The NFL gives its fans plenty of reasons to be excited during the course of a season, but one aspect of the game certainly does not match up with that of the other major sports: trades.
The league does its fair share of trading during the NFL Draft, but rarely sees players traded during the season.
Unless you're the New England Patriots.
Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio and the rest of the Patriots' front office always seem to have their hands in a trade or two during the season, looking to add to their usually stacked talent to put them over the top.
They've traded away players like Deion Branch (2006) and acquired others like Aqib Talib (2012). They aren't afraid to shake things up — but usually they can afford to take the risk.
In October 2014, the Patriots acquired Akeem Ayers from the Tennessee Titans and Jonathan Casillas from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both for draft picks. Those two players came from noncontenders to help contribute to the Patriots Super Bowl XLIX championship.
Ayers and Casillas then moved on, getting bigger deals from other teams in the offseason.
As the Patriots prepare for Super Bowl LI this week, they hope their trades can have the same effect it had two years ago.
Days before the season opener, the Patriots acquired defensive back Eric Rowe from the Philadelphia Eagles. Rowe, 23, is in his second season after being drafted by the Eagles in the second round (47th overall) out of Utah in the 2015 NFL Draft. In October 2016, the Patriots acquired linebacker Kyle Van Noy from the Detroit Lions. Van Noy, 25, is in his third NFL season after being drafted by the Lions in the second round (40th overall) out of BYU in the 2014 NFL Draft.
"Obviously, our coaching staff gets guys that they feel, skillwise, feel can compete and help us," Devin McCourty told reporters last week, "but I think the mentality of the guys that have come in here, whether it was Ayers or Casillas two years ago, or these guys this year, come in with a mentality of hard work and want to play, they want to be a part of it. E-Rowe (Eric Rowe) and KV (Van Noy) both didn’t play immediately. They had to practice, get in the rhythm, learn the defense and then after a couple of weeks, they wanted to be out there. And as soon as they got out there, they made plays."
Van Noy is part of a new-look linebacker corps this season. Along with fellow new additions Shea McClellan and Elandon Roberts, that group has jelled in a relatively short amount of time under the leadership of Dont'a Hightower.
In fact, Van Noy has grasped the Patriots playbook and language so well, that at times this season he's worn the "green dot" on his helmet, signaling that he's the communicator on the field with his teammates.
After beginning his Patriots career as a healthy scratch, Van Noy has become an integral piece at linebacker, rotating in and sticking to the role he was assigned when he was traded to New England. He finished with 29 tackles, a sack and an interception with the Patriots during the regular season.
In the AFC Championship Game, Van Noy forced a fumble that led to a Patriots touchdown on a short field to put them up 33-9 late in the third quarter. Rowe intercepted Ben Roethlisberger early in the fourth quarter to essentially seal the game.
"There have been times now that me and KV can kind of just look at each other and we kind of know what to expect, what we’re thinking," Hightower told reporters in early January. "Whenever you get that, you can play a lot faster and kind of anticipate things. You try and get a jump on the offense."
The Patriots defense is going to need all the jump they can get on Sunday against a high-powered Falcons offense, but with the acquisitions of Rowe and Van Noy, they've given themselves a better chance to get just that