It's easy to forget sometimes that the big-money business of the NFL is still, at its core, an emotional game. Those who play it are passionate, competitive individuals who, no matter how hard they try to act professionally, still feel joy and sadness inside, just like anyone else.
That was evident today in the Patriots locker room after practice – the first session without perennial Pro Bowl guard and co-captain Logan Mankins. Beforehand, Mankins was dealt to Tampa Bay in exchange for second-year TE Tim Wright and a 2015 fourth-round draft pick.
The news took many Patriots observers by surprise, including those closest to Mankins – his now former teammates in Foxborough.
"The atmosphere was a little down today," admitted cornerback Darrelle Revis, a long-time rival when he played for the New York Jets. "It's very sad, you know, he's been here for a long time. I have a lot of respect for him, having played against him in the past. He's a class act. Mankins is known around the league as one of the best offensive linemen in the game. He's proven that.
"What an awesome player. So honored to play with that guy, to get to know him and his family. I can't say enough good things about him," gushed the normally reticent left tackle Nate Solder. "He and his family have great morals, great ethics, great work ethic. Tremendous guy. He does what he says. Everything about the guy is genuine and authentic.
"It's all coming to us pretty quickly, so, really, I just reflect… I truly hope to have a great relationship with him as we go ahead in life."
The players who shared their thoughts with the media Tuesday afternoon spoke in hushed tones and paused numerous times to collect themselves as they tried to absorb the news.
"We came in here and were shocked," conceded cornerback and fellow co-captain Devin McCourty. "We're friends, we're like a family in here. I don't think that human element for us ever goes away. You've got great relationships that go on here in the locker room. I know for myself it's hard… [but] it's not my job to make sense of it."
Wide receiver Julian Edelman gave it his best shot.
"Personally and individually, you just have to go out there and learn from guys like that," Edelman explained, "how they prepared for day-to-day life in the NFL, coming out and preparing the way he did and not saying a word, playing with toughness, being an ultimate team guy.
"It's tough. We're all humans, we all build relationships, but there's a business aspect to the game and Coach is going to do what's best for the team. If that's what he feels, that's what he feels."
In a prepared statement, even head coach Bill Belichick seemed to struggle to come to grips with his decision to trade Mankins.
"Logan Mankins is everything we would ever want in a football player. It is hard to imagine a better player at his position, a tougher competitor or a person to represent our program. He is one of the all-time great Patriots and the best guard I ever coached.
"Logan brought a quiet but unmistakable presence and leadership that will be impossible to duplicate. Unfortunately, this is the time of year when difficult decisions have to be made – and this is one of the most difficult we will ever make – but like every other decision it was made for what we feel is in the best interests of the team."
Indeed, the Patriots, like every other NFL team, had to trim their roster from 90 down to 75 Tuesday, with final cuts (to 53) coming on Saturday. In between, there's the preseason finale against the New York Giants Thursday night in New Jersey.
Today, in addition to dealing Mankins, New England, which was at 83 players at the dawn of the day, released DL Ben Bass, DB Travis Hawkins, WR Derrick Johnson, LB Deontae Skinner, DB Jemea Thomas and WR Wilson Van Hooser, while placing rookie RB Tyler Gaffney (left knee) and rookie LB Cameron Gordon on injured reserve to get down to the required 75.
The addition of Wright gives the Patriots more depth at the tight end position, which has been beset by injuries throughout the spring and summer.
"He's a good tight end that's not your traditional tight end," remarked safety Duron Harmon, a former college teammate of Wright at Rutgers. "He does good things in and out of his breaks, catches the ball well. Just a change-up tight end that did well for himself last year."
Revis, who played in Tampa with Wright last season, added, "We're getting an exciting player who can catch, who can run great routes. He has a lot of speed at the tight end position. He makes plays. I think he'll fit in well."
But the player understandably on most Patriots' minds today was Mankins.
"He's the type of guy that you don't know if you'll get that type of teammate ever again," declared McCourty. "He's a tough guy – the different injuries he's played through, being out there every snap, every chance he could get… since I've been here, he's the kind of guy you look up to, and I'm a defensive back. Tampa's going to get one hell of a player."
"For the Patriots, we move on. As sad as that is. It's exciting, too," Solder stated. "We move on to the thrills of the season."