of the fourth. Looking at all three picks involved in the trade through the prism of Chase Stuart’s draft chart at Football Perspective, which seeks to assign a point value to every spot in the draft and is explained here, we see that the Patriots actually traded 13.4 points of capital, or the approximate value assigned to the 28th overall pick. That’s a steeper price than giving up the 32nd pick, but not by much. While Cooks is an imperfect 5-foot-10 receiver who’s done a majority of his damage in the NFL as a deep-ball artist, any general manager who can find his way to the office would take him 28th in this (or any other) draft. Cooks went 20th overall in 2014 — before posting consecutive 1,100-yard seasons that included 17 combined touchdown catches.

The problem is that Cooks, even at 23, doesn’t hold the same long-term value as a draft pick. After three years in the league, he’s set to enter the final season of the four-year, $8.4 million contract he signed with the Saints in 2014. Like any former first-rounder, his deal includes a fifth-year option for 2018, so the Patriots have him cost-controlled for two more seasons, the second of which comes with a significant salary bump to $8.5 million.

Brandin Cooks (Getty Images)
Brandin Cooks (Getty Images)

Those are the factors that complicate any assessment of New England’s trade for Cooks, and they’re the same ones that come into play for any pick-for-player swap that teams may negotiate. Part of the opportunity cost that comes with each draft trade the Patriots made is losing four years of team control at the cheap rate that comes with the rookie salary scale. As the NFL has made clear in recent years, securing productive players on rookie contracts can be the key to building Super Bowl–contending rosters, and teams have done all they can to retain coveted rookie salaries.

What New England paid for, especially in Cooks’s case, is certainty. Most executives would say the hit rate for the 28th overall pick in a given draft hovers around 50 percent. Acquiring a guy with a track record like Cooks’s takes the possibility of swinging and missing out the draft equation, but forfeiting a few years of a rookie deal can be costly. All these moving parts can make it tough to ascertain a player’s exact value in this type of scenario. In spring 2016 the Patriots were on the other side of this kind of deal when they dealt pass rusher Chandler Jones to Arizona for a second-round pick (and guard Jonathan Cooper, who was released shortly after) in that year’s draft. New England followed that up with a midseason trade that sent linebacker Jamie Collins to Cleveland for a third-rounder in the 2017 draft.

The motivation to make both moves was fueled in part by the fact that Jones and Collins were entering the final years of their respective rookie deals. At this year’s combine, Browns executive vice president Sashi Brown admitted that Collins’s limited time on a rookie contract factored into his price tag, but said that it wasn’t a deterrent for Cleveland in pushing for the swap. “You just factor that into the evaluation,” Brown said. “I don’t think anybody thinks Jamie Collins is a third-round talent. It’s just when you look at the number of years under control with his contract, what you’re trading for, how long you may or may not have him on your roster, certainly factors into some of the discussions you have with other teams.”

Cleveland confirmed that it sees Collins as more than a third-round talent when it handed him a four-year, $50 million deal this offseason, including $26.4 million in guarantees. No team in the league has shown more recent interest in stockpiling picks than the Browns, and while giving away draft capital to bring a player aboard and shelling out a ton of cash to secure him long term might seem excessive, it shouldn’t in Cleveland’s case. Any front office’s goal in hoarding picks (which the Patriots did for years before the Browns took up the mantle as football’s most pick-hungry team) is ensuring as many dice rolls as possible in the crapshoot of evaluating college talent. Trading one of those dice rolls for a player like Collins is more palatable for an organization that’s rolling in draft capital.

The Browns love draft capital so much, in fact, that they took on a chunk of Brock Osweiler’s onerous deal because it netted them a second-round pick in 2018. (It helped that Cleveland entered this offseason with an absurd amount of cap room.) The deal was so unlike any trade we have seen in the past that it barely compares to other pick-for-player trades, such as the ones for Collins, Jones, or Cooks. In making the move, Cleveland was looking to exploit a different inefficiency altogether. The Osweiler trade showcased a way front offices can use cap space as a way to accrue draft capital, rather than using draft capital to acquire veteran talent. In either case, a team can succeed only if some of its draft picks turn into star players who hit their prime and are worth extending. That’s how Cleveland saw Collins.

Chandler Jones (Getty Images)
Chandler Jones (Getty Images)

Arizona’s trade for Jones was made with a similar mind-set, but unlike the Browns, the Cardinals felt like they were close enough to a championship to warrant a win-now deal. Giving up draft capital for a veteran is frequently framed as prioritizing the present over the future, and New England’s bevy of moves this spring have been treated as such. The thought is that with Tom Brady about to hit his 40th birthday, the Patriots are doing all that they can to maximize their title odds in the immediate future. Even the decisions to deal Jones and Collins — at first glance, trades that were made with an eye to the future — expedited the franchise’s timeline for enhancing its roster in that New England had no designs to re-sign either. These trades netted the Pats picks one year earlier than any compensatory selections they would have received.

The Patriots have made moves like this for some time. Each spring New England shows a commitment to reshaping its roster for that season, occasionally at the expense of its future. Brady wasn’t near the end of his career in 2007, when the team dealt for Randy Moss. Or in 2011, when it traded for Chad Johnson. (That one didn’t work out quite as well.)

Many of these deals don’t force the Pats to forgo much in terms of future assets. New England’s deal that brought in Gillislee for the measly price of a fifth-round pick isn’t a risk given the historical hit rate of 163rd overall picks. Gillislee — who’s averaged 5.7 yards per carry and put up efficiency numbers comparable to any back in the league over the past two campaigns — comes to New England on a two-year, $6.4 million deal; that’s a worthwhile move for a team to make no matter its quarterback’s age.

The same could be said about the Patriots’ deal for Martellus Bennett last year. New England traded what amounted to the 140th pick to Chicago for Bennett (according to Stuart’s draft-value chart), and although the tight end spent only a single season with the Pats, he proved vital in allowing them to maintain their offensive identity when Rob Gronkowski went down with a back injury. The three-year, $21 million deal Bennett signed in Green Bay means New England could get a compensatory pick in the 2018 draft despite the other spending it did this offseason.

The Patriots’ philosophy seems simple: Rather than concede that their Super Bowl window is shrinking, they’ve used trades to explore all possible avenues to improving their roster. Most have been for players who fell out of favor in their old homes, and while the names New England has targeted haven’t always been well known — the Kyle Van Noys, Kony Ealys, and Shea McClellins of the world — they have consistently removed some uncertainty from the Pats’ team-building process. New England has shown a creative use of draft capital in two phases: First, acquire additional picks when it’s prudent; then, convert some into more proven contributors, even if what those players have shown to date has yet to make them stars.

The Cooks trade represents the boldest foray the Patriots have made into that latter territory. Based on how often teams have followed New England into the fray over the years — and the success Arizona and Cleveland have found in retaining the stars they’ve dealt for — it likely won’t be the last.