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New England Patriots

Tim O’Sullivan column: Hard to make sense of Pats trade of Mankins

  • New England Patriots' Logan Mankins (70) in action during an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Foxborough, Mass. on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

    New England Patriots' Logan Mankins (70) in action during an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Foxborough, Mass. on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Left guard Logan Mankins (70) was in the midst of a six-year, $51 million contract, which might explain why the Patriots traded him despite questions marks concerning the interior of the offensive line.

    Left guard Logan Mankins (70) was in the midst of a six-year, $51 million contract, which might explain why the Patriots traded him despite questions marks concerning the interior of the offensive line.

  • New England Patriots' Logan Mankins (70) in action during an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Foxborough, Mass. on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
  • Left guard Logan Mankins (70) was in the midst of a six-year, $51 million contract, which might explain why the Patriots traded him despite questions marks concerning the interior of the offensive line.

The initial reaction after hearing the Patriots traded guard Logan Mankins yesterday: When things seem too good to be true, they usually are.

Before the swap, which sent Mankins to Tampa Bay and brought tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round pick to New England, the New England preseason was a bubble bath of optimism. The defense looked ready to dominate like it did in the Super Bowl-winning years. Tom Brady was connecting with a multitude of receivers. Rob Gronkowski was on his way to health.

A 14-2 record and another trip to the Super Bowl felt like reasonable expectations. A 12-4 mark and a loss in the AFC title game was a prediction for pessimists.

There was little to worry about with this team. Until now.

Even before the trade, the biggest questions marks for the Patriots were on the interior of the offensive line. There were doubts about the center and right guard spots. Now there are doubts about all three interior positions. Plus, there’s a new offensive line coach, Dave DeGuglielmo, who now has to fix these problems.

Mankins, 32, didn’t have one of his best seasons last year, but he still made his fifth consecutive (and sixth overall) Pro Bowl. More importantly, the former first-round pick was the spiritual leader of the New England offensive line.

Mankins was raised on a cattle ranch and he played like it – tough-as-nails and ready to battle anyone. When the Patriots absolutely needed a yard, they would run behind Mankins. When a defender took a cheap shot at anyone in a New England uniform, Mankins was always ready to respond.

Now that reliability and toughness are gone. Now a team that was poised to have a monster year has the potential for a major weakness.

So, why did the Patriots trade him? Chances are real good it was about money. When Mankins signed a six-year, $51 million contract in 2011, it was the most lucrative contract in NFL history for a guard.

The Patriots probably didn’t think he was worth it anymore. They probably tried to restructure the deal. Mankins and his representatives probably said no. And that was probably that.

But why now? Why not overpay the heart and soul of your offensive line for one more year when it looks that year can bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Foxborough?

And if the money was simply unpalatable, why not get rid of him sooner? The team knew what all the financial numbers would look like for this year, why not address it in the spring or early summer? Why wait until the very end of training camp?

We have to assume that Bill Belichick and the coaching staff knew this was a possibility before camp began. We have to assume they have been looking at potential replacements for the past several months. Maybe that’s why they spent three draft picks on offensive linemen – Bryan Stork and Cameron Fleming in the fourth round and Jon Halapio in the sixth round.

Maybe the Patriots waited until now because they were trying to work out the best trade. Even with Gronkowski on the reported mend, there was still a need at tight end, and Wright did have a good rookie season in 2013 – 54 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns playing in a bad offense. And he is from Belichick’s favorite college, Rutgers.

Wright is a pass-catching tight end in the mold of, it’s painful to even say it, Aaron Hernandez. Hopefully that’s the only way he resembles Hernandez, but if Wright can team with Gronkowski and give the Pats the kind of two-tight end productivity they had in the past, the deal will make more sense.

There’s just one problem with that. Veteran pass catchers with far more impressive resumes than Wright, an undrafted free agent, have come to New England and failed to grasp the offensive scheme. Maybe Wright can figure it out, but he’s going to have to do so without the benefit of a full training camp.

News of the trade came as a shock, but maybe it shouldn’t have. Belichick has set a precedent for these kinds of decisions.

He released Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy five days before the 2003 season and the Patriots went on to the Super Bowl that year. Belichick allowed Damien Woody, another cornerstone guard who was taken in the first round, to leave before the 2004 season and New England won the Super Bowl that year, too.

But there are also negative examples. The Patriots have been looking for a pass rush ever since they dealt Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour before the 2009 season. The team didn’t want to pay Asante Samuel, so he left in 2008 and the secondary has never been the same, a decline that probably started back in 2005 when the Patriots released Ty Law because they didn’t want to pay him, either.

Last, but not least, are Deion Branch and David Givens. The team didn’t want to pay them, so Branch left for Seattle and Givens for Tennessee in 2006. If either had still been with the team, maybe they would have converted the third-and-4 that wound up costing the Patriots the AFC title game that season. But they were gone, over money, and Brady had to throw, unsuccessfully, to a 36-year-old Troy Brown on that fateful third down and then watch as Peyton Manning led the Colts on the game-winning drive.

Maybe the Patriots will need to convert a third-and-1 against Manning and the Broncos in this year’s AFC championship game. If they get it, Mankins will be lumped with Milloy and Woody. If not, he’ll go down with Branch and Givens, and Patriots fans will be cursing the day he was traded.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at tosullivan@cmonitor.com or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)

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