The New England Patriots shocked the NFL world on Monday by trading linebacker Jamie Collins to the Cleveland Browns for a 2018 third-round draft pick.
The move came as a shock to most: Collins is a multi-positional, athletic defender who has posted 10.5 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, and five interceptions in his four seasons with the Patriots. For a Patriots team that is quietly struggling on defense, giving up a talented 27-year-old defender was puzzling.
However, since the trade was made, it's becoming clear that the Patriots' head-scratching decision came down to two factors: money and on-field production.
The money aspect is nothing unusual. Collins will be a free agent this summer, and keeping defenders like him can be expensive. The Boston Globe's Ben Volin reported that Collins turned down an $11 million-per-year offer from the Patriots in contract negotiations. It would have cost the Patriots about $15 million if they had given Collins the franchise tag.
However, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Collins at one point was asking for Von Miller-type money — Miller signed a six-year, $114 million contract this offseason. Miller is a far more productive player than Collins, arguably the best defender in the NFL, having posted 68.5 sacks and 17 forced fumbles in his more than five years in the NFL.
Clearly, the two sides differed on Collins' value. As Volin recently noted (before the trade), Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower, a more cerebral, mature player than Collins, is also approaching free agency this offseason. If the Patriots had to choose one of the two players, Hightower would seemingly be the favorite, as he's also a team captain.
However, the decision to trade Collins seems to go beyond just financial differences of opinion. Collins' production was down slightly this year (though it's worth noting that he's ranked as the ninth-best linebacker on Pro Football Focus). Collins has seen his snap count fall since Week 5, and it plummeted in Week 8 against the Bills, when he played just 62% of defensive snaps — he played 100% of defensive snaps in the first four weeks of the season.
Furthermore, he appeared to be bothering Patriots' coaches by doing what several in the NFL world have called "freelancing" on defense. Mike Lombardi, a former assistant for the Patriots, wrote on Twitter that during the Week 8 win over the Bills, Collins was doing "whatever he wants" on the field and hurting New England's defense.
Lombardi said on Bill Simmons' podcast on Monday that Collins' attitude made him a poor fit for the Patriots.
"The way he's played through the first eight games, he was getting demoted within each game," Lombardi said. "Yesterday, the second play of the game, he goes, he just kinda does whatever he was gonna do, he kinda played with no enthusiasm, and he seemed like he didn't really wanna play. ... And so I think, at some point, they had to send a message to the rest of the team."
Browns coach Hue Jackson, in defense of Collins, even seemed to acknowledge that Collins doesn't stick to the game plan, saying, "The way he freelances is OK with me."
"I didn't grow up watching football, and I still don't. Me and Chandler Jones have talked about this since I first got up here. I never watched football. I never thought I'd be here, and I'd rather play video games. I don't really want to watch it."
Collins' inclusion of Chandler Jones — whom the Patriots similarly shipped out last year before he became a free agent — is worth noting. For a team that preaches "doing your job," under a head coach who ruthlessly makes sure players are prepared, not watching football won't fly.
The Patriots return for Collins is uninspiring — either a 2017 third-round compensatory pick or a 2018 fourth-round compensatory pick, according to reports.
However, as Lombardi noted on Simmons' podcast, the Patriots are aware of the prospect they're trading. They understand that Collins is a talented defender, but his attitude issues, combined with an impending payday, made him a poor fit for the Patriots. They traded him while they could, and, as the Patriots are wont to do, will resort to the next-man-up philosophy to find his replacement.
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