Sunday, April 29, 2018

From Wynn To Izzo, Patriots Get Physical In 2018 Draft

I got one pick right.

One lousy pick - but in mock drafts, one shouldn't expect to be able to read the mind of a tenured NFL head coach, and especially not "Trader Bill" Belichick, who made exactly as many draft day trades as he did making actual selections - and my one and only success, wide receiver Braxton Berrios from the University of Miami, came in the sixth round, when I had him as an afterthought in the seventh.

But once again, Belichick proved that he knows more about his team and what kind of player he's looking for while the rest of us are speculative spectators with no clue.
FSU's Ryan Izzo

Instead of replacing what he had lost in the free agency period, he simply made moves that put his Patriots on course to morph into something other than what it was, proving once again the axiom that insanity is defined as doing something the same way over and over again, yet expecting different results.

The Patriots failed to achieve their goal last season, Belichick identified why and moved to correct it.

The first thing he did was to address a lack of physicality in his offensive line by both drafting an offensive tackle who says he's a "lovable guy" but sure doesn't look like it on the field, and then trading away a third round pick to San Francisco to acquire a huge mountain of a man who is considered one of the best strong-side pass protectors in the game...

...adding a talented inline tight end who thrives for contact and was one of the best pure blocking tight ends in the class, though he does have some usefulness in the pattern as well - The toughness on offense wasn't all unique to the offensive line, as the Patriots selected a tough runner and a traditional garden gnome sized slot man who reminds many of a clutch playoff performer who now resides in Miami.

The brutality acquired wasn't solely destined for the offensive side of the ball as Belichick drafted a set of interior linebackers custom made to play alongside each other, suggesting an emphasis on run defense - but also took a couple of corners who look to be potential replacements for two recently-departed veteran corners.

Most of the selections were for players who were admittedly under the radar of the more well-known college athletes, but as usual, Belichik worked the draft board and selected players in positions where he got the greatest value for them, and ended up with a solid draft that improved the team's physicality, something that was sorely needed.

Here's a look at the Patriots' draft class (plus a major pick up via trade):

Isaiah "Ike" Wynn, Offensive Tackle, Georgia
6' 3", 313 lbs

New England's zone blocking scheme requires linemen with quick feet and good lateral movement, and in the past has sacrificed size for dexterity. In Wynn, the Patriots get all of the above without sacrificing anything.

A tackle in a guard's body, Wynn was initially listed as a guard in most draft profiles simply because college tackles his size usually make the switch inside where their shorter stature gains them better leverage against bigger defenders - but the Patriots made sure that the world knew that they were selecting him as a tackle.

A breakfast chef in the running game, Wynn serves up pancakes to defensive ends and tackles and has the athleticism to make sure he gets to the second level to give linebackers a taste as well. So dominating was he at tackle that he earned AP Second-team All-American and first-team All-SEC honors - and considering the competition, that is indeed high praise.

Because he is so versatile - he has the ability to play every spot on the offensive line - what his selection does is give Belichick some intriguing options. At left tackle, there is no guarantee that 2017 draft pick Antonio Garcia will have completely recovered from a bout of blood clots in his lungs, a malady that caused the already thin Division II product to lose 40 pounds - and at guard he is a clear upgrade over third-year man Joe Thuney, so instead of pigeon-holing Wynn at one position, we should just let Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia figure out to best use him...

Sony Michel, Running Back, Georgia
5' 11", 214 lbs

The first that stands out about Michel is his excellence in pass protection. Perhaps the best back in the class at picking up the blitz, his determination and willingness to put himself in harm's way also factors into his no-nonsense running style, where he displays an angular, jerky approach in setting up his blocks, with elite accelleration once he sees the hole.

He plays faster than his timed speed would indicate as he frequently gained corners against some of the best edge setters the SEC had to offer, and his balance and finishing toughness served him well in running between the tackles.

His production, running style and pass production mirrors what veteran Patriots' runner James White's did coming out of college, excelling both through the air and on the ground, but while White earns his bones as a passing back, the slightly bigger Michel will be in the mix for the lead back role in the Patriots' offense.

Trenton Brown, Offensive Tackle, Acquired from San Francisco
6' 8", 359lbs

Just hours prior to the second day of the NFL Draft, Belichick traded the 95th overall pick to San Francisco for Brown, who Denver Broncos' defensive end Von Miller proclaimed is "The best right tackle in the National Football League. There's not another tackle in the league who is that tall, that big, and can move the way he does."

That assertion was in response to a question from a reporter who asked Miller to name the blocker who gave him the most trouble - high praise for a kid that no one outside of the bay area had ever heard of, but who is very familiar to opposing pass rushers and is more of a natural athlete than incumbent right tackle, former All-Pro Marcus Cannon, who was shelved most of 2017 with a bum ankle.

The move for Brown coupled with the draft capital given up in exchange for him suggests that something may be up with Cannon, who may be relegated to swing tackle duties, for which he has shown a penchant for.

Duke Dawson, Cornerback/Safety, Florida
5' 11", 197lbs

Dawson is an assertive, aggressive slot corner who will try to intimidate opposing receivers with his strength and leverage in tight quarters when assigned in man coverage, and brings a ball hawking, head-hunting philosophy when responsible for an area in zone coverage - which makes sense as he is a safety-turned-corner who brings the same dimensions to the position as former Patriot Logan Ryan did.

