There's a saying we've heard for years at One Patriot Place when it comes to player evaluation: "You're either getting better or you're getting worse." Looking at the trade deadline, the Patriots have to decide whether they're going to take a similar approach with their roster.
We'll get into some possible "buyer" scenarios here down below, but let's first take a look at which players might bring back a sizable return in a deal. These aren't necessarily players they should trade. Rather, these are the players who'd likely have the most value elsewhere right now.
Stephon Gilmore, 30: Part of the equation for any team acquiring Gilmore would be that he'll want a new contract. Otherwise, he'd only be a rental. In that respect, it'd make sense for the Patriots to work with Gilmore if they're looking to make a move and send him somewhere he'd be willing to stay long-term. Might yield a better return.
The Lions got a mid-third-round pick and a fifth -- the equivalent of a high third -- from the Eagles for 2017 All-Pro corner Darius Slay, who's the same age as Gilmore. Then Philly gave Slay a three-year deal.
Because Gilmore is coming off a Defensive Player of the Year campaign, the cost should be a little higher but in all likelihood wouldn't reach the level of a first-rounder. A low second-rounder might be more realistic. Gilmore is dealing with a knee injury that is considered minor and shouldn't impact his value elsewhere.
Joe Thuney, 28: Because Thuney is on the franchise tag (about $15 million this year) any team acquiring Thuney in a deal would be willing to A) pay the prorated portion of that sizable price tag and B) let him hit free agency.
Because he's on the tag, he's not eligible to sign a new deal mid-season. That makes him a true rental. Doesn't mean he won't have value, though. He's one of the best in football at his position and is expected to be one of the highest-paid interior offensive linemen in the league. He could fill an immediate hole for a contender that may be dealing with injuries along the offensive line.
Would a team be willing to part with a third-rounder for his services if it feels he puts them in better position to win a ring? That's the value of the 2022 compensatory pick the Patriots would stand to lose if they deal Thuney (who's currently dealing with an ankle injury) to free agency. Negotiations might have to start there.
Chase Winovich, 25: Winovich was the team's defensive MVP through the first month of the season. He's one of the team's best young players. But if we're strictly talking about the players who might bring back the most in a deal? He should be on the list more so than bigger-name players like Julian Edelman and Sony Michel, who'd have little trade value right now.
Would the Patriots consider it? Seems unlikely. He's a cost-effective player who provides a valuable skill: pass-rush ability. But he's only played 35 snaps combined over the course of the last two weeks. And if the Patriots view him as a sub-rusher only? He might have more value somewhere else than he does in Foxboro.
Isaiah Wynn, 24: This would be another difficult player with whom to part. Good tackle when healthy. Bounced back nicely last weekend after a rough outing against the Broncos. He has at least one more year left on his deal. (He has a fifth-year team option on his contract as a 2018 first-round pick.) But if the Patriots are willing to listen on just about anybody, would they be willing to do so with Wynn?
He's of course dealt with injury, including a torn Achilles that robbed him of his rookie season. He's currently grading out as the 30th-best tackle in the NFL, per PFF, and the 39th-best pass-blocking tackle. If the Patriots don't view him as a long-term fixture on the left side worthy of a monster contract, would they be willing to involve him in a trade now if there's a contending team willing to pay up for his services?
The issue, of course, would be what the Patriots do at that spot with Wynn gone. Onwenu could get a crack there. Rookie Justin Herron (dealing with an ankle injury) has seen plenty of tackle reps this season as well and seems to have made a positive impression on the coaching staff.
Shaq Mason, 27: If we weren't already reaching a bit, now we're starting to. Mason has dealt with injury and missed a game on COVID-19/reserve this season, but when he's been out there he's been very good. There are only five interior offensive linemen -- including rookie teammate Michael Onwenu -- who've graded better than Mason, per Pro Football Focus.
Mason might actually bring back more in a deal than Thuney because he has term left on his contract. He's under contract through 2023 with base salaries between $6 and $7.5 million.
Why is this one a reach? The Patriots would be eating dead money on their cap for the next two years if they dealt Mason. About $6 million next year alone. Not ideal. Particularly with the cap dropping next season. But if Mason can bring a significant package of picks back as compensation, might that be worth it?
If not for Onwenu's play, dealing Mason wouldn't be a consideration. On an average annual value basis, Mason is the 30th highest-paid interior offensive lineman in football so even though he got his second contract, he still looks like a good value given his level of play.
After that? Well, given the list above, there aren't many smack-you-in-the-face assets that'll command a ton in return if the Patriots want to keep dealing. There could be small moves here and there to add Day 3 picks, or pick-swap trades that would improve their current crop of selections. Outside of that? Don't see much in the way of impact moves available to them.
On the field, there would be an interesting domino effect that results from that kind of deal. JC Jackson would become the de facto No. 1 corner. He's having another strong season. He'll be a restricted free agent in the offseason and could slide into the top-dog role again next year.
Jason McCourty would continue to see regular work as the No. 2 outside with Jonathan Jones as the slot man. Joejuan Williams might end up getting a little more run as well. The above three names listed already play a bunch even with Gilmore in the fold. There would be a real role there available to Williams or someone else.
