Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 8: "Dog Faces" Give the Patriots' Secondary It's Flare

Patriots' safety Duron Harmon stops to admire the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl 51

The New England Patriots have so many premium draft picks on their defensive depth chart that they could field a starting lineup made entirely of first and second round draft picks.

No matter what traditional base alignment they play in, there is plenty of draft royalty to man the positions - why just take a look at what the lineup could look like in a 3-4:

Left Defensive End - Kony Ealy (2nd round 2014 by Carolina )
Nose Tackle - Malcom Brown (1st round 2015)
Right Defensive End - Alan Branch (2nd round 2007 by Arizona)
Weakside Linebacker - Kyle Van Noy (2nd round 2014 by Detroit)
Weakside Inside Linebacker - Dont'a Hightower(1st round 2012)
Middle Linebacker - David Harris (2nd round 2007 by New York Jets)
Strongside Linebacker - Shea McClellin (1st round 2012 by Chicago)
Right Cornerback - Eric Rowe (2nd round 2015 by Philadelphia)
Left Cornerback - Stephon Gilmore (1st round 2012 by Buffalo)
Free Safety - Devin McCourty (1st round 2010)
Strong Safety - Patrick Chung (2nd round 2009)

They could use this lineup, but they won't - for no other reason than they are a much better team when their "Devil Dogs" are on the field - their blue-collar, toiling in the trenches and anything-but-pretty working stiffs - because head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick really doesn't care in what round a player was drafted, doesn't care how much a player makes in salary.

None of that makes any difference on the field. The only thing that does matter is how well a player does his job, and while all of the aforementioned royalty have all had their highlight reel production and individual accolades, there are other players on the team - the Devil Dogs, the Dog Faces, the big ugly collection of irrelevants - who were considered reaches by some draft experts and outright garbage by others that make the ultimate difference.

Which makes no nevermind to Belichick, as he considers draft experts on the same level as beat writers: a complete waste of his time. Belichick has his own formula for grading potential draftees, and has instructed his scouting department to not give players grades on projected rounds, but instead based on a five-tier system of potential.

The criterion is simple.  Belichick wants his scouts to grade players based on how they would fare under his philosophies, placing them in a linear progression of "starters", "potential starters", "developmental players", "backups" and "players who wouldn't make it on any NFL roster." - which precludes status, popularity and any other superficial label that could be applied.

For example, the team's best pass rusher is 2015 fourth-round selection Trey Flowers. Their most consistent defender over the past decade has been former fifth-round pick Rob Ninkovich while rotational nose tackle and 2016 third-round pick Vincent Valentine saw significant snaps late last season and was a force in the running game...

...but it is in the secondary where the "dog faces" make the most impact on defense, as former third-round safety Duron Harmon and undrafted cornerback Malcolm Butler make their bones as two of the best in the game at what they do.

Unless you are one of the people who have been living under large rocks for the past few years, you already know of Butler's heroics in Super Bowl 49 and his corresponding meteoric rise to the top of the NFL's cornerback ladder - this is where I question my own usage of the term "meteoric rise", as meteors tend to fall, not rise, but I am a slave to commonly used metaphors - but not many are truly aware of Harmon's contribution to two championship teams.

Pro Football Focus published some interesting numbers in regard to the Patriots' secondary, a unit that they graded out to be the third-best in the National Football League at the end of last season, and while they've added a very sturdy piece to their cornerback kennel in former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore, it is the steadiness of the safety corps that they opine is what makes this secondary.

And, of course, we know this because the Patriots were said to be in their nickle or dime defensive alignments on 80% of their snaps in 2016, with an extra safety in on the action the majority of that time - so is it any wonder that the Patriots ponied up a four-year, $20 million contract to keep their all-important nickel safety, Duron Harmon, in Foxborough for the immediate future?