In 19 games started as a slot corner, Dawson recorded 23 passes defensed and picked off six balls, three of which he returned for scores - but most impressively, he shuts down premier slot talent and allowed opposing quarterbacks a lowly passer rating of just 41 when targeted.

Given his aggressive style and experience at safety, Dawson could potentially be given strong safety duties in the Patriots' Big Nickel alignment at times to spell veteran greybeard Patrick Chung, as his coverage on running backs and his willingness to go nose to nose with them in the ground game are both part of his charm.

Ja'whaun Bentley, "Mike" Linebacker, Purdue
6' 2", 260lbs

An old-school tough linebacker who would be more at home on a 1970's era Patriots' squad, Bentley thrives on contact and has plus anticipation skills - which goes to figure because one look at his tape shows him to be an excellent "Mike" linebacker in a 3-4 alignment, whose primary responsibility is to take on blockers and occupying them, allowing the weak side linebacker, commonly referred to as a "Will" linebacker, to flow to the football.

Bentley most commonly lines up a guard or center looking to move to the second level and uncoils on them, more often than not standing them up in their tracks, much like what a defensive tackle is supposed to do but with a head of steam that makes the blockers remember playing him.

A bigger, more powerful version of Elandon Roberts, he isn't much for lateral agility and cannot be trusted with man coverage on runners, but he defends the middle zone like a bulldozer and lets receivers coming across the middle know that they have to earn entry.

Christian Sam, "Will" Linebacker, Arizona State
6' 2", 245lbs

The perfect compliment to Bentley on the inside of a 3-4 alignment, Sam is a natural for the weak side interior position, where he flows to the ball and makes the tough stops - and is a three-down player who can mirror the footwork of most backs and can also hang with most tight ends crossing the middle.

So sound are his coverage techniques that the previous staff at Arizona State considered moving him to cornerback before determining that he and they would be best served by bulking him up and turning him loose underneath.

Not considered a "practice player", Sam is a gamer that does his best work on the stage - and while that kind of attitude tests Belichick's ire, the Patriots' strength and conditioning staff will make sure that he is up to the task.

Braxton Berrios, Wide Reciver, University of Miami
5' 9", 185 lbs.

A slot man in New England is different than it is elsewhere, as Belichick's offensive philosophy calls on the slot as his bread and butter, chain-moving entity, which requires instant separation, laser focus and precise route running with the ability to make body adjustments to reach balls thrown to slight openings.

Berrios possesses all of these traits and is considered one of the premier punt returners in the class. He was buried on the Hurricanes' depth chart until his senior season, when he broke out as the top pass catcher on the team, averaging over 12 yards per catch. Most compare him to Danny Amendola, and if he proves to be anything like the recently departed clutch receiver, then New England got a steal in the sixth round.

Danny Etling, Quarterback, LSU
6' 3", 225lbs

If anyone was expecting a quarterback drafted by New England to be an NFL-ready signal caller, they will be disappointed with Etling. If those same people were expecting a developmental prospect with a live arm, quick release and in need of mechanical coaching behind the greatest quarterback who ever played the game, then Etling would be everything they expected.

Has the arm talent to be a top passer and can make all of the throws on the route tree, but his footwork and impatience in the pocket are in need of professional coaching. He keeps his arm cocked at all times and has an quick release, but doesn't tie his eyes to his feet, meaning that he isn't always in the proper position to fire the football - even so, his completion percentage (60%) and his touchdown to interception ratio (8-1) are on par.

If the Patriots can improve his mechanical flaws and if Etling can improve his pocket awareness and get rid of his paranoia about phantom pressure off the edge, he could be a nice project as a backup with starter potential - if not, he's a practice squad candidate.

Keion Crossen, CB, Western Carolina
5' 10", 180 lbs

An off-man coverage maven with springs for legs and a willing run defender, Crossen should be a developmental project who could be ready to contribute after some time with strength and conditioning staff.

The Patriots' worked out Crossen an the Wake Forest Pro Day and was the fastest player on the field, running a stunning 4.33 forty yard dash and his game tape shows that he has solid fundamentals, with the ability to keep his man on radar when he turns to look for the football - something that really can't be taught - and his anticipation to high point the ball and to go get it are plus-sized.

If the Patriots can bulk him up a bit, they have a good prospect on their hands who could compete for a roster spot in the wake of injuries to both Cyrus and Jonathan Jones last season.

Ryan Izzo, Tight End, Florida State
6' 5", 255 lbs

Another old-school prospect, Izzo is a mean-tempered inline blocker who gives as good as he gets, especially on the wham blocks that Rob Gronkowski does so well. Notice that I said "prospect" and not "project", as Izzo is nearly ready to contribute as a pure blocking option in Foxborough, adding yet another degree of size and toughness to a blocking unit that was heavily upgraded in this draft.

Has soft hands and runs sharp routes, but there's not a lot of film on him as a receiver - but what there is shows a guy who catches well with his hands and looks to dish out punishment in order to gain yards after the catch - and in pass pro, he frequently served as an edge protector from the offset position from the tackle box, and mirrored speed rushers and bull rushers alike.

