Last year, the New England Patriots pulled off a remarkable deadline deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: shipping a fourth round pick for young cornerback Aqib Talib. The troubled Talib had dealt with suspensions, clashed with head coach Greg Schiano, and had shown no intention of resigning with Tampa Bay. It was a last minute trade, filled a hole for the Patriots (the secondary) and was a low-risk/high reward scenario.
Thus far, Talib has been all reward for the Patriots. When he’s been on the field, he’s an absolute game changer, a shut down corner, and an All-Pro talent. He’s also in a contract year, and will almost certainly be looking at a big deal in the offseason. Not only that, but (somewhat remarkably) Talib has been a huge locker room presence, crucial to such a young defense.
It’s undeniable that last year’s trade was a big win for the Patriots. But should they once again pull the trigger at the deadline, and acquire a big piece for a playoff push?
In short: maybe?
The Patriots, despite looking a little more anemic than we’re used to seeing, are still sitting at 6-2. The defense has continuously kept New England in games. If given continuous looks, Stevan Ridley is a difference-making back. And Tom Brady is still an absolute winner, even as he ages, as his fantastic game-winning drive against the Saints showed.
That being said, injuries have absolutely ravaged this team. Both Talib and wideout Danny Amendola have spent a lot of time on the sideline. Sebastian Vollmer had a devastating leg injury this past Sunday against the Dolphins, and is almost certainly gone for the year. And most heartbreaking: Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, the most talented defensive players and terrific leaders, are out for the season.
Marcus Cannon should step into the hole left by Vollmer at right tackle, and Aqib Talib should return shortly at full strength. Dont’a Hightower has stepped up to the plate as the leader of the Patriots linebacking corps in the place of Mayo, and the Patriots are willing to move forward with a Jamie Collins/Dane Fletcher combo.
The two positions that have been most buzzed about as the deadline approaches for the Patriots are at wide receiver and defensive tackle. So let’s take a look at those spots:
The biggest storyline surrounding the Patriots in the first half of the season has been the struggles in the passing game. Rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson were immediately thrust into starting roles, and struggled in the spotlight. Danny Amendola has struggled with a groin injury and recently suffered a concussion. Julian Edelman has presented Brady with a more consistent target, but isn’t a home run hitter by any means. The absence of Rob Gronkowski, and Tom Brady’s occasional inaccuracy, especially on long throws, has only compounded the problem.
So should the Pats go out and acquire one of the big-name receivers on the trade market? Eh.
Most importantly, even more so than having tremendous physical tools, a wideout has to be able to gel with Brady to be successful. Rookie Aaron Dobson is a perfect example of this. In his first few games he struggled immediately, dropping passes, and missing routes, bringing about the Wrath of Brady. But as his relationship with Brady has strengthened, so has his performance on the field (13 rec for 157 yds and a TD in his last three games) and it should only improve further in upcoming weeks.
The big names on the market aren’t exactly perfect fits. Hakeem Nicks is perhaps the most appetizing target in terms of skills/production, but his cost is high (likely a third-round pick or more) and he’s entering a contract year in which he will probably see a multi-year deal. For the Patriots to pull the trigger, an extension would have to be part of the deal, and that could trip a potential trade.
The Cleveland Browns’ Josh Gordon has reportedly been a trade target for months, and he’s got tremendous tools. But the Pats will absolutely have to give up at least a second round pick for the young wideout, and he’s super raw. On the one hand, the New England clubhouse is almost certainly a good environment for him to develop in, but in the meantime he might be a huge headache for Brady.
Tennessee’s Kenny Britt, on the other hand, could easily be had for a low draft pick. But his production has completely disappeared and he’s, for all intents and purposes, a complete mess off the field. Yes, the Patriots took a risk on the troubled Randy Moss and that paid huge dividends. But Kenny Britt is no Moss. Not even close.
Most surprisingly, Larry Fitzgerald’s name has popped up amongst trade rumors in the last week. Arizona will most likely wait until the offseason to see if they can salvage this season (though even if they exceed all expectations and get to, say, 9-7, they’re still going to be looking up at Seattle and San Francisco). But make no mistake, if he’s available, he is the grand prize. He is perpetually one of the best wide receivers in the game, cursed with terrible quarterbacks since Kurt Warner skipped town. And he and Tom Brady are a match made in heaven, and if the Patriots were serious about getting another ring in the short window before Brady retires, Fitz is a prime target.
