And yes, it's all within the rules
In Super Bowl LIII, the Patriots started three players whom they had acquired via trade: Kyle Van Noy at linebacker, Jason McCourty at cornerback and Trent Brown at left tackle. The Patriots have had Tom Brady for years and have supplemented him with homegrown stars such as Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower and Julian Edelman. But one of the core tenets of their roster-building philosophy has been finding the market inefficiency at the intersection of trading for veteran players and receiving compensatory draft picks for their own free agents. It's a reason why they're able to generate good players and draft picks seemingly out of thin air, and it gives them more margin for error in the draft than most teams have.
The transactions involving Brown were enormous for New England, because he played a huge part in its Super Bowl win and after that received an enormous contract to join the Raiders. Brown was available last offseason, at the draft, for only a swap of picks. The Patriots had to trade their third-round pick to San Francisco to get Brown and a fifth-round pick. Brown, a 6'8", 380-pound mauler with rare agility for his size, was available because he was on the last year of his rookie deal, and the 49ers had drafted Mike McGlinchey in the first round to pair with Joe Staley.
Brown immediately plugged in and replaced Nate Solder. Solder left the Patriots for a contract with nearly $35 million in guarantees from the Giants. But what Solder also left the Patriots with was a compensatory pick, because the Patriots didn't sign a free agent who qualified in the same average-per-year ballpark as their former left tackle. That pick, in the third round, was an extra one in the New England arsenal for the 2019 draft. Brown's departure to the Raiders, likely will add another third-round pick to New England's stash, because the Patriots didn't sign a high-dollar replacement.
For some teams, losing a former first-round tackle creates a gaping wound that takes years to recover from. The Bengals lost Andrew Whitworth to free agency in 2017 and haven't been able to cobble together a good line since. The Patriots not only replaced Solder, but they also acquired two third-round picks and a season of solid tackle play for moving down 48 spots in the draft. Oh, and the player they picked in the fifth round, Ja'Whaun Bentley, started two games and showed promise before going down with a long-term injury.
The way the compensation pick system works is incredibly complex, and the formula itself is not public, but let's talk about the simple and short version that can be understood and reverse-engineered. The higher a free agent's average per-year salary is, the more likely he is to fetch a third-round pick in the formula. Signing players who qualify for the formula — released players don't count, only actual free agents — cancels out players you lose if they are close enough in average salary. Ergo, the system incentivizes teams that are losing highly paid players not to replace them through traditional free agency, but to replace them with players who were released or through trades. Trades are the easiest way to circumvent the system. When the Patriots traded for Brown, they were avoiding signing someone who would affect their compensation pick outlay. When they traded for Jason McCourty in March 2018 instead of signing one of the many cornerbacks in the free agent class, it followed the same reasoning. Their caution toward the free agent market is why they wound up with two additional third-round picks in the 2019 draft and are set to have two more in the 2020 draft.
But this knowledge also lets them make some moves with an eye toward their own future. Remember when the Browns traded a third-round pick for Jamie Collins in 2016? The Patriots were willing to make that move because six days earlier they acquired Van Noy in a swap of a sixth-round pick for a seventh-round pick. Collins was released by the Browns this past March, while Van Noy is still with the Patriots.
Finally, guard Shaq Mason was a fourth-round pick whom the Patriots hit on and paid. But I actually want to demonstrate the value that these picks brought to the Patriots in a different way: I want to show you the players they have drafted who haven't hit. Their third-round pick in 2015, a compensatory pick, was Geneo Grissom, who never started a game for the team. Their fourth-round pick that year? Trey Flowers, who just earned a huge, well-deserved contract in free agency after accumulating 21 sacks in three years as a starter. Drafted ahead of Mason in the fourth round? Florida State's Tre' Jackson, who started just nine games for the team after experiencing knee issues. If we assume that the Patriots went with the original order of those picks, they'd have had to fade a team taking Flowers before their second fourth-round pick at 111th overall. If they'd wound up with Jackson as their second fourth-round pick, Mason would have had to last until pick 166 to still be a Patriot. If you assume the worst, the Patriots could have left the bottom of that draft with zero contributors. By making compensation picks a priority, they had two.
And because Flowers got a huge contract from the Lions, they should get a third-round pick for his services as well.
There's a high turnover rate on every NFL roster, and there's a huge incentive to acquire performing NFL players on rookie contracts. With 22 starting spots, not everybody is going to be able to get paid at the same time. The more capital a team has as far as young, cost-controlled performing players, the more flexibility it has.
This has been one of the secret formulas to New England's success. They are able to afford to make moves like splurging on Darrelle Revis or Stephon Gilmore because they've been successful in creating young, cost-controlled starters. They've been able to create those starters because they are intentionally feeding into a roster model that will give them as many swings at the draft board as they possibly can get. That doesn't mean they never sign a free agent, and it doesn't mean they always draft well. What it means is that they've developed a system in which they are always playing the best odds they can get.
This NFL Draft alone, the Patriots were able to add four extra picks via the compensation system. The hole Brown left is scheduled to be filled by a 2018 first-round pick, Georgia's Isaiah Wynn. Rather than deal with a bloated edge rusher market, they traded for Philadelphia's Michael Bennett. Bennett is regarded as a malcontent around the league but recorded nine sacks last season and is one of the NFL's best linemen in terms of technique. The Pats dropped two rounds in the draft and picked up one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. There are teams that would have re-signed Flowers and left it at that. The Pats are going to get Flowers-level production, and then also the compensation pick for losing him.
The Pats entered the 2019 draft armed with 12 picks, and the three days in Nashville offered more of the same for a franchise that is constantly filling needs. Experts gave the Patriots' class high grades after New England managed to fill voids while also stashing away future producers — including drafting Brady's possible successor, Auburn's Jarrett Stidham.
The Patriots aren't the only team that has caught on to this game — the Ravens under general manager Ozzie Newsome were also quite adept at it. But when you pair a roster creation strategy like this with Brady and Bill Belichick, you have a sustainable system for bootstrapping the roster depth that differentiates the Patriots. It's a strategy that has kept them comfortably in the NFL's elite for the last 20 seasons.
(Top photo by Winslow Townson/AP)