He will seriously jeopardize roster spots held currently by veterans as a low-cost, late-round gem.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Patriots Select Corner/Safety Hybrid In Roller Coaster Second Night At NFL Draft

"Yesterday's weirdness is tomorrow's reason why." - Hunter S. Thompson

On Opening night at the draft on Thursday, New England general manager Bill Belichick, whose Patriots were thought to have big needs on defense, did exactly the opposite by drafting an offensive tackle and a running back - but that was ok, because there was always Friday night, when Belichick would satiate our thirst for linebackers and cornerbacks, and maybe even Tom Brady's heir apparent.

What happened instead was the typical mid-round roller coaster that brings Patriots' fans closer and
closer to the edge of their seats in anticipation of seeing their team draft a college player to help them to another title, only to fall back in their seats in exasperation as general manager Bill Belichick brings them to within seconds of greeting their newborn player, then pulling the chair out from underneath them.

Belichick woke up on Friday with two second round selections in the 2018 NFL draft, as well as a third rounder, but by the time the second night of the selection process opened for business, he was down to his second round picks, having dealt his third rounder to the San Francisco 49ers for a gargantuan right tackle who by all accounts is a bit bloated and out of shape...

...not from slothfulness nor laziness, but inactivity due to a long recovery period rehabbing from labrum surgery - and by the time that the night was over, Belichick didn't use either of his second round picks, opting instead to take Patriots' fans on an anxiety-driven amusement park ride that ended with him using a pick he acquired in the mad shuffle to move up to number 56 overall to select a cornerback that wasn't on anyone's radar.

Duke Dawson is a name that sounds like a cross between a 1980's style redneck action comedy full of fast cars and scantily-clad women and a turn-of-the-century teen drama with a consuming preoccupation with pubescent hormone overload - but in reality it belongs to a talented safety-turned-cornerback whose presence may mean the end for a couple of denigrated Patriots' roster hogs.

Dawson is a man-cover corner who works best from the slot where he can use tight quarters to punk his mirror and knock him off his route - and is an absolute terror in zone coverages where his background as a safety has led to most of his interceptions and all three of the pick-sixes in his college career at the University of Florida.

Short and compact, he makes up for size limitations in man coverage with smooth footwork and an exceptionally long reach, which comes into play on quick slants and prevents slot receivers from ever really gaining separation - and comes into play in zone coverage where he is able to break on balls in front of him to deny the completion.

In 19 career starts as a corner spanning half of his junior season and all of his senior season, Dawson recorded 23 passes defensed and intercepted six balls, returning three of them for scores.

Smothering slot receivers is his calling card - he allowed the third-lowest quarterback rating in college football last year - and he will be in the mix for snaps in a Patriots' secondary that utilizes a three safety "Big Nickel" alignment that places a premium on safety types who can reduce down into the box, as he brings the thunder in run support and is an opportunist and ball hawk...

...and fans shouldn't rule out seeing him in coverage on the better receiving running backs much in the manner of a strong safety - his skill is that diverse.

So what should the Patriots' fans expect on day three of the draft, in which Belichick is armed with the fifth pick in the fourth round, the sixth pick in the fifth round, a couple of sixth round picks and the top seventh rounder?

Probably, a developmental quarterback, a decent linebacker prospect and perhaps even a receiver - but whatever happens, Patriots' fans should heed Dr. Thompson's quote above and be ready for weirdness, for which there is a reason why - we just understand it yet.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Belichick's Brilliance As Talent Evaluator On Display In Selecting Fellow Bulldogs In First Round

Talk about your all-time smokescreens...

Bill Belichick is rarely a guy who drafts for need, but he is a cat that enjoys toying with the mice in the media and in the fan base - not to mention keeping the other teams in the league guessing as to what direction he's headed in the draft.

That alone could explain why the Dark Master once again eschewed the conventional wisdom of draft experts and the millions of fans who generate mock drafts to bring value to the New England Patriots' roster - showing once again that he knows his team better than we do, and he has a different perspective on said value.
Patriots' picks Wynn and Michel were college roommates

Leading up to the draft, visits with Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson had just about everyone on the planet thinking Belichick had the exciting and elusive Jackson pegged as his quarterback of the future, but out of that smokescreen came a pair of teammates from the University of Georgia who had such good chemistry with each other that they were roommates for the past two years.

To that end, very few of the aforementioned draft experts had either offensive tackle Ike Wynn or running back Sony Michel as first round picks for the Patriots, yet upon closer examination of the two Georgia Bulldogs - and the requisite 20/20 hindsight - it becomes obvious why Belichick filled his first round grocery bag with them.

When eliminating the group think angle, the focus becomes an argument that both do fill needs. With the loss of left tackle Nate Solder to free agency, a need arose to replace him the best they could, and in drafting Wynn with the 23rd overall pick, the Patriots have given themselves some intriguing options in how to do just that.

Usually, when a kid Wynn's size is coming out of college and having played tackle at that level, he is projected as a guard in the pros - but Wynn is the exception to that rule, being described as a tackle in a guard's body - and what cannot be overlooked is the fact that as a tackle at Georgia and playing in the rough-and-tumble Southeastern Conference, he gained second-team All-American and first-team All-SEC honors as a senior.