Harmon is that rare blue-liner that has the size (6' 1", 210 pounds) and speed (4.41 at Rutgers' pro day), plus the requisite lateral agility to play the single high safety role well enough that it allows New England's defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to use free safety Devin McCourty as a coverage chess piece and strong safety Patrick Chung as an impromptu weak side linebacker without losing anything on the back end.

There is not another team in the National Football League that features such capability in their secondary and, as such, the versatility of what is known as the Big Nickel defense - that is, a nickle or dime alignment that features three safeties - is often overlooked when assessing the talent level of a coverage unit, but the talent of the Patriots' safety corps has not eluded the folks at Pro Football Focus.

The one weakness that the report identified in the secondary was the lack of a true nickel cornerback, which was offset by Harmon playing deep and McCourty - a former cornerback with elite speed and an All Pro selection at both corner and safety on his resume - moved around in coverages, often taking the double slot in a spread formation much like a nickel corner would.

But the Patriots appear to have strengthened their cornerback positions by adding former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore in free agency, who joins Pro Bowl talent Malcolm Butler and ascending star Eric Rowe to form an imposing corps - and with Rowe being a former college safety with like-attributes as Harmon, it gives Patricia many, many options in coverage.

Rowe and Gilmore come as like-sized boundary corners who will most likely fixate on the larger outside receivers, while Butler, who has proven his mettle both outside and in, figures as a chess piece that will be moved around to take advantage of mismatches.

With Gilmore on board and with Rowe ascending as a legitimate corner (see his coverage on Julio Jones in the Super Bowl for an example), teams that employ bigger wideouts to create those mismatches really don't apply against New England as they are well above the curve - again - when it comes to neutralizing a competitor's advantage.

Add to that the aforementioned coverage skill of McCourty and Chung's ability on tight ends, there's not much that's going to get by the Patriots' secondary.

That said, depth is going to be more a matter of who Belichick and Patricia see as having the most developmental upside, because with Butler's contract expiring at the end of the season and with Chung and Rowe scheduled for free agency the following offseason, the Patriots are in good shape to bring along potential replacements.

Actually, Belichick drafted Jordan Richards out of Stanford to develop into a Chung replacement, but he's been a disappointment in a backup role, and no Patriots' fan can hear the name Cyrus Jones without cringing and then falling into a drooling, blank-staring stupor in recalling his struggles in the role as a punt returner last season...

...the fact of which has many forgetting that he was a shutdown corner at Alabama, and never really got a chance to showcase that potential as a rookie as his fumbling issues on punt returns sapped him of so much confidence that Belichick didn't even bother dressing him for the final six games of the regular season, nor for the playoffs.

Jones has always bounced back from disappointment in his football career and has the talent to do so again, and don't expect Belichick to throw the towel in on him after just one season, especially as a second round draft pick.  But while Jones looks to improve on his disastrous rookie season, the jury has spoken in Richards' case, and he may well get the axe as a former second rounder who didn't make much improvement from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign.

Like Jones, Richards looked like a bust from the very start - but unlike Jones, Richards doesn't have the speed nor the instincts to play the strong safety role in New England, as his lumbering style is more scripted for an inside linebacker role, but he just doesn't have the size.  His roster spot is in serious jeopardy, especially given the two undrafted free agents that Belichick signed immediately after the draft.

Richmond's David Jones is a Harmon clone with sideline-to-sideline lateral agility and speed and the ballhawking skills that would make him a fine centerfielder, but has durability concerns and a left forearm that has been the bane of his football existence - this combined with the fact that Harmon was just re-signed, it makes sense that Jones find his way to the practice squad, or even to the PUP where he could allow his forearm to adequately heal while being coached up on the Big Nickel...

...while Minnesota's Damarius Travis is ready to contribute immediately.  At 6' 1" and 212 pounds, Travis is a pure box safety that can handle tight ends across the formation and in tight quarters and is a violent striker in run support.  Where he gets into trouble, as does Chung, is when a tight end takes him up the seam in single coverage - which really isn't an issue with Harmon stalking the blue line.

