From the moment he came into the league, Chandler Jones has been one of my favorite football players. His lighthearted personality caught on in New England, and he quickly became a fan favorite.
Naturally, many were disappointed (myself included) when the news broke last week that Jones had been traded to the Arizona Cardinals for offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick. To me, the trade initially came as a shock. But should it have been a surprise?
To answer that, we need to look at Jones’s contract, his career projection and the Patriots’ other defensive stars. Jones is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and counted for $2.6 million against the salary cap in 2015-16. His 12.5 sacks ranked fifth in the league last year, and he was a constant threat to opposing quarterbacks with his combination of speed, strength, and skill coming off the right edge.
The 26-year-old Jones is in line for a huge pay raise next offseason. When he entered the league back in 2012, he signed a four-year, $8 million deal with an option for 2016-17. To compare, other elite defensive ends are signing deals worth tens of millions of dollars. Olivier Vernon and Malik Jackson, two of the most coveted defensive line free agents this year, both signed for deals of $85 million. Jones’s new teammate Calais Campbell is in the middle of a $55 million deal.
Jones still needs to produce this season to reach that contract level, but he will undoubtedly be worth way more than the $8 million contract he signed with the Patriots.
While Jones was the standout on defense, he wasn’t the only important player.
The Patriots have three other defensemen that need to be paid next offseason. ILB Dont’a Hightower was paid a $1.4 million base salary last year, and he is the rock at the center of New England’s front seven. Jamie Collins, a freak athlete and versatile outside linebacker, was paid even less, just $917,864 in 2015-16. The two combined for 102 tackles and 8 sacks last year.
The Patriots aren’t just looking to keep that linebacker duo on the roster either. Malcolm Butler, who went from relative unknown to Super Bowl hero in a matter of seconds, proved his ability as a lockdown cornerback during the 2015-16 season. His base salary? Just $600,000 last year.
All three Patriots, along with Jones, are due to become free agents after this season. It seemed unlikely that the Patriots would be able to keep all of their defensive stars in New England, and Jones – perhaps due to a synthetic marijuana incident back in January – happened to be the odd man out. With Jones gone, the Patriots have freed up the salary cap space to keep that defensive core together through the next few years.
The Patriots also managed to swing a nice deal for the outgoing Jones, landing Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick. The draft pick is key here. The Patriots are without a first-rounder this year due to Tom Brady’s alleged deflating of footballs during the 2015 AFC Championship Game. New England now has another pick to use, or in true Bill Belichick fashion, trade as part of a package for even more picks.
New England also picked up Cooper, a former top-10 pick, to bolster the Patriots’ abysmal offensive line. Cooper was projected as a cornerstone guard heading into the 2013 draft – one to build the entire line around. But injuries slowed his career from the start, causing the Cardinals to deal him to help their own defense.
If Cooper can live up to his potential, the Patriots may have landed the deal of the decade. Their offensive line desperately needs help, and Cooper seems like just the player to solidify the interior. Even if he can’t, the second-rounder and free cap space are reason enough to justify trading away one of the top defensive linemen in the league.
Congrats to the Cardinals – you’ve landed one heck of a player and a fun, passionate guy. I look forward to watching him tear up the NFC West en route to another division title.
For the Patriots, Jones will certainly be missed in the short-term. His void will be somewhat filled by Pro Bowler Chris Long, who signed a one-year deal with the Pats just days after Jones was traded away.
As bummed as I am to see Jones go, I know this is the right decision for the Patriots in the long run. If New England keeps the rest of the defense in tact, they’ll continue to have one of the top teams in the NFL for the foreseeable future.
Pete Harasyko is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.