Yet it is his versatility, coupled with the depth already on the Patriots roster, that still poses questions as to where the 6' 3", 315 pound self-described "Very lovable guy" will fit into the lineup - and he will fit into the lineup because he is too talented an athlete to have languishing on the bench.

At left tackle, New England already has last season's selection of Antonio Garcia yet to see any playing time and swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle already on the depth chart, though Garcia is a huge question mark for the 2018 season as he continues to work his way back from experiencing blood clots in his lungs - a malady that kept him off the field all of his rookie season...

...though perhaps Wynn is also an insurance policy against the slow development of left guard Joe Thuney, who was primarily responsible for much of the abuse that Quarterback Tom Brady suffered last season. Even with no professional experience on his resume, Wynn is a clear upgrade at that position - and also a viable replacement for contract year right Guard Shaq Mason, should the Patriots not be able to negotiate an extension for the rising star.

Belichick has also given us reason to think that he's reworking the offensive line, as on Friday he sent his third round pick to the San Francisco 49ers for road-grading behemoth Trent Brown, given the fact that right tackle is a bit of a question mark with former All-Pro Marcus Cannon missing most of last season with a bum ankle, not to mention that he will be 30 years old before camp starts.

Brown is just 25 years old and graded out as Pro Football Focus' fourth best pass protector on the right side last season before falling victim to a torn labrum and landing on the IR, barely missing out on the top spot, just percentage points behind the Steelers' Marcus Gilbert in pass blocking efficiency. In exchange, San Francisco also sent their fifth round selection to New England to sweeten the deal.

Considering all of that, it's no wonder Belichick placed such a premium on drafting the best lineman available for his scheme. Patriots' Director of Player Personnel Nick Casario stated after the first round on Thursday night that Wynn would be fully invested in the competition to replace Solder, but it doesn't take a genius to think that Wynn could be a star elsewhere along the line, given his power and nastiness.

But perhaps the most unforeseen position grab in the entire first round of the NFL draft was when Belichick stood firm at pick number 31 - when most assumed he would trade down for extra day 2 picks - and took Wynn's college roommate, running back Sony Michel.

There are two schools of thought on why Belichick selected Michel. First, he is a powerful and electric runner whom many have compared to either Alvin Kamara or Todd Gurley and second, he is a no-nonsense, north-south runner that is adept at identifying his cutback lanes working behind a zone blocking scheme.

While not as elusive as the man he's replacing as the team's "lead back", he possesses elite burst and acceleration through the hole and has the requisite balance and discipline to make a series of sharp cuts to free himself in the open field, as evidenced by his 3.44 yards average after initial contact, which is assuredly Lewis territory.

Though he has work to do in receiving out of the backfield - he had several drops in this first three seasons at Georgia before being virtually ignored in the pattern as a senior - he has the skill set to become a three down back due to excellent blitz pickup and blocking. And while he certainly will have an impact for the Patriots in the ground game, it goes to figure that veterans James White and Rex Burkhead will join with Michel to form what could be one of the better committee approaches in the game.

In fact, one of the more important factors that will come from Michel's presence is that both White's and Burkhead's roles should become more defined, with Burkhead a violent change of pace option to help wear down defenses, while White can be freed up to be used all over the formation as a dangerous receiving option.

So while drafting Michel should prove a boon to the Patriots backfield overall, it could spell the end for the seldom-used Mike Gillislee and pose a serious threat to the roster spot for free agent addition Jeremy Hill.

Another surprise that came out of Belichick's Thursday night's slight-of-hand act is that he didn't target any defenders, perhaps because he saw how the board was shaping up and found that much of the elite talent on that side of the ball were still going to be available when they selected in the second round.

If Belichick covets edge defenders to play in his three-plus-one front in the Big Nickel, the undersized-but-explosive Harold Landry from Boston College is still on the board., as is Georgia's Lorenzo Carter - even though the team is stacked with defensive linemen. If it's going to be a corner, there are several elite prospects on the board, with Iowa's Josh Jackson and Colorado's Isaiah Oliver the top of that group...

...and if he is looking to bolster his linebacking corps, Indiana's Tegray Scales is an instinctive "Mike" linebacker, while BYU's Fred Warner is a hybrid cover 'backer that could eventually take over the team's Big Nickel from incumbent Patrick Chung.

But don't count out the possibility that Belichick opts for more offense - and it's all but certain that he will select a quarterback of the future with one of his second round picks or with his third rounder - r he'll just say screw the entire thing and go completely off the board of conventional wisdom and blow up the middle rounds with deal after deal.

After all, with the smokescreen that Belichick fooled us all with on Thursday night, would any scenario be a surprise to anyone?