What's the cost? About a week ago, I liked the idea of Will Fuller joining this offense. He's in the last year of his deal. He's on a team that's struggling. He brings real speed to the table and would change the way defenses have to play Cam Newton and this offense. He's that talented.
But what would you be willing to give up to get him? And does he do enough -- does Newton have enough to take advantage of that kind of weapon? -- to make the Patriots real contenders?
It may be placing too much value on one game, but last weekend's result was jarring. Not sure adding a wideout now, and giving up a pick to get him, is worth it. If there's a receiver out there who has term left on his deal, then it'd certainly be worth considering. But good young receivers aren't typically on the market at low cost.
Would that shock me? It would not. But Bill Belichick told us on Friday that he didn't believe it to be a season-ending issue. And I would add that even if the Patriots are trending in the wrong direction by the time Edelman is available, it'd come as no surprise if he was back out there and acting as though he'd just entered into a demolition derby.
I truly believe he has no "off" switch. He's wired to compete. I've seen him go all-out in tight jeans and casual sneakers during Tom Brady's Best Buddies charity football game. If he's healthy enough to play, I think he'll play and play hard. We'll just have to see how his recovery goes.
If we have seen the last of Edelman, it'd be too bad. Have enjoyed watching him for years and I think he is, as Newton said Thursday, the epitome of what the Patriots have come to represent: exceeding expectations, toughness, versatility, playing your best in the biggest moments. Outside of Tom Brady, there may be no better underdog story in team history.
I'd love to see what Jakobi Meyers can do in a primary role. He might not be the No. 1 guy -- that has been Damiere Byrd in terms of snap counts in 2020 -- but if Meyers can get regular work, I think he has the ability to run routes over the middle as well as make contested catches on the outside. He flashed at times last year and had a nice performance against the 49ers.
This weekend might not be a breakout for anyone through the air because of the weather. But as the weeks go on? Will be interesting to see if he can show the kind of consistency that would allow for a regular role moving forward.
It is salvageable. Newton just has to be much better than he's been. They still have the best coach, offensive coordinator, offensive line and secondary (we'll revisit if Gilmore is dealt) in the division. They have two games remaining with the Bills, two games remaining with the Jets and games against rookie quarterbacks in Miami and in Los Angeles. They can roll a few off here.
Plus, the Bills aren't very good. They played a close game with the Jets, who picked up all of four yards in a full half of football last weekend. Remarkable.
So yes. It is a salvageable season. The playoffs aren't out of the question yet. The question to me these next few days would be, are the Patriots willing to invest in this roster in order to give themselves a better shot at salvation?
It's a good question. Two thoughts. First, if you are of the belief that good young quarterbacks are only available near the top of the draft (which is generally true), then it would make sense for the Patriots not to draft a quarterback high if they truly wanted to squeeze everything they could out of Tom Brady's last few years in New England.
That's why, in my opinion, they drafted for need in the round. Running back and tackle in 2018. Receiver in 2019. They could've had quarterbacks there (Lamar Jackson went after Sony Michel two years ago), but they looked to max out the roster they had. I get it. While Michel was not the reason they won the Super Bowl that year, he played a real role in that run, which likely justifies the decision in their eyes.
My second thought, though, is that you don't have to draft quarterbacks near the top of the draft. And there was nothing preventing them from drafting a quarterback early this year -- other than they didn't like any of the quarterbacks available.
Here's a list of passers the Patriots could've drafted since trading Jimmy Garoppolo, without dealing up to improve their position: Jackson (2018), Drew Lock (2019), Gardner Minshew (2019), Jordan Love (2020) and Jalen Hurts (2020). Two of those players may only be average. Two are complete unknowns. One was an MVP. With any of them, though, the long-term quarterback outlook would be a little brighter than it appears to be at the moment.
I think Newton's mechanics have long been tough to pin down. He never was, nor will he ever be, the most mechanically sound player at that position. But when you have as much indecision as he's had lately, bad mechanics can exacerbate problems.
So when he stares down Damiere Byrd running a post, steps toward Byrd to throw, but then decides to hit Julian Edelman at the last second on the opposite hash, the throw misfires. Was that a product of his decision-making or his mechanics? I'd lean toward the former.
Once his head gets right, once he starts getting into better rhythm, the results will change. The mechanics might never be completely ironed out, but the results will be better if he can clear his mind a bit.
Do people count jugs? I had a few. Not for anything interesting, though. Untucked shirt. Hat on inside. You might be shocked to hear this, but I was kind of a dweeb.
("Jug," for people who are dying to know, is essentially detention that came with some kind of actual punishment beyond staying after class. Folks thought it stood for "Justice Under God" at Catholic schools, but it comes from a Latin term meaning "to be burdened." You might have to clean the cafeteria tables, empty the garbage or do something else along those lines to be set free. Reading this mailbag, for instance, might qualify as punishment enough to wipe your jug slate clean.)
Nick Folk hasn't been bad. He's 9-for-11 on field goals and 10-for-11 on extra points. Really, this spot is one of the few that isn't an issue right now. No need for a change or a look at the rookie.
Justin Rohrwasser also isn't on the active roster, so calling him up would mean one less practice-squadder who could be elevated at a position like receiver or defensive tackle.
So unless Folk suffers an injury or they want to release Folk and elevate Rohrwasser full-time, he's probably going to stay on the practice squad and out of sight on game days.