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How the Patriots mastered the NFL trade deadline

Bill Belichick always seems to have a move or two up his sleeve, while the rest of the league stands down on deadline day.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots Press Conference Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL trade deadline, the least exciting deadline in all of pro sports, is next week, Tuesday, Oct. 31. Unlike with other leagues, the day usually comes and goes without much activity. Except for one team: the Patriots.

New England has made moves at the deadline every year since 2012, rarely throwing all in for a household name. Instead, Bill Belichick always seems to find an important veteran to fill a need. Sometimes those players don’t end up sticking around beyond the season. Occasionally, they find a home as a key starter with a long-term deal.

How does Belichick make the trade deadline work for the Patriots while most teams let it pass without even picking up the phone? Does New England have another move up its sleeve this year?

For some insight into how the Patriots approach the deadline compared to the rest of the league and what moves they might have in store this year, I talked to Rich Hill from Pats Pulpit.

What's been the most successful deadline deal the Patriots have made? Most underrated?

If we tracked the trades, it would start with cornerback Aqib Talib in 2012, defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga in 2013, linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas in 2014, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and linebacker Jonathan Bostic in 2015, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy in 2016. The common thread? All are defensive players.

Bill Belichick says that he’ll only make a midseason trade if he knows the exact role that player will fill, and it’s easier for him to determine where a defender will plug in, versus someone on offense. The Patriots typically like to add a former starter that lost their job due to a coaching change and a new scheme.

The best player acquired was Talib, who signed a one-year deal with the Patriots in 2013 and was named second team All-Pro before heading to the Denver Broncos. The next-best was Hicks, who recently signed a big deal with the Chicago Bears.

But the “Most Successful” goes to Van Noy who became a starter for the Patriots defense en route to winning Super Bowl LI, and he recently signed an extension to stay in New England. Belichick said that Van Noy’s role in 2017 is different than what he had envisioned during the acquisition, but it’s played out extremely well.

I think the addition of Ayers is the most underrated because he was everything that 2014 defense needed. The Patriots lost Chandler Jones for a stretch as a pass rusher and Ayers stepped up. Then the Patriots needed help at off-the-ball linebacker and Ayers again stepped up. He did a lot for the Patriots defense until they settled down and were relatively healthy for the postseason. I think he opened up Belichick’s eyes for the defense’s current bear front approach with versatile strong side linebackers playing on the line of scrimmage.

It's been a year since they traded Jamie Collins to the Browns. Would you still make that trade in hindsight?

There’s no question that Collins would make the Patriots defense better, but New England still won the Super Bowl and the draft pick acquired allowed the Patriots to trade for Brandin Cooks and to draft Deatrich Wise. I’d make that trade again in a heartbeat. Collins signed the mega-deal with the Browns that the Patriots were not willing to shell out, so he would’ve walked in free agency anyway.

Additionally, Van Noy did a good enough job in 2016 and has emerged as a strong contributor over the past few weeks. I think we’ll look at this trade as a knockout victory for the Patriots in 2018 and beyond.

Is there another position or player you'd like to see the Patriots make a move for?

I mentioned that the Patriots typically acquire defensive players in October, so it makes sense to see if any defensive positions need help. For all of their struggles this year, it seems like the Patriots are slowly making progress back toward respectability on defense.

There’s a chance the Patriots could add a player to the defensive front seven, but I believe the return of Shea McClellin from the injured reserve in the next week or two will answer a lot of their outstanding questions. McClellin can help on the edge and at linebacker. He’s more consistent on the edge than Cassius Marsh, and he’s better in coverage than Elandon Roberts. Defensive tackle is a possible position for upgrading if the Patriots don’t believe Vincent Valentine will make an impact upon his return, or if they want to move on from Alan Branch.

I actually think the secondary is pretty solid, despite allowing the most passing yards in the NFL. The cornerback depth has emerged as a strength over the past two weeks with Malcolm Butler playing like his 2016 All-Pro self and Johnson Bademosi and Jonathan Jones emerging as quality depth options. You’ll also be hard-pressed to find a better safety trio than Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon.

Belichick zigs when everyone zags, so I wouldn’t be shocked if they added some help at tight end. Dwayne Allen has been a nonfactor as a receiver, and rookie Jacob Hollister is not ready to pitch in. Eric Ebron is a name to keep in mind if the Lions want to move on, too.

Is there anyone on the Patriots roster now who's a candidate to get moved at the deadline this year?

I think there are a couple of positions with quality depth that could be leveled to add another position of value. On offense, the Patriots are deep at running back, so a player like Rex Burkhead or Mike Gillislee could be expendable. The same applies for the offensive tackle position if a team with a bad offensive line wants a player like LaAdrian Waddle or Cameron Fleming. The Patriots could collect a draft pick, or they could combine pieces to broker a bigger trade. Think of when the Patriots traded No. 4 tight end Michael Hoomanawanui for Hicks. That’s a ridiculous trade in retrospect, but it could happen.

On defense, the Patriots could always trade Malcolm Butler. It would fall in line with the team’s moves with Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, especially since the Patriots gave their big money extension to Stephon Gilmore and could give the Patriots value now. The emergence of Johnson Bademosi could also have the Patriots coaches wondering what it would be like to have a pair of ridiculously athletic corners with size, quickness, speed, and length in Gilmore and Bademosi. I wouldn’t advocate for the trade because Butler is a stud when he’s playing well and Bademosi’s played just two games, but it would be a very Patriots-like trade to make.

The Patriots acquired more veterans via trade than any team in the NFL last season, and they’ve already surpassed that this year. Why are they doing so much wheeling and dealing? How does that factor into their larger philosophy of roster construction?

Belichick loves to churn the back end of the roster to make minor improvements, and he loves to take advantage of coaches who are new and trying to implement their new playbook. He’s also willing to spend more on special teams than any other franchise, which is why three of the four veterans he acquired during roster cutdowns are special teams aces (Bademosi, Marquis Flowers, Marsh).

The Patriots often trade their fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-round picks for a year or two of play from veterans and special teamers because Belichick realizes the limited value in those draft picks.

How often do late-rounders become consistent contributors? How many times are fifth-round picks stashed on the roster for a year and released the next? What can give you more expected value: a 2019 sixth-round pick, or Johnson Bademosi? So Belichick decides to trade these low-value assets for veterans with a defined role for the next year or two.

These veterans are better than the rookies who would otherwise have a roster spot, and these seemingly minor roster improvements add up over the course of the season. All three of the special teamers the Patriots acquired have been thrust into major roles on defense and they’ve performed well enough. If they were rookies, perhaps the Patriots lose one or two of their close games and that greatly affects playoff seeding and the team’s odds of returning to the Super Bowl.

As for the teams that the Patriots target in the middle of the season for trades, former rival Rex Ryan spoke about how Belichick takes advantage of new coaches and general managers, because carryover players are “not their players.” Belichick takes that as an opportunity to do some shopping; that’s what we saw with the acquisition of Phillip Dorsett from the Colts and new general manager Chris Ballard. This year, most new coaches or general managers are either in the AFC East or on the Patriots schedule, so there might not be an opening other than the San Francisco 49ers roster.

Thanks to Rich for taking some time to fill us in. Be sure to keep an eye on our trade rumor tracker, because teams will start talking and leaking as we get closer to Tuesday.

NFL trades that should happen before the deadline