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Patriots' Draft Night: With the 31st Pick In The 2018 Draft, The Patriots Select Running Back Sony Michel

1. Cleveland Browns: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
2. New York Giants: Saquin Barkley, RB, Penn State
3. New York Jets: Sam Darnold, QB, USC
4. Cleveland Browns: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
5. Denver Broncos: Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State
6. Indianapolis Colts: Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
7. Buffalo Bills (From Tampa): Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
8. Chicago Bears: Roquon Smith, LB, Georgia
9. San Francisco 49ers: Mike McGlinchy, OT, Notre Dame
10. Arizona Cardinals (From Oakland): Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
11. Miami Dolphins: Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Vita Vea, DT, Washington
13. Washington Redskins: Da'Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
14. New Orleans Saints (From Green Bay): Marcus Davenport, DE, UTSA
15: Oakland Raiders: Kolton Miller, OT, UCLA
16. Buffalo Bills (From Baltimore): Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech
17. Los Angeles Chargers: Derwin James, S, Florida State
18. Green Bay Packers (From Seattle): Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville
19. Dallas Cowboys: Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
20. Detroit Lions: Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Billy Price, C, Ohio State
22. Tennessee Titans (From Baltimore): Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
23. New England Patriots: Isaiah Wynn, OT, Georgia 6' 3", 315 pounds 
24. Carolina Panthers: D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland
25. Baltimore Ravens: Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina
26. Atlanta Falcons: Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
27. Seattle Seahawks: Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State
28. Pittsburgh Steelers: Terrell Edmunds, S, Virginia Tech
29. Jacksonville Jaguars: Taven Bryan, DT, Florida
30. Minnesota Vikings: Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida
31: New England Patriots: Sony Michel 5' 11", 215lbs

Surprise selection in that New England has a bucket full of runners, and he has some issues catching balls cleanly, so he may be one-dimensional.

That said, he is a no-nonsense, north-south runner with a thick lower body to power through tackles, and does his best work in zone blocking schemes. Has outstanding burst after cuts and has the body discipline to make several cuts to maintain an optimal path. Sets up his blockers well and doesn't dawdle at the line, not a dancer.  Is excellent at blitz pick up.

He has the mentality of a lead back and finishes runs by punishing the tackler, and while he didn't catch a lot of balls and had some ball security issues at times, one can't help but be wow'd by his nearly eight yards per carry average at Georgia.

Not a lot of mileage on his tires as he worked mainly as part of a committee approach in college, so he has a very high ceiling. Bottom line is that the Patriots picked up the most explosive back outside of Saquon Barkley, and he should be a good addition to the Patriots' backfield.

Patriots' Draft Night: With The 23rd Pick, The New England Patriots Select Offensive Tackle Isaiah Wynn

1. Cleveland Browns: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
2. New York Giants: Saquin Barkley, RB, Penn State
3. New York Jets: Sam Darnold, QB, USC
4. Cleveland Browns: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
5. Denver Broncos: Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State
6. Indianapolis Colts: Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
7. Buffalo Bills (From Tampa): Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
8. Chicago Bears: Roquon Smith, LB, Georgia
9. San Francisco 49ers: Mike McGlinchy, OT, Notre Dame
10. Arizona Cardinals (From Oakland): Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
11. Miami Dolphins: Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Vita Vea, DT, Washington
13. Washington Redskins: Da'Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
14. New Orleans Saints (From Green Bay): Marcus Davenport, DE, UTSA
15: Oakland Raiders: Kolton Miller, OT, UCLA
16. Buffalo Bills (From Baltimore): Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech
17. Los Angeles Chargers: Derwin James, S, Florida State
18. Green Bay Packers (From Seattle): Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville
19. Dallas Cowboys: Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
20. Detroit Lions: Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Billy Price, C, Ohio State
22. Tennessee Titans (From Baltimore): Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
23: New England Patriots: Isaiah Wynn, OT, Georgia 6' 3", 315 pounds 

Projected as a guard, the Patriots announced him as an offensive tackle. Strong hands, wide base and
plus pass protection are his calling cards in a zone scheme. Perhaps the safest pick in the draft because he's an All American tackle who has played left guard, center and has tackle-like length, slide, and keeps his hands anchored inside.

As a tackle last season, he allowed just five quarterback pressures in 15 games, with no sacks, and is a monster in the running game - a natural zone scheme lead blocker who climbs to the second level easily and obliterates linebackers.

The Patriots just got tremendous value and a blind side protector who can play all over the line in an emergency.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Patriots' Mock Draft - Final: Belichick Takes Mulligan On 2017 Misses; Trades Down, Loads Up

For the New England Patriots, the 2017 team building process was a disaster - by their standards, anyway.

Instead of using their top draft capital on young greyhounds, they used it on bringing in established veteran players and missed the mark on so many of them that is there any way to look at their offseason plan and not feel that it was a wasted opportunity?
Oregon's Tyrell Crosby bench presses a running back

They sent their first round pick and one of their third round picks to New Orleans for wide receiver Brandon Cooks, their second round pick went to Carolina for defensive end Kony Ealy, their fourth round selection went to Indianapolis for tight end Dwayne Allen and they relinquished a fifth round pick to Buffalo for compensation in poaching running back Mike Gillislee in restricted free agency.

As a result, the Patriots ended up making just four selections in the draft, and only one of them, fourth round defensive end Deatrich Wise, made any impact at all. Cooks is gone, as is Ealy, while Allen and Gillislee play marginal roles with the team and may not survive this year's training camp - so even though Cooks logged a 1000 yard season and was traded away for a first round pick a few weeks ago, their investments returned minimal yield.

It wasn't all bad, however, as Belichick got his value from the undrafted free agent market, picking up linebacker Harvey Langi, Defensive tackle Adam Butler and tight end Jacob Hollister - but certainly he doesn't want to have to rely on finding gems in the market after the draft.