That leaves only the special teams players that populate the rest of the secondary depth charts, as safeties Nate Ebner and Brandon King and slot corner Jonathan Jones are ace standouts.  Ebner has been a fixture for five seasons and King for two, as the speedster from Auburn also doubles as an emergency "Dime" safety in prevent formations.

Jones also played at Auburn and is a speed merchant like King, but has tremendous ball skills and plays much bigger than his 5' 9" stature would suggest, and has the inside track for the fifth corner spot.

All told, the Patriots may just have the best secondary in the National Football League - surely the most diversely talented - and as we've witnessed for the past couple of seasons, that should be enough.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Contemplating Tom Brady's Future

So Lebron James says that Tom Brady isn't a great athlete...

And he's right.  He's right.  Brady has all the elusiveness of a pine tree and the speed of a garden slug, so apparently one doesn't have to be a great athlete to play quarterback in the National Football League. If we are to judge athletic prowess for the position based solely on Brady, the criteria would have to be based on arm strength, toughness and intelligence - because that's all Tom Brady has going for him.

Which is quite enough in the New England Patriots' system, and for football in general.

However, James based his opinion on the fact that football players generally play one just one side of the ball. They don't have to worry about scoring on one end and then having to defend on the other end which, when put in the proper context, means that he doesn't think any football player is a great athlete.

But where James has missed the boat is when he says that Brady affects just one side of the ball, and even then only when he throws the ball - when in actuality, quarterbacks have the capacity to control a football game in all three disciplines, and they do this by playing the field position game-within-a-game, and by controlling the clock - and while it is true that Brady doesn't play defense, it is equally true that he is the best there is at putting his defensive teammates in position to have the best chance at being successful.

Super Bowl 51 is a perfect example of how quarterbacks affect their own defense and special teams in addition to the offense.

Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan may have been the National Football League's Most Valuable Player in 2016, but more than anything else, he won the award based purely on numbers, which also means that the MVP award is a joke, because the definition of what the NFL MVP embodies is that he is the player who is most valuable to his team.

The Falcons' offense is flashy and their natural philosophy is to be aggressive and to score quickly, putting up huge numbers and making fantasy owners champions in their leagues - but on the field where the outcome actually counts, big numbers and flashy playbooks only get one so far, and most times gets their team in trouble more times than not.

Ryan is athletically superior to Brady when it comes to natural ability, but when that game was on the line - when the world championship was on the line - Brady's will and determination carried his team while Ryan couldn't compensate for his team's sudden collapse with the prize practically in their hands.

Having the ability to be aggressive and to score quickly is fine for coming back from a deficit late in a game - which Brady and his Patriots obviously possess - but it otherwise stinks for both a defense and special teams.  For example, the Falcons ranked 26th out of 32 teams in plays per game, and were in the bottom half of the league in time of possession.  They were dead last in number of third downs faced per contest while converting barely a third of their chances.

This adds up to putting a lot of pressure on a defense, as they rarely received adequate time on the sidelines for proper rest, as the Falcons were either feast-or-famine in nature, playing long ball and ranking tops in the league in yards per pass attempt by a wide margin - and when the Falcons offense was in a tight spot, Ryan engineered exactly one comeback and two game-winning drives during their 11-5 season.

Conversely, Brady won the Super Bowl MVP simply by being being able to call upon his superior football acumen, which in football - and particularly at quarterback - is akin to the superior physical athleticism required in many other sports, but with a cool, sniper-like calmness normally found only in professional golfers...

...who, by the way, don't necessarily have to be tremendous athletes, either, they just have to possess nerves of steel and display pin-point accuracy, all while being watched by thousands of spectators under the suffocating blanket of deadly silence. But golfers don't have 270 pound linebackers bearing down on their position - and neither do basketball players, for that matter, and it would be interesting to see James drive the lane knowing that he was going to get belted and driven into the ground.

