The Super Bowl favorite traded away arguably its best defensive player this morning. If you're wondering why, exactly, the Patriots would ship linebacker Jamie Collins to Cleveland for a conditional third-round pick, you're not alone:
Jamie Collins to Cleveland is one of those trades that made me double check to make sure I wasn't looking at a fake Schefter account.
— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) October 31, 2016
There's context here, if you want to squint and look for it. Collins is an impending free agent who was reportedly asking for "Von Miller money," which is a steep figure for anyone, let alone a player with injury issues - Collins missed four games last year and has battled an oblique issue this year - and who supposedly had lost some measure of Bill Belichick's trust. He was going to walk anyways, so New England may as well pick up an asset for him while they can, especially with rookie Elandon Roberts emerging.
On the other hand, New England is now paper thin at inside linebacker and, well, Collins is really damn good. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the ninth-best linebacker in football this season - a week earlier, he was fourth - and he was the ideal compliment to the bruising Dont'a Hightower—a linebacker who could excel in coverage and be repositioned as needed thanks to his athleticism.
Then, there's this:
Chandler Jones, of course, was the third young cornerstone player in the Pats' front seven, who was abruptly traded to Arizona in the offseason. Part of the justification for that deal was, because Jones and Collins were both impending free agents, trading the former would help subsidize the latter's extension. Now, Collins is gone as well, in exchange for a pick that New England would have eventually accrued themselves if they let Collins walk at the end of the year. (Incidentally, a key part of the return for Jones, offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, was released earlier this month. He's now in Cleveland, too, after the Browns claimed him off waivers.)
Then again, even Cleveland's side of it isn't so cut-and-dried, at least on the surface: They traded a pick for a player who they could have signed for in free agency. But this makes sense. The Browns now control Collins' rights, giving them the option to franchise him if they cannot sign him to a long-term extension, for Von Miller money or something else. They'd also accrued 14 picks in next year's draft, an untenable number to sign. Worst case, if they let Collins walk, they get something resembling the same pick back in 2018, a year when they'd probably be better equipped to use it.
In recent years, Cleveland has flushed first-round picks on defenders like Phil Talor, Justin Gilbert and Barkevious Mingo—himself traded to New England this year—with precious little to show for it. Collins is the franchise defender Cleveland dreamed of those players becoming, and they snared him at a fraction of the cost.
These are the Browns and those are the Patriots, and so there's always reason to wonder if there's more than meets the eye to this. But, it may be as obvious as it seems: Cleveland did something really smart while New England possibly damaged the present in exchange for marginal future benefit.