Before we go any further, I just want to say that this is completely hypothetical. Don’t walk around saying that I told you this is going to happen… but if it does happen then I want all the credit (suck it, Schefter).
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, lets continue.
Without getting into the money aspect yet, a Fitzgerald to the Patriots trade makes too much sense not to acknowledge it. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has always been a huge fan of Fitzgerald, calling him possibly the best wide receiver of all-time before their week 2 match up last season:
“(Fitzgerald) does everything well. He’s a great receiver. He’ll go down as one of the all-time greats. He might end up as the best one ever, I don’t know,” Belichick said. ”You have no idea where he’s going to line up from play to play. He has a very big route tree. He runs all the routes … one route sets up another. It’s very hard to find him. It’s very hard to defend him.” - NFL.com
So he’s got that going for him, which is nice.
There’s no way to tell if Fitzgerald wants out of Arizona because he’s too classy to run his mouth, unlike most players nowadays. At 29 years old, he is in the prime of his career and has had nothing but absolute squids throwing him the ball since Kurt Warner retired. It’s no secret that the Cardinals are in a transitional phase and could use some extra cap space and draft picks. Parting ways with Fitzgerald would be the perfect way to make both of those happen. They are also in desperate need of a quarterback, and wouldn’t ya know it, the Patriots have a back up QB that’s been drawing interest from multiple teams with Ryan Mallett.
Another interesting factor for the Cardinals is that they have a brand new head coach in Bruce Arians. While former head coach Ken Whisenhunt probably would have had a heart attack if Fitzgerald left Arizona while he was there, Arians really doesn’t have any attachment to him. Sure it would suck to lose the best player on his roster, but what coach coming into a struggling organization wouldn’t love to have a plethora of high draft picks in his first few years?
From the Patriots stand point, it makes just as much sense. Losing Wes Welker is a major blow to the offense, even with the addition of Danny Amendola, and questions are still swirling around whether or not Brandon Lloyd will be with the team next year after a less than spectacular first season in which he was supposed to be Tom Brady’s shiny new toy. Ever since Randy Moss left during the 2010 season, the Patriots have been searching for a big name receiver who can take the top off of a defense and open up the middle of the field for the dink and dunk routes they love to throw so much. Brandon Tate couldn’t do it, Chad Ochocinco couldn’t do it, and so far Brandon Lloyd hasn’t been able to do it. Before free agency started, the Patriots were rumored to be interested in guys like Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings. Wallace has since signed with AFC East foes the Miami Dolphins, and Greg Jennings’ name has since faded and looks it likely that he will be returning to Green Bay.
[pullquote align="right"]“He’ll go down as one of the all-time greats. He might end up as the best one ever.”[/pullquote]
Fitzgerald would be a perfect fit in this offense. He can run the deep route with the best of them, but he also has the ability to go over the middle and absorb contact, which makes Bill Belichick weak in the knees. He’s a great locker room presence and seems to embody everything that goes along with “the Patriot way.”
So what will it take to make this happen? As I mentioned earlier, the Cardinals desperately need a quarterback, and if they are going to get rid of Fitzgerald they will likely be looking for another talented wide out to take his place. They will also be looking for multiple draft picks to help them prepare for life without Larry.
Well for the Patriots, that’s check, check and checkmate. Brady’s recent contract extension makes Ryan Mallett expendable and Brandon Lloyd would be a great replacement in Arizona’s vertical passing game. In terms of draft picks, the Patriots only have five picks this year, which is the complete opposite of what they usually have. Still, the team has all of its picks in the following three years, with the exception of a 2015 undisclosed pick they sent to Saint Louis for WR Greg Salas. The Patriots are a team known for trading down in the earlier rounds and stock piling late picks, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they manage to send their next couple of first rounders to Arizona for a few mid to late round picks in return.
Now lets get into the financials.
Fitzgerald signed an 8 year/$113 million deal with Arizona in 2010 that would give the team a cap hit of just over $10 million next season and increasing to $18 million in 2014 before ultimately peaking at $21.25 million in 2015. That’s a big commitment.
Fortunately, the Patriots have one of the lowest payrolls in the NFL, giving them roughly $20-25 million in cap space, according to ESPN. Factor in the $4.5 million owed to Lloyd next season and the $800,00 owed to Mallett, and that number could be closer to $25-30 million in cap space. So even after taking on the $98 million Fitzgerald will be owed over the next six seasons, the Patriots will still be in pretty good shape. Not to mention, there is always the chance that Fitzgerald restructures his deal once he is traded to make it more cap friendly. That seems to be a growing trend around the NFL, a la Tom Brady.
So, this is what I would expect to see if this actually goes down.
New England receives:
What this all comes down to is whether or not the Cardinals are willing to part with their franchise player in the name of rebuilding. As a Pats fan, it is easy to say “HELL YES GET RID OF HIM!” But Fitzgerald has been the cornerstone of the Cardinals organization since 2004 and has dealt with the team’s recent struggles with nothing but class and humility. But then again this is the NFL, a league where loyalty and gratitude mean absolutely nothing. If a deal makes sense, most GM’s won’t hesitate to pull the trigger regardless of who gets their feelings hurt. Arizona promoted their former vice president of player personnel, Steve Keim, to GM just a couple of months ago, so making a blockbuster deal and trading away the face of the franchise would be pretty gutsy. Then again, if he does it and the Cardinals turn one or two of those draft picks into top tier players he could look like a genius. Let’s see if he is willing to sit at the table and play with the big boys.