FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the perfect New England Patriots world, they would have been gifted another Kyle Van Noy, Akeem Ayers or Jonathan Casillas at Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline. Those were three of the team’s best deals in recent years, helping to fortify the linebacker position at extremely modest prices.
But it didn’t happen -- a reminder of Bill Belichick often saying how it takes two sides to make a deal -- which means defensive reinforcements the team might need for the second half of the 2018 season now must come from within.
Ideal? Not necessarily, but more a reflection of the reality of the NFL in 2018, and certainly not a deal-breaker for the team’s Super Bowl championship hopes. There have been nine trades across the league in October, and not one involved a linebacker.
Big linebackers who can run well are hard to find in the first place, so teams usually aren’t giving them away. It takes a unique set of circumstances to fall into what the Patriots did with Van Noy (2016) and Ayers (2014) as those players were caught in scheme changes with their original teams and thus viewed as expendable, and also had manageable contracts to take on.
There weren’t players like that across the league in 2018, where the Patriots could entice a club to part with them in exchange for late-round draft choices.
So the trickle-down effect on the Patriots now has multiple layers.
Dont’a Hightower’s knee injury, which kept him out of Monday’s win over the Bills, naturally bears watching. Without him and promising rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley (placed on season-ending IR in Week 3), the club was especially thin at linebacker Monday, calling on Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and free-agent signing John Simon (joined the team Sept. 26) as the top three options. Special-teamer Nicholas Grigsby also was tapped on defense when Roberts briefly left with a groin injury.
This is why linebacker, and not running back, receiver or another position, was viewed as the position of greatest need.
The Patriots have help coming at running back, as rookie Sony Michel’s return from a knee injury isn’t expected to be far off, and Rex Burkhead (concussion) is taking positive steps behind the scenes to ultimately take the team’s second designated-to-return IR spot (cornerback Duke Dawson took the first and he’ll be filling Eric Rowe’s spot). So the club can be resourceful in piecing things together until those things happen, even using receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as a ball-carrier at times.
As for receiver, the Patriots already made one deal (for Josh Gordon on Sept. 17), and while another could have further solidified the position, it wasn’t a must-have with Gordon, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Patterson on the depth chart.
But that was the position that seemed to provide the most realistic options on the trade market with Demaryius Thomas and Golden Tate. The Patriots dabbled with those possibilities, where the draft-pick compensation to acquire them wasn’t unreasonable (third- or fourth-round picks), but there were financial considerations to consider as well (Thomas has a base salary of $8.5 million, while Tate is making $7 million).
So in the end, the Patriots stayed pat.
They could have been in on defensive tackle Damon Harrison (traded from the Giants to Lions) or defensive end Dante Fowler (Jaguars to Rams), but those options didn't directly address the linebacker spot. They also could have attempted to entice a team like the Cardinals to part with linebacker Haason Reddick with a high-round draft pick and hoped for a smooth transition into the team’s system, but those type of deals -- when the Patriots assume more of the risk -- aren't their preference.
In the end, there simply weren’t any Van Noys or Ayers to be had.