By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — It’s safe to say that nobody outside of Bill Belichick could honestly say that prior to Tuesday afternoon, a trade of Logan Mankins would be a real possibility for the Patriots this preseason.

Alas, the deal was most certainly real, and when the news broke around 1:30 p.m., we were all subjected to a half-day of full-blown Patriots pandemonium. Logan Mankins — gone. An undrafted, second-year tight end out of Rutgers and a fourth-round pick — welcome to New England.

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The reaction to the trade has been mixed, with some fans angered to see the offensive line’s anchor and an offensive captain get sent packing with no warning. Others see the logic behind ridding the big-money contract of Mankins, considering he’s not the player he once was but was still making top dollar. Still others see the upside in Tim Wright’s ability to fill the Aaron Hernandez role, a vacancy that went unfilled in 2013 and was sorely missed.

The merits of all sides can — and will — be debated ad nauseam, but the real question is why were any of us surprised?

First, there was the contract, which was sitting right in front of all of our faces this summer yet inspired nobody to even ponder whether the Patriots would try to shed it. Considering Vince Wilfork had already asked for his release before signing a restructured deal for less money in this same calendar year, I personally believed Mankins would be facing a similar fate next offseason. It never crossed my mind that judgement day would come in August.

Of course, I was hardly alone, and that’s our fault. Mankins, at 32 years old and coming off a season where he did not shine, owned the second-highest cap hit on the team by a huge margin. There’s Tom Brady and his $14.8 million charge, there was Mankins at $10.5 million, and then Jerod Mayo at $7.3 million and Darrelle Revis at $7 million. That is, quite clearly, a huge gap, and even when Mankins was playing at his highest level, it’s hard to justify dedicating that large a percentage of the salary cap to a guard. When he’s not at his best, cutting that cost is a bit of a no-brainer.

See, with Mankins, the Patriots did what they so rarely do — they paid for past performance. The team paid him peanuts from 2005-10, while he was in the prime of his career and was an absolute bull in the middle of the Patriots’ line. Mankins held out in 2010 before getting his deal in 2011, a contract which made him the highest paid guard in the NFL. That deal was signed when Mankins was approaching 30 years old. He then tore his ACL.

It was the second ACL tear of Mankins’ football career, as he missed his junior season at Fresno State due to the same injury on his other knee.

So you had the following:

  • A player north of 30 years old
  • A player with two surgically repaired knees
  • A player at a position with declining significance as the running game has become less and less a part of the NFL
  • A player with the second-highest cap figure on the Patriots

So when you look at all those factors, it’s really a wonder why none of us saw this coming.

That’s not to say that the Patriots wouldn’t want Logan Mankins on their roster. He is, in the truest sense of the word, a badass. He is the ultimate badass. He is a sheriff on the field, doling out justice wherever he sees fit, and sometimes applying excessive force. If anyone so much as sneezed on Tom Brady, Logan Mankins would be there to sew shut that player’s nostrils. The man played an entire season on a torn ACL, and then after tearing his MCL in the postseason, he went ahead and played in the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl anyway — and he did all of that without so much as saying one peep about being hurt.

He’s a throwback player, and teammates gravitated toward him. How could they not?

So yes, in many areas, it will be impossible for the Patriots to replace what Mankins gave them. But on the field, where it really matters, life will go on, and it should go on just fine.

Look, for as much as everyone liked Mankins, there’s no getting around the fact that he was not very good in 2013. One of his final plays in a Pats uniform stands out, but beyond that, Pro Football Focus had him ranked as the 18th-best guard in football. Such a ranking isn’t horrible, but it isn’t indicative of an irreplaceable player. Remember, Bill Belichick is the same man who took a college wrestler in Stephen Neal and turned him into a guard who had a 10-year NFL career. If you don’t think he make something work with an interior line mix of  Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Marcus Cannon, Josh Kline, Bryan Stork, Jordan Devey and Jon Halapio, then you mustn’t have been paying attention over the past decade-plus.

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PFF also listed Mankins as the second-most overvalued player on the Patriots, behind only Wilfork — you know, the guy who had to take a lot less money in order to stay in New England this year — and costing the Patriots about $5.8 million in cap money more than he should have.

“His performance has still been positive (+12.0 in 2013), but nowhere near elite status like he is being paid,” wrote PFF’s Matt Claassen in early March. “He’s set to count over $10 million against the cap again in each of the next two years. Unless Mankins … is able to regain some of his elite form, he will likely remain among the most overpaid on the Patriots’ roster for a third straight season.”

Now we know that he won’t, and we know why. Guards are replaceable. When Mankins was playing at his absolute best, perhaps his cap hit could have been justified. As it was, the Patriots needed the room, and they felt comfortable enough with their existing crop of linemen to say farewell to a highly respected veteran.

It is that status that made this move shocking, but again, it probably shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. It doesn’t compare to the jettisoning of Richard Seymour, then 29 years old and with a lot of gas left in the tank, just eight days before the 2009 season. That was a true shocker. The Patriots ranked 23rd in the league in sacks in 2009, one year after Seymour had eight himself. It was a puzzling move that nobody saw coming, and with good reason.

The shock factor was just as high with Lawyer Milloy back in 2003, but just like with Mankins, the writing was on the wall — we just all chose not to see it. We didn’t know Belichick had it in him to release a franchise cornerstone, but we learned it with Milloy. Heck, even the inclusion of Mike Vrabel in the Matt Cassel trade was slightly more surprising than the Mankins deal, but all of these bold, signature moves from Belichick have one thing in common: they all involve players at or near the end of their prime who were getting paid as if they were still at their best. In a salary cap world, there’s little room for that if you’re a team that wants to stay atop the conference every single year.

Wilfork saw that reality and decided he’d take less money to stick around. It was initially unknown if Mankins was presented with the same opportunity, but given how hard he had to fight to get that contract in the first place, it was hard to imagine he would have been willing to restructure it. On Wednesday, it was confirmed that the Patriots did indeed approach Mankins with a Wilfork-esque request to take less dough.

When you look back at Mankins’ comments during that contentious 2010 holdout period, it makes sense that he said no.

“I’m a team player, I took them at their word, and I felt I played out an undervalued contract,” Mankins told ESPN in 2010. “Right now, this is about principle with me and keeping your word and how you treat people. This is what I thought the foundation of the Patriots was built on. Apparently, I was wrong. Growing up, I was taught a man’s word is his bond. Obviously, this isn’t the case with the Patriots.”

Obviously, we all forgot about a statement like that, as it’s one that could never be erased. Again, it was more writing on the wall which none of us chose to see.

And so, they move on. To be sure, Mankins will be missed in some ways, but to suggest the Patriots got worse on the offensive line and are in a great deal of trouble would be to incite unnecessary panic. Mankins was a top-notch run blocker but his pass blocking was never a strong suit, and that was a glaring issue last year, when he allowed the second-most sacks among guards. Considering how much trouble Brady had when facing pressure last season, Belichick and the Patriots are clearly hoping to shore up the interior with younger, more agile options.

Will it work? Well, this is sports, so there’s no way of knowing. But by ridding the bulk of that huge cap hit, the Patriots gave themselves options. It’s never fun to see a reliable workhorse like Mankins get shown the door, but in the NFL, you’re always better off making that move too early than too late.

And for us? We were all once again lulled to sleep by a few years without any shocking moves from Belichick. Perhaps next time around, we’ll pay better attention.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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