So collectively, as we've identified, football players don't even rank in the top three of professional athletes when it comes to sheer athleticism.  Basketball players are far better athletes, while soccer players are even better and hockey players are even better still - but to compare athletic superiority from one sport to another is pointless, as football is as similar to basketball as apples are to oranges.

When someone states that Brady is the best athlete in the world, contextually speaking, those people are most likely talking about championships won and sheer intimidating presence, the innate ability to make ordinary players around him better and to put a team on his back when the chips are down and the lights are brightest, no one else in football comes close...

...and neither does Lebron James, for that matter, who has been to the finals in eight of his fourteen seasons, and sports a record of 3-5, while Brady has been to the Super Bowl seven times in his fifteen years as a starting quarterback, and can boast a 5-2 record while playing with a supporting cast that he makes better just by being on the field.

In that respect, Brady is the best athlete that ever played professional football, and it really doesn't matter what anyone else says.

But for how much longer?  As we saw last season and particularly in the first half of the Super Bowl, teams can scheme to neutralize Brady for a time, but rare is the instance where we've seen a defense able to contain him for an entire game, and he remains the most lethal and heartless sniper in sports, as we all saw in the second half of the Super Bowl.

Like it or not, Brady was horrible in the first forty minutes of Super Bowl 51, as the three things that can make Brady look human - pressure up the middle, his receivers being punked at the line of scrimmage and zone coverages - the Falcons were able to employ, but just as bad as he was in that span, he was equally terrific in the final twenty minutes of that game... good, in fact, that when the coin toss for overtime went in the Patriots' favor, even the most ardent Brady detractor admitted that the Falcons were toast, or as Atlanta receiver Taylor Gabriel told an over-confident Mohamed Sanu on the sidelines while Brady was struggling in the first half, "It's Tom Brady, though."

Gabriel knew all too well, and so should have Sanu, as they had both faced - and lost to - Brady in the recent past.

One could make an argument that Brady's occasional struggles are a symptom of his impending decline, but if that were the case, the same could have been said after losing to the Giants in Super Bowls 42 and 46, and after the 2015 AFC Championship game, all of which were not considered Brady's finest hours.

But what has to be remembered is that Brady is human and is just as susceptible to age and injury as anyone else, and that the Patriots, for all of their excellence in game-planning, are still vulnerable to the trappings of talented opposing coaching staffs with the benefit of having 17 years worth of film from which to plot against the man that is universally known as the Greatest of all Time.

To combat those things, the Patriots' roster is constantly evolving with trends and the times.

Many feel that the Patriots have been loading up on talent in order to take advantage of the time that Brady has left, but what the influx of talent is really all about is preserving Brady so that the diminishing of his skill set will not be as sudden and pronounced as those of other quarterbacks who attempted to play beyond their physical capabilities.

The most recent example of this phenomenon is how the Denver Broncos were able to win a Super Bowl a scant two seasons past despite having a clearly washed up Peyton Manning at quarterback.  The Broncos sat Manning for the second half of the season under the guise of him suffering from a severe case of Plantar Fasicitis, with Brock Osweiller leading the offense during that span.

For Manning, the move was clearly a health-preserving measure mixed with a gloomy forecast on the horizon for the Broncos offensively, who were averaging barely 20 points per game with Manning throwing wounded ducks and taking a beating in the pocket - relying on their top-ranked defense to keep the score close and their running game to carry the load.

And it worked, particularly against New England as Brady took the beating of his life behind a patchwork line in front of him and no running backs to take the load off behind him. Yet, behind by eight points and with ten minutes to play in the game, Brady put his crippled offense on his back and drove the Patriots 63 yards in six plays down to the Broncos' 17 yard line where the drive stalled on downs.

Twice more Brady drove his offense down the field in that fourth quarter, turning the ball over on downs one more time before finally scoring a touchdown on the final drive, only to be stoned by the Denver defense on what would have been a game-tying two-point try - only curious play calling keeping the Patriots from consecutive trips to the Super Bowl.

