Usually at the trade deadline, the Patriots are seeking a missing piece for a championship run.
This year they might be sellers, not buyers.
That wouldn’t necessarily mean that they’re “giving up” on this COVID-marred season that’s been pockmarked by opt-outs and uncertainty. The Patriots have moved players before at the trade deadline – Jamie Collins and Jimmy Garoppolo to name two recent ones – and still gone on to the Super Bowl those years.
But it would be an indication that they’re being pragmatic about where this roster is heading into a 2021 season where the salary cap could drop from the pre-COVID projection of $215M down to $175M.
The most likely players they’d move? Expensive ones with expiring contracts.
First on the list would be Stephon Gilmore.
We wrote in July about the looming decision the Patriots would have to make with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
His deal expires after the 2021 season. Next year, his base salary is $7M and his cap hit it is $16.4M.
Gilmore already wrangled a $5M raise from the Patriots at the beginning of August. The Patriots aren’t known for giving $5M raises from the goodness of their heart.
I wondered in early August if Gilmore’s training camp absence might have been a brief, silent holdout similar to the one his college roommate Melvin Ingram staged with the Chargers over the summer.
Gilmore and his agent, Jason Chayut (also the agent for Deion Branch when Branch held out and was dealt to Seattle way back in 2006) both denied that but – as with Ingram – a raise materialized. Anyway, the point is, Gilmore and Chayut already believe the Patriots are getting a relative bargain.
Meanwhile, Albert Breer of MMQB reported a few weeks back on our Pregame Live show that the Patriots had already shopped Gilmore. Twice. Once before the draft and again during training camp.
Isn’t Gilmore really good? Of course.
He has been a tad flag-prone this season. He’s got four penalties for 74 yards in five games. Three are for pass interference. Last year, he had five penalties for 25 yards with no DPIs. But yes, he’s really good.
But there’s been huge money paid to corners in 2020, leading with the $100M deal given to Jalen Ramsey by the Rams, the $97.5M given to Marlon Humphrey and the $82.5M given to Byron Jones. Even though Gilmore is 30 and can’t expect the kind of total value those younger players got, he’s presumably going to be looking for something closer to $15M per year. The Patriots would have to give him an $8M raise in 2021 to get him to that salary.
What could the Patriots get in return? This is where it’s interesting. On one hand, he’s a valuable addition for a team because he’s really good and the team has him under contract for a season-and-a-half at $13M prorated over the rest of the 2020 season and $7M in 2021. On the other hand, he’s definitely going to want a new deal.
So the two first-round picks the Jaguars got when they traded Ramsey to the Rams last year? Probably won’t happen. Gilmore is older and more expensive than Ramsey was when he was dealt.
But one first-round pick? That’s plenty reasonable. If the Patriots were sellers. And it may be tough to sell this year.
Bill Belichick was asked recently about whether he anticipated a busy trade deadline, especially in light of the dropping cap.
“There certainly are a lot of unknowns going forward, not just this year but even in the next year relative to team building and salary cap and so forth,” he acknowledged. “I think that may have everybody with a little less ability to really plan things out the way they want to do them and that may be causing some hesitation, as well. I think you're certainly seeing more players stay with the teams that they're on and teams using those players as depth with the injured reserve rules this year and the practice squad expansion giving teams more of an ability to do that, and I think we're certainly seeing that play out."
Where would that leave the 2020 Patriots? They are a better team with good players (duh). For defensive teammates already playing without Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung, seeing the team trade someone as dominant as Gilmore is when he’s at his best would inevitably be a blow they’d have to process.
But the Patriots are nothing if not pragmatic. And when all the factors are weighed, moving on from an older player who will be seeking a raise when the salary cap is dropping? And getting back draft collateral to build with cheaper young players?
That’s Patriots 101.