Jamie Collins was out of place on Patriot Way

Alan TruexBill Belichick’s New England Patriots are 7-1 and almost a lock for the Super Bowl. Really, who can stop them?

Post-Manning Denver?

Wattless Houston?

Benless Pittsburgh?

But Belichick has won so many Super Bowl championships – four – that he doesn’t mind putting a likely fifth one at risk.

This is not a one-game-at-a-time football coach. He’s in the Super Bowl business. He knows how a few great players magically coalesce with many not-so-great ones to form a champion.

In a sport that enforces a rigid salary cap, Belichick must be careful with owner Bob Kraft’s money. One of his best defensive players, linebacker Jamie Collins, will be a free agent in March and worth much more on the open market than he was worth to the Patriots.

Belichick offered him an $11 million salary, which befits your average Pro Bowl linebacker. Collins was not interested.

In New England you hear of The Patriot Way. It’s personified by quarterback Tom Brady, accepting a $7 million salary which he easily could triple in the free-agency marketplace.

Brady has good and perhaps opportunistic reasons for being unselfish, for leaving more of the company payroll for complementary players and an occasional co-megastar like Rob Gronkowski.

Belichick pays well to keep a core of skilled and reliable veteran players – Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower. He doesn’t think Collins is at their level. So on the eve of the trade deadline he sent Collins to Cleveland for an end-of-the-third-round draft pick.

It was a business decision, like the Denver Broncos turning their back on Brock Osweiler. But of course, Collins is no Osweiler.

Nobody outside of Houston thought Osweiler was good, but Pro Football Focus rates Collins the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL. He grades out well in volume of tackles, passes intercepted and broken up.

Truth is, Collins impresses the hell out of fans like you and me. He’s fine on highlight videos. But Belichick, a football visionary if ever there was one, is probably correct in seeing him as something less than a cornerstone of a dynasty.

Belichick and his assistants felt Collins gambled too much to make the splashy play. He didn’t always man his post. You and me and PFF do not always know what that might be.

Mike Lombardi, formerly of the Patriots’ coaching staff and front office, tweeted that in Buffalo on Sunday, which was his Patriots finale, “Collins on the second play of the game does whatever he wants and Bills gain 28 yards. Been happening all year. It wasn’t going to continue.”

Lombardi appeared on Colin Cowherd’s talk show and said, “To me, this was all about sending a message to the other guys in the locker room.”

Then came his hardest shot at this second-round draft choice: “He played on an 0-11 team at Southern Miss, and sometimes he plays like he’s still on that team.”

Collins should feel comfortable with the Browns, where losing has been the norm ever since the 1960s. And no doubt he will feel a surge of freedom that comes with leaving Fort Belichick.

So we wonder what the Browns are thinking, assuming they are.

What’s a third- or fourth-round pick worth? It could be a starter, like Joe Thuney, or Logan Ryan.

Or Elandon Roberts, who is this year’s sixth-round draft pick, out of the University of Houston, and Collins’ designated replacement. Roberts already had supplanted him on most running downs.

Yet Collins could have megavalue to a team that needs a playmaker for a playoff run. He’s quick and strong enough, at 6-4, 250 pounds, to tackle running backs for losses and cover the fastest of them on pass routes.

He could be a difference maker for the Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders or Atlanta Falcons, teams that are nowhere near as regimented as the Patriots and might welcome some of his improvisation.

The Browns have exclusive negotiating rights with Collins until March.   Which is probably not enough time to persuade him to bind with the most futile franchise in football, 0-8 this season, no worse than expected.

And if Collins wants to join the suddenly title-happy ’Land, do the Browns really want to commit a $60 million contract to a player who’s not committed to teamwork? They need a young veteran to lead other young men, but Collins at 26 may not be right for that role. Is Bill Belichick ever wrong about these things?

The Patriots are in the twilight of the Tom Brady era. He’s 39, and you might expect Belichick to go all in on the present. But that would not be Belichick, who’s balanced, Yoda-like, between present and future.

He’s appropriated the method of Bill Walsh, architect of the San Francisco 49ers dynasty of the 1980s and ’90s.   Walsh said successful roster renewal means trading players while they have one or two good years left.

Belichick did miss out on some vintage years from Darrelle Revis and the recently more impressive Aqib Talib. But the Patriots keep reloading, the dynasty goes on. And it’s not just Brady. They’re 13-5 with quarterbacks named Cassel and Garoppolo. Even without Collins, they remain Vegas favorites – 2/1 — to win the next Super Bowl. Same as always.

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