For more than a month, safety Tebucky Jones has been headed to New Orleans in a trade once compensation was agreed upon. So it was hardly shocking when, on Monday, the Patriots officially announced the move sending the five-year veteran to the Bayou for third and seventh round picks this year and a fourth next year.
The Patriots wanted a second rounder for the starting safety, and the Saints refused, instead compromising on a package that has the relative value equivalent of a borderline low second round pick to early third rounder. New England also freed up the $3.043 million tied up in the franchised safety when it consummated the sign-and-trade agreement with the safety-deprived Saints – money that can certainly be put to good use at a position with more obvious holes than safety.
There are a couple of ways to look at this deal. One is that New England just dealt a young, fast, athletic starter knowledgeable of the system and entering the prime of his career for a basket of unknown mid-round eggs that could make a nice omelet or simply crack into pieces.
Another look shows a front office with the savvy to acquire three draft picks for a player it felt was unsignable because of increasing salary demands it obviously felt would not have provided value. After all, the Patriots staff better have a stronger sense for Jones' value than New Orleans since it coached him for the last three years.
But the Patriots quite surely did not want to spend $10 million of their salary cap at safety. So rather than keep the younger, more athletic Jones, they elected to keep two older veterans – Lawyer Milloy and Rodney Harrison -- who have been to six Pro Bowls between them but who aren't getting any younger.
The Patriots options were many. They could have made every effort to sign Jones long term and never even signed Harrison. They could have let him play under the franchise designation for 2003, paid him his $3 million and then been saddled with this problem again next February. They could have simply let him dive into the free agent waters never to return. They could have parted ways with Milloy – a wildly popular player and noted team leader – while using the freed up cap room to secure Jones long term. Or they could have done exactly what they did – franchise Jones to protect his rights and then trade him for draft picks while never intending to keep him. It certainly would have helped matters if another team beyond New Orleans entered the bidding process.
Either the public relations backlash that would have followed any Milloy transaction affected the decision or the reports of Milloy's alleged demise are greatly exaggerated.
Go with the latter on that one.
I have read more than once about Milloy's no-interception, no-sack, no-forced fumble, no-fumble recovery 2002 season. If he played so poorly last year, then why is he still here as the league's highest paid safety while Jones is heading to the Crescent City? It better be because Milloy is the better of the two players and close to twice as good given his escalating salary. It better be because Milloy's worth goes beyond his football ability while Jones was an inconsistent tease who will stay that way, despite his freakish athleticism and sizable special teams impact.
Give Bill Belichick this – beyond Drew Bledsoe and perhaps Shawn Jefferson, the players he has either released or elected not to re-sign for one reason or another have not gone on to excel in a new situation. Some of them are still around. Some are out of football. But there have been few, if any, which have come back to burn Belichick.
So assume, then, that Jones was not worth the money and that the Patriots secured three draft picks for a player they didn't want. From that standpoint, the move was an obvious win-win. The Saints acquired the safety they desperately needed while retaining their second round pick, and the Patriots received compensation for a player that was set to be an unrestricted free agent back in February, and who without being franchised, would have walked away for no compensation.
But no matter how you spin it, the Patriots traded away a starting safety for three middle round picks where they will be hard-pressed to find starting caliber players, at least in the short term. If Jones is as good as he is going to be and Patriots Nation has seen his best, then bid him adieu and be excited about the compensation. If he goes on to a long Pro Bowl caliber career and the Patriots chose Milloy and the older but cheaper Harrison instead, then Belichick will be subject to criticism.
Ultimately, Jones' level of play along with the production of three nameless players will determine whether the move was truly a win-win.
We have to wait and see. Belichick and Scott Pioli don't get that luxury. But their decision making regarding their own players has earned them the benefit of the doubt so far in these eyes.