Bill Belichick has a way of making sure no one can predict his next move.
In a deal that was eerily reminiscent of a 2009 trade that sent Richard Seymour packing right before the start of the season, the Patriots sent Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay in exchange for tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round pick, according to various reports.
The news hit like a ton of bricks, as Mankins projected to remain as one of the few constants on an offensive line that has seen its share of upheaval so far this summer. New position coach Dave DeGuglielmo has shuffled his personnel throughout the preseason, particularly along the interior, but Mankins had not moved and appeared to be as healthy as he's been to start a season in years.
But despite Mankins' reliability during his nine-plus years in New England, economics play a huge part in today's game and it would certainly appear money was the driving force behind this deal. The six-time Pro Bowler was set to enter the fourth year of his six-year, $51 million extension signed in 2011 after a contentious holdout.
Mankins was set to count $10.5 million against the cap in 2014 and that number will drop as a result of the trade so the Patriots save about $5.775 million this season. There will also be another $4 million cap charge for 2015, assuming the team elects to spread out the dead money over two seasons rather than take it all at once.
The 32-year-old Mankins was likely playing his last season in Foxborough given the contract – his cap hit was going up to $11 million in 2015 – and the Patriots decided to pull the trigger in an effort to pick up a tight end who might be able to provide some depth.
The 6-4, 220-pound Wright was an undrafted rookie out of Rutgers and had a solid rookie season with 54 catches playing for an unstable offense in Tampa Bay with Josh Freeman and rookie Mike Glennon at the controls. Most of his damage was done after Freeman was released, and he displayed soft hands and athleticism.
Wright played for Greg Schiano both in Tampa and at Rutgers, and Belichick had the former Bucs coach as a visitor this summer during camp. The two no doubt discussed Wright, and the Patriots may have found a pass catcher behind Rob Gronkowski who can serve in the "move" role vacated with the loss of Aaron Hernandez.
"He's really athletic, he used to be a wide receiver. He can be used as a matchup guy, an H-back-type," said former Bucs defensive lineman and current radio talk show host Anthony "Booger" McFarland. "He can get in the way as a blocker but that's not his strong suit. He fits in the new tight end mold."
One area Wright figures to help the Patriots is in underneath zones. McFarland said Wright understands how to work the middle of the field and zone coverages well, which is something the Patriots offense excels with. He also said Wright wasn't likely going to make the Bucs after the team drafted Austin Seferian-Jenkins, signed free agent Brandon Myers and also has Luke Stocker as depth at the position.
"He was the odd-man out for sure," McFarland said. "He wasn't performing well, and he was well down on the depth chart."
Now the Patriots will have to find some answers up front. Josh Kline and Jordan Devey received extensive playing time at guard this summer when it appeared the team was trying to decide between Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell at center. Kline has been the better of the two young players, and Marcus Cannon also could make a move inside to guard after filling in at right tackle a year ago.
Assuming Wendell and Connolly both stay, not necessarily a safe bet, Kline and Cannon would be the top candidates to fill Mankins' starting spot. Filling Mankins' presence in the locker room will be much tougher to do, but Belichick has shown before – with Seymour – that he's more than willing to take that emotion out of the equation when attempting to do what's best for the team.
In the meantime the Patriots will get some cap relief, perhaps opening up the possibility of extending one of their current players such as Darrelle Revis.
That will benefit the team in the long run, but what happens in the short term is still open for debate.