That has been Brady's M.O. since the 2014 playoffs, as Brady rebounded from horrible starts in games against the Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks to win his fourth Lombardi Trophy, then the almost-burger in the aforementioned AFC title game in 2015, and including last February's Super Bowl against Atlanta where he led the most epic comeback in NFL history to win his fifth trophy.

Point being is that Brady is showing his age.  Now, instead of running around with his teeth on fire for sixty minutes like he did in his youth, he takes a more mature and responsible approach to the game.  He knows, as does every player in the NFL that no matter how poorly he plays in a game, if given the opportunity to make amends, he tends to do just that, and more.

He still has the arm, as his thrilling display against the Falcons will attest, and he certainly has the brains and experiences to know how and when to use particular tools in his skill set, and he most assuredly enjoys ripping the hearts out of his foe - but the real test will come when he can't put the team on his back and pull out the tough game.

Has he reached that point yet?  Hardly, and it's laughable to even suggest such a thing, but it's coming and you can bet that Brady and Bill Belichick will never let it reach the embarrassing level that Manning did.

The competitive fire that will always burn inside Tom Brady will someday just not be enough. His dedication as a family man may turn him into a civilian before that point comes, as his wife has made very clear her desire for Brady to hang up his cleats - so enjoy him while he's around.

Too often, we as fans tend to take success for granted, as we have been fortunate enough to watch Brady play for the better part of two decades, taking over a doormat of a franchise and willing it to seven conference championships and five world titles.  Let that sink in, and let the game slow down for you - watch Brady work the pocket, never taking his eyes off of his five in the pattern, his snap release generating plenty of heat on the way to it's target.

Appreciate Tom Brady while you still have him, because it's not going to be much longer that he'll be taking snaps.  Don't be angry or sad when he retires, because the man has done his job better than anyone ever has, and has earned his rest.

Besides, he's not a great athlete anyway.  Right, Lebron?

Friday, June 30, 2017

Bolder Predictions: A Baker's Dozen Of Patriots' Prognostications

Making bold predictions is not my thing.

Though when asked by a co-worker about the Patriots' chances at making the playoffs in 2001, I said that they would win 11 games and win the Super Bowl.  Of course, I was just trying to get the guy away from me, but I tend to do my best work when faced with a little adversity.

I haven't been right on too many things since - going 0-15 in predicting head ball coach Bill Belichick's top draft choice each season until I pulled off the Derek Rivers prediction a couple of months back - so anything I predict shouldn't be taken too seriously - or should it?
Gronkowski and MVP candidate?

Despite my flaws in predicting draft picks, my success rate increases exponentially when it comes to what the roster will look like once camp breaks, and that's what this is all about.

Some of the following predictions are bold, some are weak, some are lame and some are moronic, but I believe my logic is sound, and as Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame was fond of saying, logic is but the beginning of wisdom.  Does that mean these conclusions make me wise?  Hardly, but let's wait until the season concludes before we tackle that question...

1. Rob Ninkovich and Jordan Richards will be released

It's a numbers game for Ninkovich, and just a miscue on Richards.  Anyone who was actually paying attention when the Falcons scored 21 points on the Patriots' defense in Super Bowl 51 would have had to notice that Ninkovich was in coverage on the scoring player in two of those instances, and was badly overmatched. Coincidence that the Falcons were so much faster on offense than the Patriots were on defense?  Perhaps, but the greybeard warrior was badly beaten on both scores and has worn down to where he could now be a liability...

...while Richards was simply a bad reach for a team that was seeking an eventual successor to Patrick Chung at strong safety - which brings us to our next prediction:

2. Belichick will keep at least one undrafted safety

New England values safeties more than most teams, as they wouldn't be able to run their three-safety, Big Nickel alignment without at least three starting quality blue liners.  Despite the amendment to Chung's contract in which he can earn an additional $900k in incentives, the team is almost in desperation mode to find his eventual replacement, and there is at least one undrafted player who would be a perfect developmental fit.

