Patriots

Patriots’ savvy trade of Chandler Jones is the ultimate In-Belichick-We-Trust move

Chandler Jones before the Patriots play Washington in November 2015.

Chandler Jones on the field at Gillette Stadium before the Patriots face Washington in November 2015.

COMMENTARY

The Patriots have traded defensive end Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals, and — small sample size alert! — the early polling on social media and carnival barker radio indicates fans are cool with the deal, which is a fairly remarkable thing. This tweet encapsulates the general reaction I read/heard in the immediate aftermath of the breaking news:

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I can’t imagine there is another fan base among the Other 31 that would collectively understand, and even be excited by, the decision to trade a commodity as seemingly valuable as a 26-year-old Pro Bowl pass rusher who just finished fifth in the entire league in sacks for a second-round draft pick/scratch ticket and a guard, Jonathan Cooper, who has underachieved in his three-year career when he hasn’t been injured.

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But that’s where the consensus seems to be on this. There is understanding, even some excitement. And that’s encouraging. I’m not yet prepared to rescind my finger-wagging regarding the Gronk bargain from earlier this week, but perhaps we are finally past all of the Belichick-the-GM-is-killing-Belichick-the-coach nonsense.

We should have known that the Patriots’ offseason was too quiet, that something big — no offense, Chris Hogan — was just a phone call away. The decision to have free agent defensive end Chris Long come in for a visit should have been a clue that Jones was on the market. An enormous amount of foresight is not required to recognize that trading Jones opens up some other appealing possibilities.

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Jones is set to become a free agent after the 2016 season, but he was not first in line among Patriots defenders who would soon require — and be worthy of — lucrative new contracts. By trading him and clearing nearly $8 million in salary cap space, the Patriots are better positioned to reach a long-term deal with someone (or someones) among Malcolm Butler, Jamie Collins, and Dont’a Hightower. Every one them — and arguably the versatile Jabaal Sheard as well — is worthier of a long-term commitment than Jones.

And yet Jones would have been well within his rights to ask for an enormous commitment. After all, the Giants just signed Olivier Vernon, a player of similar accomplishment, to a deal with $52 million guaranteed. I doubt the Patriots would even consider giving Jones — who wasn’t always at his best in big games — half of that.

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So the Patriots dealt him a year before he could walk away, while freeing up money to keep superior players from even entertaining the possibility of leaving. It’s smart, if unsentimental, business, similar to the decision to trade Richard Seymour and pay Vince Wilfork in September 2009. And it has brought an intriguing return.

Cooper was the seventh overall pick in the thus-far lousy 2013 draft, and he’s started just 11 games — nine last season — in his NFL career. But the talent is there, and he’s only 26. Not only does he fill a position of apparent need for the Patriots, but working with guard whisperer Dante Scarnecchia should help him in the quest to fulfill his potential.

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Acquiring the Cardinals’ second-round pick gives the Patriots the 60th and 61st selections in the upcoming draft. To some degree, that helps make up for the first-round pick they lost when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell severely overpunished the franchise for Deflategate and Robert Kraft chose not to resist beyond offering some hollow rhetoric. The Patriots now have four picks in the top 100 — two second-rounders and two third-rounders — and a chance of acquiring some immediate help in the draft, something the commissioner seemed to desire to deny them.

The ideal scenario for the Patriots might be similar to how things played out in 2013, the same year the Cardinals drafted Cooper. The Patriots traded out of the first round that year, sending the 29th pick to the Vikings for second-, third-, fourth-, and seventh-round picks. They turned the second-rounder, 52d overall, into Jamie Collins, who has been, along with the likes of DeAndre Hopkins (27th overall, and what if he were still there at 29?) and Le’Veon Bell (48th), one of the best players from that draft. But the most productive player, at least in terms of Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Career Approximate Value measure, was the 61st pick — Packers back Eddie Lacy. I’m fairly confident the Patriots will find a player of value with the same pick this year.

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Ultimately, the Jones deal is the rare swap that initially looks good for both sides. By trading a good if flawed player, the Patriots enhanced their chances of retaining superior players while also enhancing their draft capital and adding a young guard. And the Cardinals, who like the Patriots saw their season end a victory from the Super Bowl, must be thrilled, provided that Jones doesn’t show up at his introductory press conference shirtless and disoriented. They get a prime-of-career pass rusher for at least one season. He should be an immediate upgrade over ancient Dwight Freeney, who led the Cardinals with just 8.5 sacks last year.

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Chandler Jones is a nice pickup for the Cardinals. And with clear eyes and context — attributes we suddenly seem to have around here, at least for today — he’s no huge loss for the Patriots. Whaddaya say? Here’s to seeing him in Super Bowl 51.

Chad Finn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.

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