Most likely, the New England Patriots will be drafting mostly for defense at the top of Thursday night's draft - but their base concept dictates that they select a certain type of athlete.

The Big Nickel is a defensive alignment that has been deployed in Foxborough as the Patriots' base defense going on three seasons now - and while statistically mediocre in practice, it affords the unit the ability to rotate players in and out of the front seven to keep the bigger guys fresh throughout the game, while the lithe athletes on the back end hold the fort.

The alignment calls for three safeties, two cornerbacks, three linebackers and three down linemen, but it deployed in such a way that it resembles a standard 4-3 defense.

On the front end, two tackles and a defensive end line up offset, favoring the weak side of the offensive set, which leaves a gap on the strong side for a linebacker to wreak havoc from the edge as a pass rusher and as an edge setter. This part of the formation is known as a three-plus-one subset developed in New York by - you guessed it - Bill Belichick when he was the defensive coordinator for the Giants in the 1980's...

...designed to engage the talents of a linebacker named Lawrence Taylor, who developed into an intimidating force on Bill Parcells' championship teams. In the modern day, that position was supposed to be for rookie pass rusher Derek Rivers to ease into while being mentored by veteran strong side linebacker Shea McClellan, but injuries to both in training camp and the subsequent loss of rookie Harvey Langi to an off field traffic accident left the position desperately void.

The situation was compounded when team captain Dont'a Hightower ruptured a pectoral muscle early in the season, leaving only Kyle Van Noy as the only established linebacker on the second level and prompting Belichick to initially sign Cassius Marsh away from Seattle, then poach Eric Lee off of the Buffalo Bills' practice squad and eventually pluck James Harrison off the waiver wire from Pittsburgh late in the season.

All three had their moments, but Lee is the only one still left on the roster from that group.

Rivers is expected back, as are Langi and Hightower, who will join Van Noy to form a decent, yet medically vulnerable linebacking corps, so finding trustworthy help on the second level should be top priority for the Patriots in the draft.

In all fairness, having the proper personnel to man the Big Nickle on the back end made it possible for New England to advance to their eighth Super Bowl of the Belichick era despite the avalanche of injuries, as both free safety Devin McCourty and strong safety Patrick Chung frequently reduced down onto the second level to assume slot and linebacker duties to fill the void left by injury, while elite centerfielder Duron Harmon kept the blue line clean.

Chung is a tough customer, but will turn 31 years old in training camp, while McCourty will be the same six days earlier, making them greybeards in football terms - and while Chung recently signed a team-friendly contract extension, McCourty is going to cost the team $12 million in cap space this season and $14 million in 2019. Harmon signed an extension last offseason and has an affordable cap number for the foreseeable future...

...meaning that Belichick will probably be looking for player to develop behind Chung and McCourty as well.

On the other side of the ball, The only real question is at left tackle, after Solder departed for greener pastures - and while the team did re-sign veteran swing man LaAdrian Waddle and still have yet to see 2017 draft pick Antonio Garcia on the field, the depth in the 2018 draft is decent, so expect Belichick to increase his own depth by selecting a ready-to-play tackle.

1st round (23rd/23rd overall)

Leighton Vander Esch, ILB, Boise State (6' 4", 255)

A do-it all interior linebacker, Vander Esch is as athletically gifted as any interior linebacker playing today, but with the length and instincts to become an every down force. In the running game, his core strength belies his size and length and in the passing game is a condor in the middle zone, forcing quarterbacks eyes to the perimeter.

His presence in the middle would allow for Belichick to vary his schemes from game-to-game and even play-to-play, and would also allow for Hightower to play more weak side in traditional sets and would take a lot of heat off of Van Noy, and allow him to concentrate on being the strong side force he was in college.

If Vander Esch is plucked off the board before the Patriots select, there is always Alabama's Rashaan Evans or they can dip into the late second round for Indiana's Tegray Scales - but make no mistake, Vander Esch is the complete package.

Alternate pick: Rashaan Evans, OLB, Alabama

2nd round (9th/41st overall) - from Oakland

Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida (5' 11", 195)

In this scenario, the Patriots trade their 31st overall pick to the Oakland Raiders, who have needs for an impact linebacker, cornerback and offensive guard.

NFL ready press corner with the instincts, footwork and ball skills to play zone and off-man, with an added bonus of possessing elite kick and punt return skill.

Punks receivers off the line in press coverage, looking to completely disrupt  their routes and take them out of the play, and plays like a safety in zone coverages, keeping his man in front of him and breaking on the ball with outstanding anticipation, often able to knock the ball away upon impact. He sniffs out screens and arrives with a pop in run support despite his lack of size.

Is considered a "projection-based" prospect because of some off field issues that ruined his freshman season and forced him to transfer from North Carolina to a junior college, where he earned All American honors and an invite to Central Florida, where he played just one year before declaring for the draft - but in his time with the Knights, he earned first-team All American Athletic Conference honors as a corner, and second-team honors as a kick returner.

Alternate pick: Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado

2nd round (11th/43rd overall)

Luke Falk, QB, Washington State (6' 4", 225)

A Brady disciple, Falk is the prototypical Patriots' pocket passer with the size to see over the big uglies up front and excellent lateral mobility and pocket awareness to slide out of danger.