Former Minnesota Gopher Damarius Travis is a pure box safety with the size (6' 2", 215) to contribute in run defense and the cover skills to handle tight ends underneath while Richmond's David Jones is a virtual Duron Harmon clone with the sideline-to-sideline lateral movement and impressive ball skills to develop into a quality ball hawk.  Look for Travis to make the roster with Jones stashed away on the practice squad.

3. Patriots' defense will morph into a 3-4 base front

Of course, the nickel is the Patriots' primary alignment as they are in either a standard or Big Nickel look on three-quarters of their defensive snaps, but if one were to label them in a conventional base, the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 alignment is what they have the personnel to run. Belichick was busy this offseason collecting defensive linemen whose skill set translates to five-technique defensive ends, and combined with the sheer number of versatile linebackers on the roster, it all translates to three-man fronts.

New England drafted Arkansas defensive end Deatrich Wise and brought in five-tech ends Lawrence Guy from Baltimore and Kony Ealy from Carolina to team with incumbents Alan Branch, Woodrow Hamilton and rising star Trey Flowers - and have a solid base at nose tackle with a rotation of Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine.  The linebackers will be supplemented in their rotation with box safeties and they drafted Youngstown State's Derek Rivers to be worked into a strong-side linebacker spot formerly held by Jamie Collins.

4. Patriots offensive line will become a top five unit

If there is a concern on the roster, it is the lack of depth on the interior of the Patriots' offensive line - but given health, the starters are young fire-pissers who should solidify the line for a good length of time, as Shaq Mason is a dominating run blocker who pairs with All Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon to present a formidable strong side presence, David Andrews has evolved into one of the better centers in the league and Joe Thuney should make the requisite second-year jump after an up-and-down year at left guard.

The only real question mark is at left tackle, where Nate Solder has had some injury concerns in the past, and will probably preclude him from signing a long-term contract with the team going forward - which is why Belichick drafted Troy's Antonio Garcia and UCLA's Conor McDermott, and which brings us to...

5. Garcia will assume swing tackle role, Fleming and Waddle will be cut

Garcia is the long-term solution at left tackle but will see most of his action this season as a swing tackle, which means that Cam Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle will be out of a job come September, particularly if McDermott turns out to be more than what his draft profile suggests.

Both were quality blind side protectors in college and have basketball backgrounds - but Garcia is the nasty, play-through-the-whistle type with a fluid kick slide that line coaches dream about, and he should be ready to take over for Solder in 2018 while contributing as a sixth offensive lineman this season.  McDermott is a force as a pulling wham blocker in the running game but doesn't (yet) have the transitional skill nor muscular base to hold up in the trenches as a pro, but has a vicious cut block that will serve him well as a swing tackle both this season and next.

6. Belichick will trade, release or otherwise move Jacoby Brissett

Is one little roster spot that important to the Patriots?  Given the volume of talent on both sides of the ball, one roster spot could mean the difference between being able to develop a player on the roster, or losing him to another team.

Last season was the first time in five years that New England had carried three quarterbacks on the roster, and were fine in doing so as they were able to keep most of their developmental prospects, but this season, with so much talent going at least two-deep on the depth chart at just about every position - including quarterback - the Patriots have put themselves in a position where they are going to have to decide whether it is more important to carry three quarterbacks, or to use the roster spot on a prospect elsewhere.

It may come down to Brissett making the 53-man roster and being dealt sometime before the trade deadline.

7. Running backs will produce over 3000 total yards

The last time the New England Patriots had four running backs capable of producing eye-popping numbers individually was in 1978, the season that the Patriots set a rushing record of 3,165 yards that stands to this day - with Sam Cunningham leading that record-setting backfield that included Andy Johnson, Horace Ivory and Don Calhoun, and had substantial help from quarterback Steve Grogan.

