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Why the Patriots made a very un-Patriots trade for Mohamed Sanu

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The Patriots haven’t traded a second-round pick for an age 30 player since ... Corey Dillon.

Atlanta Falcons v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The surprising thing isn’t that the Patriots traded for veteran wideout Mohamed Sanu. It’s that they gave up a second-round pick in the process.

New England had a definite need at wide receiver as its schedule is set to flip from FCS to Power 5 over the second half of the season. The Pats are 7-0 and at the top of the AFC’s pecking order, but Josh Gordon will miss the rest of the season due to a knee injury and is likely to be waived once he’s healthy, signaling the end of his tenure in Foxborough. First-round pick N’Keal Harry has yet to play after being placed on IR and remains an unknown commodity. The team’s starting tight ends Monday night were two players who either signed or re-signed with the team six days earlier.

Tom Brady needs targets in a season that’s seen his passer rating decline for the third straight year. Sanu, languishing with an Atlanta team that’s been cast out to sea without a motor, is a jack-of-all-trades who can boost the entire offense, even at age 30. Also, he went to Rutgers, which is a major plus in Bill Belichick’s book.

But New England’s history as a wheeler and/or dealer when it comes to veteran talent like Sanu has typically been at bargain-bin prices. Over the past decade plus, we’ve mostly seen the Patriots hoard second round picks, not ship them away — and especially not for a player in his late 20s or early 30s.

Look at the way the team’s acquired similar veteran talent the past few seasons. Michael Bennett cost the club a fifth-round pick (and brought back a seventh-rounder in exchange). Jason McCourty escaped Cleveland alongside a seventh round selection when the Pats sent a sixth-rounder to the Browns. Martellus Bennett came at the cost of a swap of Day 3 choices. According to Spotrac, the last time New England ponied up a pick as high as a second-round selection in exchange for a player in his age 30 season came back in 2004 when Corey Dillon traded his Bengals stripes for red, white, and blue.

This is something we haven’t seen from the Patriots in 15 years. That’s a message from a team that isn’t ready to rest on a 7-0 record — and it’s a boon for Brady.

[Patriots fan reaction: What the Mohamed Sanu trade means for New England]

What does Sanu bring to the table?

It’s not that Sanu isn’t worth what will likely turn out to be something like the 58th-64th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. He’ll have to prove his age 30 downturn isn’t a byproduct of growing old but of the general malaise that’s fallen over the Falcons and the sprouting depth at the top of Matt Ryan’s wish list — Julio Jones, Austin Hooper, and Calvin Ridley all had more targets than Sanu through seven weeks.

Sanu’s production had been pretty much in line with his previous two seasons as a Falcon. He’s making four-plus receptions per game and, up until Week 7, had averaged around 50 receiving yards per contest. Those are decent, if not overwhelming, numbers on the surface.

But a deeper dive is cause for concern. His biggest problem has been a declining yards-per-catch average that indicates he may not be the field-stretching weapon he used to be. Per SIS, Ryan’s average target for Sanu dropped by more than a full yard this fall, from 7.7 in 2018 to 6.6 before factoring in last week’s performance.

That’s meant easier catches for Sanu — he’s only dropped one pass and has hauled in a career-high 78.6 percent of his targets — but less of an impact. He’s caught only one touchdown this fall (but had two intended passes intercepted) and has seen his yards-after-catch figure fall from 6.2 to 3.9. Ryan’s passer rating when targeting the now-Patriot fell from a sterling 111.9 to 85.0 between 2018 and 2019.

The Patriots are betting this is thanks to the swirling vortex of depression that turned everything to crap in Atlanta like a twisted Midas touch. Sanu is less than a year removed from being one of the sport’s most underrated receivers, and his ability to spin hay into gold has always made his on-field impact bigger than stats can measure. His capacity to fill several different roles — he’s big and fast enough to prowl around near the sideline but can punish smaller defensive backs as a 6’2 presence in the slot — means the Pats can throw him into the lineup immediately and give Brady a wideout lineup that features some combination of:

  • Julian Edelman
  • Josh Gordon
  • Phillip Dorsett
  • Mohamed Sanu
  • 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry, and
  • overachieving undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers
  • regular-achieving undrafted rookie Gunner Olszewski

There’s a lot of unique looks that crew can give the New England passing game, and Sanu’s addition gives opposing defenses one more wrinkle to plan against. He may not be getting the kind of downfield releases he used to as a Bengal and Falcon, but he may not need to — that’s what Dorsett and a best-case scenario Harry is there for. Instead, Belichick needs him to be the sturdy, middle-of-the-field target the team’s lacked since Rob Gronkowski’s retirement — particularly if Edelman’s drop problems linger but especially if the deep game languishes in 2019 with Gordon gone. If Sanu can shed coverage on third down three or four times per game, this is all worth it for New England.

He also gives the Patriots another wide receiver who can throw a pretty good deep ball. Expect that to be a little extra currency for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to trade on:

Sanu does a little bit of everything well, gives the Pats a reliable mid-range target who can haul in passes and provide sealed-off blocking in the run game, and is the kind of player teammates and fans just love the hell out of (just check the comments over at the Falcoholic if you need convincing). He’s signed through 2020 as well, so if he can return to form in New England he could boost Brady’s game for another year to come.


The Patriots don’t often make moves like this. When they do, however, they work. Belichick sent the Saints a first-round pick for Brandin Cooks back in 2017, only for the young wideout to stretch the field as the team’s top deep threat en route to an AFC title. Dillon ran for 3,180 yards in three seasons in New England and won a Super Bowl in his first year running alongside Brady. Lottery ticket wideout acquisitions like Gordon and Dorsett have each shined in Josh McDaniels’ offense.

That’s good, because drafting wide receivers has been a notable blind spot for Belichick. Rather than wait another year with his 42-year-old quarterback to pick up a prospect who may not contribute, the future Hall of Fame coach spent one of his most valuable draft assets for a player he likely would have only spent a Day 3 pick on in years past. That’s a bold move for an undefeated team — and a referendum on how sustainable the Patriots think that record is after eating a steady diet of cupcakes (and the vastly improved Bills) to start the season.

If it works, Sanu could provide the missing piece Brady needs to get back into the MVP conversation. And if it doesn’t, history suggests Belichick — already armed with what’s likely to be three third-round selections — will find a way to acquire two or three other second-rounders to fill his draft chest anyway.