Like the recently departed Jimmy Garoppolo, Falk's eyes are tied to his feet, which is evident in film study as he goes through his entire progression, moving his feet and keeping his arm cocked and ready to fire. Though some question his arm strength, his skill set allows him to throw against man coverage outside the numbers with plenty of zip.

He does have a bit of Jacoby Brissett in him as well, as he tends to throw off his back foot to try to avoid the sack - sometimes into tight coverage, but overall he is a solid prospect, and the fact that he tries to emulate Brady in his game doesn't hurt.

Alternate Pick: Logan Woodside, QB, Toledo

2nd round (31st/63rd overall)

Tyrell Crosby, OT, Oregon (6' 6", 325)

With Antonio Garcia waiting in the wings with a health status that needs continuous monitoring, the Patriots aren't likely to spend top draft capital on a blindside tackle - and why should they when Crosby is projected to be available in the fourth round?

Elected to stay in school rather than enter the draft in 2017 since his 2016 season was a washout due to injury, and moved from right tackle to the left, where he earned the Morris Trophy for being named the Pac-12 Lineman of the Year as voted on by opposing defensive linemen, allowing just three quarterback hurries and yielding no sacks for the entire season.

There are those who still feel that Crosby should anchor the right side - and would be excellent insurance in the event Marcus Cannon doesn't respond coming off of the IR - but he is athletic enough to play either tackle position.

Alternate pick: Chukwuma Okarafor, OT, Western Michigan

3rd round (31st/95th overall)

Jaylen Samuels, RB, North Carolina State (6' 0", 235)

A "utility player" who can do it all on offense. He is listed as a tight end in your NC State programs, but he is really a running back with elite receiving skill. The Wolfpack used him out of the backfield, as an off-the-line tight end and a slot receiver.

So good is he in the pattern that he broke Jerricho Cotchery's school record for receptions and yardage and took over goal line back duties as a senior - a touchdown machine, "JaySam" scored 28 rushing touchdowns and 19 receiving touchdowns in his career, and also served as a kick returner as a senior.

Given all of that, Samuels would be a perfect replacement for the production of Dion Lewis.

Alternate pick: Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

4th round (10th/110th overall) - from Oakland

Fred Warner, LB/SS, Brigham Young (6' 3", 235)

Warner is a tweener - a coverage linebacker in college but perhaps a big-time strong safety in the pros, and in New England's Big Nickel alignment. In Foxborough, there isn't any difference between the two. Drafting Warner would pay dividends in two ways. First, he is a big, fast sideline-to-sideline entity who is fast enough to stick with backs in the pattern and big enough to avoid being punked by tight ends...

...while at the same time developing under the tutelage of Patrick Chung, who is aging and comes out of the game with injury more than he used to, but still has some pop to his game.

Alternate pick: Marcus Allen, SS, Penn State

6th round (24th/198th overall)

Tyler Conklin, TE, Central Michigan (6' 4", 240)

Conklin had a down year in 2017, statistically, due to a fracture in his foot in camp, but at 6' 3" tall and 245 pounds and with vice-like hands, he should be in the mix as a "move" tight end despite running poorly at the combine. He caught 35 balls for 504 yards in eight games and scored five times as a senior. Central Michigan had all kinds of quarterbacking problems in the past couple of seasons, but a look at his 2016 tape shows his potential.

A decent trap blocker on the edge in the running game makes him more draftable than some of the higher rated prospects, but he needs to learn how to use his body to shield defenders from the ball as a receiver, as he will allow linebackers and safeties to get inside to get a hand on the ball - which is all coaching - but once he gets his hands on a ball, chances are very good that he will haul it in.

Because of his broken foot last season, teams will be pressed to evaluate his durability.

6th round (36th/210th overall)

Braden Smith, G, Auburn (6' 6", 305)

Built like a Mack Truck and knows how to use his frame. If selected, could push Joe Thuney for playing time coming out of camp. Nasty mauler in the running game who has spot duty potential at either tackle position, and potential as a sixth offensive lineman to knock would-be tacklers off their pegs on perimeter runs. A one-man street fight in pass pro, which makes up for some of his lack of reactive athleticism.

7th round (1st/219th overall)

Braxton Berrios, WR, Miami (5' 9", 186)

A Danny Amendola clone with requisite toughness and punt return ability makes him well worth the draft capital, and could surprise with a roster spot, usurping a veteran.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Belichick Has Leverage, Many Options In Dealing With Gronkowski

Is Rob Gronkowski's time in New England coming to an end?

It's a rhetorical question, of course, because everyone has their own opinion on the matter - but what is there to make of his uber-childish behavior of late, almost as if he is daring the Patriots to trade him? And considering that the truth of the matter is that at this point, neither the pros nor the cons outweigh each other when it comes shipping him off to become someone else's issue?

The pros? Gronkowski will be twenty-nine years old next month and already has eight years of wear and tear on his scar-laced body - not to mention that the Patriots are probably tiring of his entitled, look-at-me attention grab. The cons? He is easily the best and most complete tight end in the league and is a game-changer.

Case in point: In games this past season when the Patriots were slow out of the gate and recorded sluggish first halfs, the adjustment at halftime always seemed to be finding ways to get the ball to Gronkowski, who would literally carry the offense on his back for entire drives.

