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Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Revisiting that Seymour trade

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

Two years have passed since the New England Patriots traded defensive lineman Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders. As the two sides prepare to meet again for the first time since that jaw-dropping swap just before the kickoff of the 2009 season, the question is naturally raised: Would the Patriots do it again?

Another decade might have to pass before it's fair to declare a judgment. As part of the deal, the Patriots acquired Oakland's 2011 first-round pick, which New England used to select tackle Nate Solder at No. 17 in April's draft. Early returns suggest Solder -- pegged as the team's left tackle of the future -- has plenty of potential, but only time will truly tell if the Patriots acquired a talent equal to that of the now six-time Pro Bowler they traded away.

Even then it's not fair to debate player versus player, particularly not two at different positions and different points of their careers.

Seymour
The debate about whether the Patriots should have traded away Richard Seymour remains passionate.

Regardless, the debate about whether the Patriots should have traded away Seymour remains passionate. Those in favor of the deal swear it was better than letting Seymour walk away when his contract expired (it didn't have to be that way if the Patriots had simply taken care of Vince Wilfork earlier). Those who oppose the trade proclaim that New England hasn't had a legitimate pass rush since Seymour left (the numbers confirm a dropoff, but maybe not as pronounced as some make it seem).

Seymour totaled a career-high eight sacks (matching his 2003 total) during his final year in New England in 2008. But what's often overlooked is how many sacks New England generated as a team that year: 30 (or six fewer than last year's "anemic" pass rush produced).

Some seem to forget that Tully Banta-Cain has more sacks over the past two-plus seasons (15) than Seymour (12). And Banta-Cain was out of football at the start of the 2011 campaign.

But, to be sure, the Patriots' defensive line has not panned out as planned when the team dealt Seymour away. At that time, the addition of rookies Myron Pryor and Ron Brace were touted as moves to solidify a group that also included Wilfork, Ty Warren, Jarvis Green and Mike Wright.

Warren missed all but one game during the 2010 season and was waived this summer. Green, who missed time in 2009, chased big free-agent money in Denver, but didn't even make the team's roster out of camp and hasn't played in an NFL game since. Wright has battled concussions, while a variety of injuries have limited Pryor, who went on season-ending injured reserve last week. Brace can't seem to stay on the field, either, and is currently on the physically-unable-to-perform list.

The Patriots ultimately spent much of this past summer reconfiguring their defensive line, going so far as to change their philosophy to a base 4-3 defense in order to optimize new arrivals Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter.

Early results haven't shown much improvement, but players swear that will come in time.

Maybe a better metric than just plain sacks is the number of sacks generated per opponent pass attempt. The Patriots' defense generated one on 6.5 percent of attempts in 2008 (slightly above the league average of 6.27). Since then, that number has shrunk each year, though not terribly (6.1 percent in 2009, 5.9 percent in 2010).

Through three games this season, the Patriots are generating a sack on 4.7 percent of all dropbacks, showing the rush remains an area of concern.

Yes, it's impossible to argue that there hasn't been a tangible drop-off in pass rush. Sacks can't tell the whole story, but the numbers aren't very good regardless of the metric.

Based on a statistical formula by the analytical site Pro Football Focus, the Patriots' pass rush graded out at 36.7 in 2008, eighth best in the league (thanks in large part to Seymour's individual 13.4 rating). In 2009, it dropped to 0.2 (essentially league average at 17th overall) and in 2010 it fell into negative territory at -0.1 (seventh worst in the league).

Would Seymour have made much of a difference the past two seasons? That's the cornerstone of the trade debate and one thing that simply can't be answered definitively.

One thing that isn't in question is that Seymour remains among the league's elite entering Sunday's visit to Oakland. For Patriots fans, the idea of Seymour trying to get after quarterback Tom Brady is rather unpleasant -- it was much easier to take when it was the other team's signal-caller in harm's way.

Even Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien admitted there's no easy solution to stopping someone as disruptive as Seymour.

"That's a good question; that's a tough question," O'Brien said. "[The Raiders] are really big up front. They're a physical defense, they're fast. That's part of our discussion right now of all the different areas of their defense and how we're going to handle some of the problems all over the place that they present, the challenges that they present.

"So, there are a lot of different things you can do -- I'm certainly not going to tell you -- but [Seymour is] playing really well. They're all playing really well right now. It's a really good football team that's playing fast and physical."

If Oakland first-year coach Hue Jackson wanted to fuel the debate, he'd let Seymour line up on the edge whenever Solder is in the game at tackle. It'd be interesting to see the results.

In the end, maybe we'll simply look back in a decade and realize both teams won in this deal. Not every trade needs to have a loser, both sides can look back without one being filled with regret. The Raiders have surely benefitted from having Seymour on the line and in their locker room; their turnaround over the past two seasons is proof of that.

The Patriots won three Super Bowls in eight seasons with Big Sey -- his 51 sacks were a big part of that -- and might have cashed him in for a player that could become the cornerstone of their offensive line in the years to come (one whose chief responsibility is keeping the Seymours of the world away from Brady).

Two years later, if you asked both teams if they'd do it again, both would probably say yes. And neither side would be lying. But that won't end the debate.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.