The New England Patriots made a surprising trade on Tuesday. On the first deadline day for training camp cuts the usual lists of undrafted free agents and washouts being cut was spiced up by head coach Bill Belichick. As first reported by Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer, New England traded 32 year-old and long-time Patriot Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round draft pick.
Here is what I wrote about Mankins while examining the Patriots’ training camp battles at Musketfire.com just six weeks ago:
Logan Mankins appears to be a lock at left guard but nothing is ever certain with veterans in New England. Short of an amazing performance in camp by sixth-round draft pick Jon Halapio or second year guard Josh Kline to bump Mankins out of the equation he should be safe…
So what has changed the equation so drastically to swing Mankins out of town? There are a couple of reasons, so let us take them one-by-one:
1. THE INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH:
What was a perceived weakness has turned into a strength this preseason. Second-year guards Josh Kline and Jordan Devey have excelled so far in the preseason games. Devey has been the surprise of training camp since it began. The Patriots have used him all over the line and have been giving the youngster a long look. Kline filled in for two games at left guard last season when left tackle Nate Solder was injured and Mankins kicked out to take Solder’s spot on the line.
In addition to that duo, the Patriots invested draft picks on the interior of the offensive line in the fourth and sixth rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft. Center Bryan Stork is finally healthy and is a roster lock. The Patriots have been impressed with Jon Halapio and it will be difficult to sneak him through waivers. In addition, fourth round pick Cameron Fleming has looked capable at tackle against second-team defenses and may allow backup tackle Marcus Cannon to kick inside to guard to shore up the interior line.
Of course, with both Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell looking rejuvenated this summer, the Patriots have a plethora of depth inside. Any combination of Wendell, Connolly, Devey, Kline, Stork, and Halapio could end up inside on the offensive line. In fact, without Mankins entrenched at left guard the Patriots could be running multiple combinations of interior linemen out throughout the beginning of the season.
One also has to wonder if Mankins was already aware of the trade talk. On Thursday night against Carolina he was a dynamo, flying off the line of scrimmage like it was 2009. While Mankins may be 32, he still has been in decline for a number of seasons. Since 2009 when he was one of the top interior linemen (ProFootballFocus.com rating of +30.7) and his subsequent hold-out in 2010, his drop-off has been well charted: ProFootballFocus.com rating of 7.1 in 2011, 10.7 playing in only 10 regular season games in 2012, and 13.8 in 2013. Quite simply, the Patriots were not getting their bang for the buck from Mankins.
2. THE REVIS FACTOR:
One thing has become abundantly clear in the limited playing time the first-team defense is on the field: cornerback Darrelle Revis has changed the defense for the better. With dominating performances against Philadelphia and Carolina, the first-team defense has looked like a force to be reckoned with in 2014.
Getting rid of Mankins’ excessive salary frees up money for the two most important members of the secondary in 2014: Revis and free safety Devin McCourty. Revis is on the books in 2015 with a $25 million cap number (per OvertheCap.com) which is all but guaranteed to be renegotiated. The trade of Mankins splits the $8 million dead money over this year and next. The Patriots get back $6.25 million on the salary cap today (which helps with the $7.5 million in dead money from the Aaron Hernandez contract) and saves $7 million in cap space next year.
With McCourty due to hit free agency after this season if a new contract is not worked out, the Patriots need to find every dollar they can to keep their secondary together next year. Bill Belichick has made it clear he will pay for quality (Brady, Mankins, Revis, Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, etc) but at the first sign of slippage that player had best pack their bags.
3. THE RICHARD SEYMOUR FACTOR:
Continuing the theme, the Patriots have already won these contract battles. In 2009, the Patriots shockingly traded defensive captain Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders for a future first round draft pick. This is the team that released Milloy just days before the season started, let Law and McGinest walk for greener pastures, traded long-time linebacker Mike Vrabel, and held the line at negotiations with Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and Asante Samuel.
The list of players who out-performed their time in New England after signing a new contract elsewhere is short. Bill Belichick has the advantage of not only controlling the players on the field but the front office in New England as well. Entrusted with full power over the team since 2000, there is little opportunity for a dissenting voice. With three Super Bowl titles and a run of excellence rivaling the Tom Landry, Don Shula, Paul Brown, and Bill Walsh regimes, Belichick can do whatever he wants when he wants in personnel moves.
With Mankins having maximized his value in New England, it makes sense for New England to get a player or pick back in return. Getting a young tight end who can play off the line of scrimmage and a fourth-round draft pick is a bonanza for the Patriots. Tight end has been a position of need for the past two seasons and the current crop of undrafted free agents were clearly not up to snuff.
The Patriots have made these kinds of deals before, and more often than not they have paid off for the team. While losing an upstanding locker room leader is always difficult, the team is clearly confident in their young interior offensive linemen, are looking forward to freeing up cash for extensions on defense, and have history on their side. That said, it is a short-term loss for a long-term gain in the future.