Mankins is a superb talent, a loyal soldier and a great guy within the community based on all of his charitable endeavors through the years, but this is a passing league, and for a team with only one legitimate tight end – who, by the way, is a major injury risk – trading a 32-year-old guard who is good as a run blocker but only so-so these days in pass protection for another target in the passing game is 100 percent the right move.
This also has to do with Mankins’ contract as well. He’s the highest-paid guard in the league, set to make $6.25 million this year after signing a five-year, $61-million extension in 2010. And that extension didn’t come without burning a few bridges along the way.
Mankins was supposed to become an unrestricted free agent following his fifth season in 2009, but because it happened to be the final uncapped year of the league’s collective bargaining agreement he instead became a restricted free and therefore didn’t hit the open market. The Patriots offered him a $3.26 tender to return to the team. Since Mankins wanted a long-term deal, he refused to sign and then publicly demanded a trade in June of 2010, questioning the Patriots’ integrity.
Cooler heads eventually prevailed. Mankins and the team ironed out the details of a long-term agreement that summer and all the Patriots asked in return was that Mankins apologize to team owner Robert Kraft for his public comments. No problem. Mankins said he was sorry and everything looked set it stone until the Patriots reportedly called Mankins shortly thereafter and asked him to publicly apologize as well.
Kraft and the Patriots later denied that report, but, in any event, Mankins not only refused to apologize publicly, but became offended and eventually refused to sign the extension, holding out for the first eight games of the 2010 season before returning in November.
Fast forward four years and Mankins, despite still playing at a high level, is no longer an elite NFL guard, certainly not worth the money he’s making now or was scheduled to make over the final two years of his contract. One can only assume the Patriots asked him to take a pay cut or restructure his deal in order to stay with the team, something they’ve done with other veterans in the past, and, likewise, one can only imagine how that conversation went. This is why Mankins’ rocky past with ownership is relevant. They asked him to honor his word and his contract, and, assuming they asked him to restructure this past offseason, we can only assume he asked them to do the same. Any impasse between the two sides would make Mankins expendable at 32, not so much at 27 going on 28 when he was still in his prime, but, again, this is just speculation.
Sticking to the facts, what we do know is Mankins has declined somewhat in recent years. The numbers show he’s been spotty in pass protection, and that’s a no-no in today’s NFL, a league where officials are being asked to call even more defensive penalties this year because there’s apparently not enough offense to make professional football the most marketable sport on the planet.
We also know how important it is to keep Tom Brady healthy in the waning stages of his career. Without him, the Patriots are toast regardless of how impressive rookie Jimmy Garoppolo has looked in the preseason. No Brady, no chance.
We also know Rob Gronkowski is no lock to play 16 games this year. One of the prospective backups, D.J. Williams, is already gone because he couldn’t stay on the field, and the other one, Michael Hoomanawanui, is banged-up, too, leaving a glorified fullback, James Develin, as the only complement to Gronkowski. We also know the Patriots have been at their best in recent years running two-tight end sets, which is impossible without a decent No. 2. Wright is no Aaron Hernandez – at least not yet – but he gives the Patriots a chance and gives defenses someone else to account for. A converted wide receiver, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound tight end caught five touchdown passes last year as a rookie and had a strong second half.
Mankins will be missed this year, but the Patriots have a track record of “coaching up” offensive linemen. They turned a former college wrestler with minimal football experience, Stephen Neal, into a serviceable guard for many years. The two players competing this year for the all-important starting center position, Ryan Wendell and Don Connolly, weren’t even drafted. When you think about it logically, it doesn’t make sense to have your guard be your second highest-paid player. In fairness, all of the previous reclamation projects on the offensive line came under former position coach Dante Scarnecchia’s watch, but the head honcho, Bill Belichick, is still here, so the do-your-job philosophy hasn’t changed much at all.
This is a passing league now. Guards, nose tackles, running backs and anyone else associated with the running game are becoming expendable. In order to keep up with the Joneses – and, more importantly, the Mannings, Breeses, etc. – the Patriots need weapons that will help in the passing game. Wright could be that guy. This move not only made perfect sense, it had to be done.
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