By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The NFL trade deadline isn’t nearly as exciting as it could be. Trades (especially big ones) are too rare and inconsequential to give the NFL the same buzz at the deadline that you get in the other three major sports. But Bill Belichick has made many trades in recent years in order to bolster the Patriots in areas of need, and while they usually aren’t major deals they have often improved upon the team’s most glaring weaknesses.
The Patriots are in good shape atop the AFC East at 5-2, but anyone who has watched the first seven games would know that they still have areas where Belichick could make a minor trade with the potential to pay major dividends. And if it didn’t work out, well, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Belichick happened to make big changes in 2016, acquiring linebacker Kyle Van Noy from the Lions just days before shipping Jamie Collins to the Browns. The move, controversial at the time, ultimately helped stabilize the Patriots defense and contributed greatly to their Super Bowl run. In addition, the trading for cornerback Eric Rowe helped solidify the secondary.
Belichick also made a couple of minor but helpful moves when the Patriots won it all in 2014, adding linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas – both of whom made their share of impact plays in the second half of the season.
The trades don’t always work out for Belichick. Defensive end Kony Ealy and tight end Dwayne Allen appear to be the latest examples. But based on his recent history, the coach will almost certainly make one or more moves to get guys who can do things to help in spots where the team has struggled. The hope is that the new guys are closer to Aqib Talib than Greg Salas.
Here’s a look at how the Patriots could look to make some depth additions, or possibly upgrades, ahead of the trade deadline, which passes at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 31. Some potential trade targets have also been noted here – mainly cost-effective veterans from floundering teams. But admittedly, that’s basically like throwing darts while blindfolded.
Don’t expect moves in the secondary – they’ve been inconsistent and injured there, but they’re still deep and playing better lately. Don’t expect changes on the offensive line, either, as they are starting to find some consistency. But they could look to add in one of these areas:
Van Noy is starting to play better as he mans the middle of the defense whenever Dont’a Hightower lines up on the edge (which has been often). Van Noy has lined up in coverage on 222 snaps so far, more than Hightower, Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers, and David Harris combined (177), according to Pro Football Focus. It’s the actual coverage that has been below average, as Van Noy has “earned” a 45 coverage grade (“Poor”) from PFF.
Clearly, the entire linebacking corps needs help in the coverage department. They have allowed the second-most catches (46) and receiving yards (480) to opposing running backs in 2017, and have also allowed the fifth-most catches (37) and third-most touchdowns (5) to tight ends. It may behoove Belichick to add a speedy linebacker who can spot the Patriots some coverage in certain passing situations, and possibly even make the occasional play.
Targets? Belichick might be interested in the versatility of Ray-Ray Armstrong, who recently converted from safety to linebacker, from the 0-7 49ers. He could also go back to the Lions to ask about Nick Bellore or call the Bears about John Timu.
Interior Pass Rusher
The Pats haven’t been terribly impressive across the board when it comes to rushing the passer. But they look OK on the edge with Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise playing well, in addition to Hightower helping out. On the interior, however, they’ve been solid against the run but haven’t done enough to push the pocket on a consistent basis.
Belichick could look to add a situational pass rusher that he can line up inside, as Lawrence Guy has been uninspiring in those spots and rookie Adam Butler has yet to find consistency. With an average pass-rushing grade of 64.1 (“Below Average”) from PFF, this group needs some help when it comes to making life harder on opposing quarterbacks.
Targets? Perhaps Belichick calls the 2-4 Bucs about veteran defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who is in the last year of his deal. The 30-year-old has been pretty good as a rotational pass rusher in Tampa. If anyone knows this, it’s Tom Brady:
Backup Tight End
It has been well-documented how much Dwayne Allen has struggled since the Patriots acquired the tight end from the Colts in the offseason. He was supposed to be a solid all-around complement to Rob Gronkowski. But not only has Allen failed to catch a pass on seven targets so far this season, he has been brutal as a blocker as well.
PFF has handed Allen grades of 50.1 and 46.5 in run-blocking and pass-blocking, respectively. He played just 20 snaps against the Falcons and six against the Jets in Week 6, and even with Gronk out against the Bucs he could only muster 50 snaps (68 percent). It’s clear that Belichick doesn’t feel he can rely on rookie Jacob Hollister right now, and the coach is rightfully losing trust in Allen.
Targets? Maybe Belichick gives Sean Payton a ring about bringing Michael Hoomanawanui back. Josh Hill could also give them some depth and versatility. The Bucs also have veteran Luke Stocker, who can barely see the field in Tampa right now behind Cameron Brate and rookie first-round pick O.J. Howard.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.