Each February, America wonders how New England keeps reaching the Super Bowl. The Patriots have been in nine this century, four of the past five and each of the previous three. The Pats have won it six times.
The obvious answer is coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
A more inconspicuous, yet perhaps just as telling, reason can be found in a simple transaction that occurred in the first moments of Monday’s NFL free agency “tampering” period.
“The Oakland Raiders sign offensive tackle Trent Brown to a four-year, $66 million deal, with $36.75 million guaranteed.”
Brown was New England’s starting left tackle for its Super Bowl champion team last season. He may prove to be a good signing by the Raiders and the Patriots will regret seeing him leave. Or he may not live up to the expensive contract. Or something in the middle. That’s the gamble of free agency.
For New England though, Brown represents the franchise’s genius in almost all capacities – namely how a keen eye for talent, disciplined salary-cap management and deft roster construction got it a Super Bowl starter for little money and literally no roster assets.
Brown played only one season in Foxborough. A seventh-round draft pick for San Francisco in 2015, Brown had become a low-key starter for the 49ers before finishing the 2017 on injured reserve due to a bad shoulder. Brown played right tackle, which is generally less valued than the left tackle who protects the blind side of right-handed-quarterbacks.
Despite the injury and questions it presented, Belichick liked Brown as a player, perhaps even as a left tackle.
In the middle of the 2018 draft, he made a deal to get him, sending San Francisco the 95th pick in exchange for Brown and the Niners’ 143rd selection. It was a deal (a 48-slot swap in the middle rounds of the draft) that only the most die-hard fans even heard about.
As for Brown, Belichick would eventually describe the 6-foot-8, 360-pounder as a “rare” combination of size and athleticism. “He’s very gifted,” Belichick said.
Despite that, Belichick wasn’t counting on Brown to become a key starter. He was just seeking depth and value after New England let longtime left tackle Nate Solder leave as a free agent following the 2017 season.
Belichick planned on replacing Solder with first-round pick Isaiah Wynn from the University of Georgia.
The 23rd overall selection represented a major asset allocation, by the Patriots. Brown was low-priced insurance, particularly since he was on the final year of his rookie contract that paid him just $1.9 million in 2018. Solder’s four-year deal with the Giants, by comparison, could average as much as $15.5 million.
The insurance policy proved necessary when Wynn tore an Achilles during the offseason and was lost for the year. Brown stepped in at left tackle and anchored a cheap but extremely effective offensive line. According to advanced statistics from Football Outsiders, New England ranked first in adjusted sack rank, which measures pass protection, and third in adjusted line yards, which measures the line’s role in rushing yardage.
No one in the NFL thought Brown would be that good. If San Francisco did, it wouldn’t have traded him for so little (with that 95th pick it took defensive back Tarvarius Moore, who was a reserve for most of the season although he showed potential late). If any other team saw it they would have offered the Niners more for Brown.
Having proven himself last season, Brown was due for a raise. Yet rather than get sentimental about his role in delivering a Lombardi Trophy, Belichick again decided to avoid spending big – and sucking up valuable salary-cap space – on the left tackle position. Instead he is counting on Wynn becoming the star he was projected to become on a far cheaper rookie contract. Wynn’s cap hit for 2019 is just $2.6 million, according to overthecap.com.
There’s more to it, though.
By losing Brown to free agency, the Patriots are now due to receive a compensatory draft pick from the NFL for the 2020 draft. It should come at the end of the third round, in other words, the late 90s overall.
It almost exactly replaces the pick that New England used to get Brown in the first place. So, the Patriots netted a cheap starting left tackle who helped them win a Super Bowl for nothing, all part of multiyear roster management at its best.
Of course, since this is Belichick’s Patriots, they not only gave up nothing in the long run, they got something back. Perhaps even something big. In addition to Brown, San Francisco sent the 143rd pick in the 2018 draft, which the Pats used to select inside linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley out of Purdue. Bentley looks like a steal, earning enough of Belichick’s trust that he was a rare Week 1 rookie starter (when he recorded seven tackles against Houston).
Bentley injured his bicep later in September and was lost for the season, but Patriots coaches believe he will be a defensive cornerstone for seasons to come.
Neither Bentley nor Wynn are flashy names that will make news here on the first day of free agency. Only hardcore fans even know who they are.
That’s fine with New England. Both are projected 2019 starters as the Pats push for another Super Bowl.
Besides, almost no one heard of Trent Brown … until he won the Super Bowl.
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