This is not to say that the players that populate the Patriots' backfield nearly four decades later are going to challenge that '78 squad for a record, but they are more than capable of contributing more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage to what may well be a combined record-setting New England offense.

Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead should be the leaders in the ground game while James White and Dion Lewis will be the primary passing backs - but all of them are capable of lending a hand in both facets of the offensive production.  Judging just from past production, the Patriots should be able to top 2,000 yards on the ground and also clear 1,000 yards through the air, but that all depends on balanced play calling...

8. Offense will be balanced between run and pass, perhaps even be run-heavy

Last season, the Patriots' offense enjoyed balance in their play calling, and the result was a career season for running back LeGarrette Blount and passing back James White, not to mention an offense that could not be stopped when the game was on the line.

It is especially important to feature balance in the offense as quarterback Tom Brady enters his golden years and probably shouldn't take the kind of pounding that being pass-heavy would subject him to. Besides, the Patriots' offensive philosophy - known universally as the Erhardt-Perkins scheme - requires that they "pass to score, then run to win", which in lay terms means that they will use the passing game to gain a lead and then run the ball to kill the clock.

But it's more than that.  The Patriots proved during the Super Bowl that the best way to wear down a defense is to keep them on the field for a protracted amount of time, moving the chains at a snail's pace, which means the short passing game and power running game - and New England foes are bound to see plenty of both.

9. Cooks will work primarily out of the slot

New receiver Brandin Cooks has an extra gear that most pass catchers do not possess.  Sure, he has straight-line speed to leave a vapor trail, but the diminutive Cooks says that his best destiny is coming out of the slot where he can engage that second gear to leave nickel backs eating dust.

"This is an offense that guys do a bunch of different things and I'm looking forward to doing some things that I didn't necessarily have to do in New Orleans" Cooks said in his initial press conference with the Boston media, then qualified his statement by adding, "as far as playing from the slot, I definitely feel that I can do that at a high level."

Ok, so Cooks playing out of the slot isn't necessarily a bold prediction, but it is a departure from what he encountered in New Orleans, where he was the top outside threat in their high flying circus, though coming out of Oregon State he was projected to be an elite slot guy due to his fearlessness in the tall trees and his ability to separate after the catch - and with New England well stocked with outside-the-numbers, downfield pass catchers in Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan, expect to see Cooks blazing trails from the slot.

10. Gronkowski will be named NFL MVP

Yes, I know that there's some scrub named Brady who will be vying for the same award, but with Gronkowski entering 2017 fully healthy and ready for camp, we are about to witness something magical from the four-time All Pro tight end.

Gronk has played in all 16 games in a season just twice in seven seasons, and that was in his rookie and sophomore seasons, the latter in which he obliterated the league's single-season records for receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns (18) and was named to his first All Pro team.  His 14.7 yards per reception has increased incrementally since then, cresting at an absurd 21.6 last season before going down with back issues.

He was able to do those things because he is as gifted and as natural a tight end as the game has ever seen, and also had the benefit of a certain pair of wide receivers by the names Moss and Welker to take a lot of heat off of him - but at that point in his career, he was primarily a crosser in the second level, but now has evolved into an extraordinary seam threat...

...and with names such as Edelman, Hogan, Mitchell and Cooks - not to mention a dynamic running game - to occupy defenders, teams may have to resort to (gulp!) leaving Gronkowski to single coverage at times.  And if you base his production anywhere close to what he averaged last season before his injury, we could be looking at a 2,000 yard season for Gronkowski.

Far-fetched?  Maybe, but wouldn't it be cool?

11. Garoppolo will receive major extension

Jimmy Garoppolo and Malcolm Butler are both scheduled for unrestricted free agency next March, and are also expected to be two of the top prizes to be had in said free agency.  The Patriots would do well to ensure neither player makes it that far.