In other words, when all seems lost because nothing else is working, the Patriots flip the Gronk switch.

He knows how valuable he is, and we all know what a loony, fun-loving guy he is - and Patriots' fans have appreciated the marriage of the two for as long as he's been in Foxborough. We gasp in marvel when he drags defenders down the field, we hold our breath every time he hits the turf for fear he won't get back up. We delight in his touchdown celebrations and subsequent "Earthquake" spikes that bound into the air higher than a Ryan Allen punt...

...there really hasn't been any occasion for Patriots' fans to be anything other than adoring of the happy-go-lucky man-child, until his demeanor turned to petulance, and now fans are turning on him in droves.

Admittedly, fans should be a little more patient with his immoderate act this offseason, but we have never seen this side of Gronkowski, the side that seems to scream entitlement during a period in the nation's history when it seems everyone feels entitled to something.

Politics aside - or perhaps on center stage, depending on your level of involvement and/or hysteria - it seems time to place a value on Gronkowski, as it pertains to his past performance and future expectations as gauged against the potential draft capital he could bring to the team if dealt away.

To that end, many are commenting on social media that the Patriots should expect a high first-round draft pick if they put Gronkowski up for bid, but given that he's tormented the Patriots with ambiguity and talk of retirement - not to mention his lengthy list of medical issues - the expectations of the fan base should be tempered a bit...

...while also remembering that Belichick's wheelhouse where he finds he best values is on the second day of the draft, so asking for multiple second day draft picks is sure to empower Belichick and make more willing whomever bids on Gronkowski to actually pull the trigger.

Madness, all of it - but not so far outside the realm of possibility that it can't be discussed with some decorum among polite people

That said, and assuming Belcihick has tired of Gronk's spoiled sophomoric antics, there are numerous teams that would be willing to trim their day two draft capital in order to obtain such game-changing talent. The Cleveland Browns own two first round picks and three second rounders, so one could envision them swapping one of the second rounders (Probably number sixty-four overall) and a fourth - and there's also the Indianapolis Colts who could easily let go of one of the their seconds and their third rounder for such a talent...

...or the Dallas Cowboys could be in the market with Jason Whitten nearing the end - but for the purposes of this tome we shall envision Bill Belichick making a deal with the San Francisco 49ers to send Gronkowski to be reunited with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, for whom the 'Niners sent a metaphoric bag of peanuts to New England at last season's trade deadline, so they may be willing to let go of a little more in compensation.

However, it is unlikely that the 49ers would part with their first round draft pick, number nine overall, so in our scenario, the Patriots could receive the 'Niners 2nd round pick (59th overall) and both of their third round picks (70th and 74th overall), which would give New England an unprecedented number of picks in the top 100, as detailed below:

1st round, 23rd overall (From Los Angeles Rams in Cooks trade)
1st round, 31st overall
2nd round, 43rd overall (From San Francisco in Garoppolo trade)
2nd round, 59th overall (Proposed Gronk trade)
2nd round, 63rd overall
3rd round, 70th overall (Proposed Gronk trade)
3rd round, 74th overall (Proposed Gronk trade)
3rd round, 95th overall

Of course, all of that assuming that Belichick is looking to deal Gronkowski at all - but the Dark Master cannot be happy with the All Pro's constant jabs. But instead of dealing him, he could make Gronkowski honor his contract or risk having the league become involved in a nasty settlement that would involve signing bonuses and guaranteed money.

Another scenario could see Belichick renegotiating his contract to give Gronkowski a significant raise for 2018, gambling on his health and attitude and putting off moving him until the start of the 2019 league year., which makes sense financially, as dealing him next offseason would net the Patriots $8 million in cap relief where dealing him this offseason would gain them just $2.5 million, yet with Gronkowski turning thirty years old before camp opens, it may affect his trade value on the market.

But waiting a year is a gamble with his injury history and recent attitude, and New England could end up with nothing.

That brings up the possibility of a trade deadline deal, but there are so many variables that have to be factored in with such a scenario - such as teams being tight end-needy, be it due to injury or simply needing that one player to put them over the top down the stretch, and if the Patriots are right in the middle of another title run themselves - that it would be foolish to even consider them at present.

In the end, New England is better off with a happy and motivated Gronkowski on their roster, but it also must be remembered that the Patriots won seven division titles, went to five AFC Championship games and four Super Bowls - winning three - in the first decade of Belichick's reign before Gronkowski came on scene - doing so with stout defenses and brutish running games...

...and won a Super Bowl in 2016 with him sidelined for the season. though they have been to the AFC Championship game every season he has been in Foxborough except his rookie year, and have advanced to the Super Bowl a total of four times in his eight seasons on the roster.

The point being that as long as Belichick is haunting the sidelines, the Patriots will find ways to win football games no matter the personnel, and are absolutely stacked with pass catchers, have the greatest quarterback of all time throwing to them, and are backed up by an intriguing committee of running backs, so it's not like there is nothing for Belichick to work with if Gronkowski ends up leaving.

Because, this is Bill Belichick's team, his design, his scheme, his way - and if that has Gronkowski down in the dumps, Belichick is not without options...