Chandler Jones can get comfortable in the desert. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Monday that if a long-term deal with the former Patriots defensive end isn’t struck before free agency, Jones will be franchised. Jones, who played in all 16 games for just the second time in his career, finished with 11 sacks and four forced fumbles.
He had three sacks in the Cards’ final two games. The 2016 franchise tag for defensive ends was $15.7 million. He made $7.8 million in 2016 as the Patriots picked up Jones’ first-round option in April, which kept him under the Pats control for another season at a big salary bump.
That salary went with him when the Patriots dealt him to Arizona in exchange for guard Jonathan Cooper (since released) and a second-round pick that they flipped and turned into a third-rounder and a fourth-rounder. They took left guard Joe Thuney with the third-round pick and he was one of the best rookie offensive linemen in the league. The fourth-rounder became Malcolm Mitchell, who’s shaping up to be the best drafted receiver for the Patriots since Deion Branch. While there were definitely junctures in 2016 where the Patriots could have used a little extra giddyup in their pass rush, the fact they went 14-2, allowed a league low in points and saw Trey Flowers blossom as a key pass rusher mitigates any second-guessing as to whether they’d have been better off with Jones in the lineup.
Which brings us to . . . Jamie Collins.
Sunday, I was asked on our Pregame Live show if the Patriots were truly a better defense without Collins. Would the arc of the team’s defensive improvement be even steeper if he wasn’t traded to the Browns? The answer had to come with a qualifier: If the guy wearing No. 91 from September through October kept playing like he was, no, this defense would not be as good as it is now. Unless Collins planned to do a 180 and get over his bitterness about not getting paid and his deployment in the Patriots defense, he was going to be a drag.
The biggest improvement the Patriots have made since Collins left is that they are playing faster and with more confidence. That’s linked directly to knowing everyone’s on his assignments. Bill Belichick spoke Monday afternoon on WEEI about the improvement being linked to trust and the unit working as one.
Are there still breakdowns? Yeah. Kyle Van Noy had one in coverage Sunday and let up a touchdown. To expand on that, athletically, Van Noy isn’t in the same stratosphere as Collins. There were plays Collins could make that Van Noy wouldn’t be in the same zip code for. But it got to the point where the Patriots weren’t sure Collins would made the plays he could make. With Van Noy, there’s no worry that he’s not going to try to carry out his assignment. He’s got less talent but full buy-in.
Collins wasn’t wrong to feel underpaid. And there’s a subtle parallel between Collins wanting to preserve his body before free agency and the business decisions made by college stars Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey in sitting out their bowl games. Collins -- whose 2016 salary was $900,000 -- has the resume of a player who could command a contract worth $50 million. Now it will be interesting to see if he gets it. Collins told Cleveland media last week he’d be willing to stay with the woebegone Browns if the "money is right". He owes himself and future generations of Collins’ that.
Collins has been in the NFL since 2013, Jones since 2012. Jones has made $15.97 million, Collins has made $3.87 million. Jones has not been three times the player Collins has been. But there will be a buyer-beware air around Collins now. Based on the Patriots shipping him out on Halloween, prospective employers will be leery that Collins’ contributions and effort will hinge on how satisfied he is with his off-field business.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have to be very satisfied with the way it turned out, especially with the amount of grave-dancing done in early November.