You know, we roll our eyes at Bill Belichick’s answers so much that we often forget to listen to them.
In a busy offseason that’s seen the Patriots make a number of high-profile moves -- signing Stephon Gilmore, trading for Brandin Cooks and now locking up Dont'a Hightower -- you’ve got the Max Kellermans and the talk radio callers of the world trying to figure out why. Is it because, as Kellerman suggests, Belichick is gearing up for one last run before he and Tom Brady call it quits? Is it because he's trying to stick it to Malcolm Butler?
Looking at the moves one by one, there’s actually a really easy answer, and one he gives often: [He’s] just trying to do what’s best for the team.
Of all the deals they’ve made, the most notable is the Cooks trade, which makes this unlike offseasons past. After all, you might ask, if Belichick is operating as he normally does, then why haven’t we seen him make a trade like this before?
Well, because that trade hasn’t really been there in the past. The Cooks trade is an incredible rarity, as star players haven’t been dealt at this point of their rookie contracts since the 2011 CBA. If that deal was there for the taking in another offseason in which the Patriots had a need for an outside receiver, perhaps they’d have made it then.
But the Cooks trade really doesn’t, as Kellerman implies, declare a now-or-never scenario. He’s 23 years old, making this trade nearly as much about the future as it is the present. The only reason it’s not exactly as much about the future is because there’s always the possibility that the Patriots would re-assess and move on when his contract expires in two years.
Yet this is a team with a lot of cap space, which both explains why they should feel comfortable trading for him and brings us to the other big acquisition: Stephon Gilmore.
Really, it makes sense regardless of how they feel about Butler. In addition to having better QBs on the schedule next season, the team had a free agent cornerback in Logan Ryan who was going to command in the area of $10 million a year on his next contract. They also had -- and have -- a looming situation with a restricted free agent in Butler.
At worst, the Gilmore signing gives the team a No. 1 caliber corner to replace Butler. At best, it gives them a better tandem of Butler and Gilmore than they had with Butler and Ryan. And they had the money to spend, so, as they’ve done with defensive free agents in the past (Adalius Thomas, Rosevelt Colvin), they spent it.
So why wouldn’t they just give that money to Butler instead of Gilmore? Because it’s not his time to get that money, just like you can probably bet they won’t give a big contract to Cooks until they have to either. It isn’t their modus operandi to pay guys early, and though that’s resulted in some unhappy campers over the years, it’s not like we can exactly argue with the results.
The Kony Ealy trade? They lost a defensive end (Jabaal Sheard), so they traded for one.
Rex Burkhead? LeGarrette Blount’s had 30 birthdays and, though he doesn’t provide the same skillset, the team is clearly intrigued by the 26-year-old Burkhead’s versatility and advanced metrics.
Maybe the Patriots still trade Jimmy Garoppolo to recoup picks. Maybe they deem the Butler relationship too sour and trade him -- though their experiences with the Richard Seymours and Logan Mankins of the world would tell you they wouldn’t trade him just for that reason.
Yet for now it does appear that the team has -- and pardon the use of an overused sports radio cliche -- loaded up. But what about this offseason says that it’s just about the here and now? Even if Belichick and Brady were to move on in a year or two, wouldn’t having Brandin Cooks in his prime and more certainty at cornerback set up the franchise going forward?
We’ve spent years trying to figure out Bill Belichick, but his thinking this offseason might be a lot simpler than we’re making it out to be.