But, the Cardinals have made a big hullabaloo about having Fitzgerald retire in Arizona, and recently signed him to a mammoth extension. His price is going to be huge (at the very least, a first and third round pick, maybe even more) and his contract would need to be restructured to fit the Patriots roster. If he can be had, they should go for it, but the Cardinals are playing in a seller’s market here, and could be quite content holding on to the star wideout.
The safest option out there? Go after Emmanuel Sanders on the Steelers, who you’ve got to think is available for, say, a third round pick, especially with the Steelers struggling at 2-5. Sanders has 31 receptions for 357 yards, and was already rumored to be a Patriots target in the offseason. But he’s not exactly a home-run hitter and isn’t all that big a dude (5-11, 180). Patriots fans’ biggest fear with Sanders is that he’ll turn into Brandon Lloyd 2.0, but he’s young (26) and pretty consistent thus far.
Where does that leave us? The Patriots have already made a veteran addition in Austin Collie, who has already leapfrogged Kenbrell Thompkins on the depth chart, and Brady seems to like him. When everyone is healthy (as tall an order as that is) an Amendola, Gronkowski, Dobson, Edelman receiving corps, while not spectacular, isn’t going to hurt the Patriots in their playoff hunt.
I see the Pats being alright with standing pat with their current receivers (especially with the hope that Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola can come back from injuries and contribute as they normally would), unless they get a miracle deal for Fitzgerald or a sign and trade for Nicks.
Now we’re talking. While in my mind all the talk of the Patriots needing another receiver is a tad overblown, their need for a replacement for Wilfork this season, and a possible running mate for him in the future (should Tommy Kelly not be the answer), is absolute crucial.
With Wilfork, the Patriots were giving up 105 yds/game on the ground, which was pretty respectable. Without him, they’re giving up a whopping 156.5 yds/game, only better than the Jacksonville Jaguars. To be sure, Wilfork’s field presence is sorely missed. Tommy Kelly, more of a pass-rusher than run-stopper as it was, has missed time with an injury. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano are both undersized for their positions and are not holding up as well to the run as could be wished (even though both have performed admirably considering the circumstances, especially Jones, who has been a truly effective interior pass-rusher).
So who’s out there? Well, it’s a sparse bunch. There are a few pass-rushing defensive ends who have been rumored to be dealt (like Vikings’ Jared Allen), but with Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and the recently signed Andre Carter on the roster, there’s no need there. But overall, rumors surrounding the typical 4-3 tackle are slim.
One method is to look at teams who may have given up on this season entirely. I don’t think the Buccaneers are willing to give up any of their defensive pieces, as the problem lies more with coaching/quarterback/attitude, than talent. The Jaguars would probably be willing to give up anyone on their roster, but why would the Patriots go for a defensive tackle on the only run defense worse than theirs. The Vikings are probably hoping that Kevin Williams will retire in Minnesota. The only viable (and already rumored) possibility is the New York Giants’ Linval Joseph, but you’d have to think the Giants would want to hold onto the young defensive tackle.
So where do they turn? I think it would be worth going to the depths of current free agents, where a few veteran defensive tackles are still available. Richard Seymour has made it pretty clear that he won’t return to New England unless he’s given a lucrative offer, something the Patriots have no interest in. 34-year old Justin Bannan is a big dude (6-3, 310) who has played on some solid teams in his career and may be looking for one more playoff push. Sione Pouha used to be a great run-stuffing nose tackle in New York, but has struggled with a nagging back injury, and may not be available to return.
My favorite possibility? Go after recently released Jay Ratliff. The 32-year old nose tackle has battled a sports hernia injury, but has said that he plans on returning this year if possible. His divorce from the Dallas Cowboys seems less to have to do with his injury, but more the bad feelings that sprouted from it. Ratliff needs a change of scenery, and the Patriots would absolutely jump at the chance of nabbing the 6-4, 303 lb four-time Pro Bowler if he could get back on the field for the stretch run/playoffs.
What will most likely happen? It’s hard to say. I can’t imagine that the Patriots will really stick with Chris Jones and Joe Vellano as the defensive tackles, and even Tommy Kelly isn’t a great answer for the team’s run defense woes. As tantalizing as even a semi-healthy Jay Ratliff may be, he may not be healthy enough for the Patriots to seriously pursue him. That being said, a move will be made to fill this spot, no question about it. And as we learned last year, the Patriots aren’t afraid to make a big move in their pursuit of a deep playoff run.
Got any trade ideas? Any rumors that you’ve heard and want to share? Want to taunt/provoke/poke/be mean to me? Leave it in the comments section.
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