Never short of an annual surprise or two, the New England Patriots recently pulled another shock when they traded rush end Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals for a second-round draft pick and guard Jonathan Cooper.
It was a move confirmed by Darren Urban of the Cardinals’ official site. It was also a necessary risk for both teams.
Arizona’s reward for a gamble is a player who can finally fix an anaemic pass rush that is the only Achilles’ heel on an otherwise strong defense. For the Pats, they’ve earned a second draft choice in Round 2, ample compensation for having to give up their first-round pick. New England also gets an interior O-lineman to help improve the blocking in front of Tom Brady, who is likely still smarting from the beating he took in the AFC Championship.
Cooper was once deemed good enough to merit the seventh-overall selection in the 2013 NFL draft. A broken leg has naturally hindered his progress, but the Patriots were reportedly enamoured with the former North Carolina prospect during that pre-draft process, according to ESPN‘s Mike Reiss:
“Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio once mentioned Cooper as having one of the highest grades on the team’s draft board in 2013, so it’s not a stretch to say that the club views him as a potential impact player and is banking on a change of scenery bringing out the best in him. In 2013, it was Dante Scarnecchia’s final year as offensive line coach and his input on Cooper (signed through 2017 if the Patriots pick up his fifth-year option that will be close to $12 million in ’17) was naturally significant that year. This year, Scarnecchia has returned after a two-year retirement.”
The Patriots played things smart and earned good compensation for Jones, a player they would have struggled to pay big in the next free-agency cycle.
Still though, New England did part company with the one member of their defense who featured most often in the nightmares of quarterbacks last season. In fact, Jones took down enough signal-callers to equal a franchise mark that had stood for nearly 35 years, per ESPN Stats & Info:
But as Ben Volin of the Boston Globe has pointed out, the Pats wanted to avoid paying Olivier Vernon-type money to Jones in 2017. That would be damn-near impossible if Jones repeated his double-digit sack heroics this season, according to the Boston Herald‘s Jeff Howe:
Showing Jones the money would have been doubly unlikely considering cornerback Malcolm Butler and linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower also need new deals, per Reiss.
He also detailed how the Patriots’ confidence in their other edge-rushers wisely prompted this trade:
But that confidence didn’t prevent head coach Bill Belichick from wisely acquiring a little veteran insurance. Well, maybe not so little since that insurance comes in the form of 6’3″, 268-pound Chris Long, the ex-St. Louis Rams pass-rusher who logged 54.5 sacks during eight seasons in the Gateway to the West.
Long is right in the physical grey area to be considered both a classic end and a standup edge-rusher. He boasts ‘tweener qualities that even extend to being able to shift inside in certain packages.
The 30-year-old’s flexibility will be a major asset in Belichick’s defensive scheme, a Chameleon-like blueprint that mixes fronts and coverages often.
These kind of veteran signings are always a crap shoot. Maybe Long enjoys an Indian Summer in New England, maybe he has nothing left.
The Pats have recent experience of both scenarios, as Reiss noted:
“Or maybe he’s more like another later-career veteran, defensive end Andre Carter, who was effective as a rotational player and part-time starter in 2011. It’s also possible, as we saw with someone like former Saints defensive end Will Smith in 2014 training camp, that it doesn’t work out at all.”
But more than successfully navigating the challenge of replacing Jones, trading him was worth the risk for the draft haul it’s landed the Pats. Belichick needs that haul since the Deflategate fiasco took away his first-round choice.
Yet as Volin points out, it’s a blow he already seems to have absorbed:
That’s New England’s risk and potential reward taken care of, but what did the Cards get? Well, Arizona got the one thing their defense lacked in 2015: a potential game-changing pass-rusher.
As Randall Liu, the NFL’s director of communications for the NFC, points out, few pass-rushers in football have been as prolific as Jones in recent seasons:
At his best, Jones is the kind of edge playmaker who can give a left tackle, usually the best pass-blocker on a team, fits. Statistics from Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus help prove the point:
The Cardinals need this kind of force on the outside after registering just 36 sacks a season ago. More than just sacks, Arizona need a rush end who will generate consistent pressure and reduce the need to call as many six- and seven-man blitzes.
Coordinator James Bettcher isn’t as blitz-happy as mercurial predecessor Todd Bowles, but he still likes to roll the dice. Having Jones on form means he won’t have to quite as much, assuming Bettcher can get the best out of the 26-year-old on a regular basis.
That’s not something the Patriots always found easy. Volin raises doubts about whether Jones belongs among the NFL’s elite, despite some of his gaudy numbers:
“He rarely took over a game like an elite pass rusher, and could get pushed around in the run game. He only had nine multiple sack games out of 64 (regular-season and postseason games) and had just two sacks in nine playoff games.”
But the Cardinals didn’t have players even close to that potential, despite the admirable move to take Dwight Freeney off the scrapheap least season. But the latter is now 36 and a free agent.
There simply isn’t anyone else on head coach Bruce Arians’ roster who can bring the heat as well as Jones.
That makes him worth the risk, and a risk he is. He proved as much after a tryst with synthetic marijuana went wrong and hospitalised the defensive end with the Pats just days away from a Divisional playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
But the Cards are a franchise used to taking risks and seeing them pay off in recent seasons. Before giving Freeney a reprieve when the rest of the league thought he was washed up, they kept greybeard John Abraham playing fine football into his winter years.
As for Jones’ legal issues, Arizona didn’t mind using a prime draft pick on dynamic Joker-style safety Tyrann Mathieu in 2013, a gamble that certainly paid off.
Adding Jones improves an already tough defense for the best-coached team in the NFC. Meanwhile, the Patriots have a history of dumping talented players and adapting to still hold sway over the other conference. Just ask Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins and Deion Branch.
New England will continue being at the top of the AFC’s Super Bowl hopefuls, while the surging Cards, who finished one game short last season, may have acquired the key missing piece they need to reach the big show.
All in all, that makes for a trade with inherent risks both teams can more than stomach.