Attempting to make sense of the Jamie Collins trade

Well, wow. If you saw this one coming you’re lying.

The Patriots traded star linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns on Monday in exchange for a compensatory third-round draft pick, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Collins had been a key cog of the Patriots’ versatile defense for a number of years. Alongside Dont’a Hightower, he helped formed one of the best and most athletic linebacking duos in the league.

So why did the Patriots trade him? Let’s look at three reasons:

A contract year: just like when New England moved Chandler Jones in the summer, this decision came down the money. The Patriots have a number of key contributors on expiring contracts: Malcolm Butler, Jabaal Sheard, Dont’a Hightower, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, and Collins. To re-sign them all, the Patriots moved on from Chandler Jones. And that’s why they likely moved on from Collins, who according to Schefter was asking for “Von Miller money”.

Declining play: But it’s not just money based, its money in conjunction with Collins’ play. Though he is still one of the best in the league, it’s clear the Patriots (well, Belichick) didn’t feel his play was worth what would be a sizeable price tag. Former Patriots front office member, and current Fox Sports contributor, Michael Lombardi tweeted following the Collins’ decision that he freelanced during the Bills matchup in Week 8.

Freelancing against the run from any inside linebacker is a non-starter. Doing it for Bill Belichick gets you kicked out of the building.

The play of Elandon Roberts: The Elandon Roberts hype is real. The rookie linebacker out of Houston is a terrific athlete who plays with great instincts and can thump in the run game. Belichick has previously praised Roberts, and his snap count has steadily increased, even replacing Collins for much of Week 8. Roberts’ play, along with the return of Hightower from an injury, allowed Belichick to feel comfortable moving on. Yet it’s also fair to ask, even if Roberts was playing better against the run, why not keep Collins — a superior pass-rushed — for sub-package situations? The answer from Belichick is clearly that a third-round pick is more valuable than that, but I think it’s a fair thing to question.

So, those reasons kind of make sense. But still, wow.

And if you’re questioning why the Patriots only got a compensatory third round pick back in exchange (not a third-rounder, a compensatory pick. Meaning it will be at the back end of the third round and is effectively a fourth-rounder), it’s important to remember this: a) Collins plays most snaps at inside linebacker, even the best ones aren’t going to be valued extremely high due to the interchangeability of the position, and B) there’s no guarantee the team that traded for him (in this case the Browns) would be able to re-sign him as a pending free agent. Even if they franchise tag him — a price of around $12 million — that’s only a one-year guarantee. Given that, a third-round pick feels fair, even if Collins is one of the best players at his position.

Despite all of that, this deal still leaves questions. Belichick has made some interesting moves before, but this one is downright shocking. Collins and Hightower gave the defense the ability to stay in nickel the entire game, be stout enough against the run, and have a linebacker who could matchup in coverage on a tight end. Although Collins wasn’t playing at a supremely high level, that skill-set is rare to find. Now they’ll be forced to substitute more. While that may help improve the defense in the short term — currently 18th in defensive DVOA — it limits what they can do against opponents who use tempo or option-based football.

Furthermore, this doesn’t help their biggest defensive issue: rushing the passer. The Patriots have struggled all season to hit opposing quarterbacks. They rank 31st in adjusted sack rate, and 26th in team pressure rate. The result has been a defense that has had to play with more split-safety looks than they would like, and a young secondary often looking exposed. But I fail to see how trading Collins helps that. Sure, Roberts can fill in as a space linebacker, allowing them to run the same 4–2–5 looks, where mops things underneath just as well as Collins. But the now Browns linebacker offers a pass-rushing dimension that Roberts has yet to display.

This whole thing feels strange. Collins not carrying out his run assignments, his contractual status, and potential attitude issues were the deciding factors. But it’s a move that hinders the Patriots more than it helps as them as they take a run at another championship.