Including the amount of cap space the team will be able to roll over into 2018 combined with the expected annual increase in the cap ceiling and space created by expiring contracts, the Patriots will enter the new league year with upwards of $60 million to play around with - plenty of capital to invest in the future of the quarterback position, as securing Jimmy Clipboard's status must be top priority.

Given that Brady wants to play another couple of seasons, the extension would have to be heavy on immediate money in the way of a franchise record-setting signing bonus, with reasonable annual salaries to offset the bonus and spread across multiple seasons - with, of course, some incentive language that provides for incremental increases in salary for him in the event he ends up with major playing time due to a Brady injury.

Butler may be a tougher signing in that he stands to absolutely break the bank next offseason and Belichick may find it too much to have a quarter of his salary cap tied up in cornerbacks, and it is unclear whether the snafu with New Orleans this offseason would affect Butler's decision-making skills if it came to being offered a deal featuring a hometown discount.  Still, there is plenty of cap space to do both deals plus retain core role players.

12. Butler becomes chess piece in secondary

The primary reason that Belichick splurged on former Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore in free agency is that he needed greater size than what he currently had, given the trend of receivers getting bigger, plus he had no clue whether he would still have Butler on the roster come September.

So now the Patriots have what would have to be considered a very good problem to have - what with Gilmore and emerging number-two corner Eric Rowe standing 6' 1", they now have two long press corners that should be able to match up with a foe's larger receivers, Butler can essentially become a chess piece to be positioned to take advantage of any mismatches.

In Belichick's game plan defense, many of his players are movable, and Butler has demonstrated his mettle and toughness time and again against players big and small, and is versatile enough to play press, off man and zone, no matter if he is outside or in the slot - a place that he could end up seeing a lot of, and a scenario that presents Butler with an opportunity to prove to 31 other general managers that he is indeed one of the league's elite.

That would backfire on Belichick, because if Butler has another solid year, someone is going to make him a very rich man.

13. Rivers assumes and excels in the "Collins" role

Derek Rivers played defensive end at Youngstown State and became one of the best pass rushers in Division II - but at 6' 4" and only 250 pounds, Rivers is not the prototypical size for an NFL defensive end.  And while we may see him with his hand in the dirt on occasion, it is more likely that Belichick envisions a role for him not unlike what he envisioned for Jamie Collins coming out of college.

Collins' draft projection is similar in many ways to Rivers' and both were considered as 3-4 rush linebackers.  Like Collins, Rivers will likely be brought along slowly, then unleashed towards the end of the season.  He excels at stringing out plays to the edge and has a non-stop motor - and maybe it's not fair to him to hoist that kind of reputation to reach for, but he's similar athlete.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 7: Patriots' Linebacking Corps Built For The Base 3-4 Alignment

The New England Patriots just keep piling on veteran players with an axe to grind...

On Wednesday afternoon, various media outlets were reporting that the team had signed ten-year veteran run-stuffer David Harris to the 90-man roster, shoring up what some believed to be a weak spot on the Patriots defense - and while there may be some truth to that notion, one has to wonder how that shakes up the defense as a whole, if at all.

As we know, New England played three-quarters of their defensive snaps last season in a three-safety nickel, rushing just three at times and playing three linebackers - sometimes only two - plus bringing strong safety Patrick Chung down into the box as sort of an impromptu and undersized weak side linebacker - in effect, giving the defense a traditional 3-4 look.
Hightower and Roberts form a good interior linebacking corps

The signing of Harris confirms that.

In the New York Jets' 3-4 defense, Harris played the "Mike", or strong-side interior linebacker who takes on rogue linemen trying to get to the second level, freeing up the "Will", the weak side interior linebacker, to flow to the football - a role that Patriots' defensive captain Dont'a Hightower played to success in college at Alabama.

Coincidence that New England would bring the veteran stone wall?  Not at all, considering that Hightower is considered the best blitzing linebacker in the NFL, and having a veteran "Mike" in the lineup to keep him clean from offensive linemen on the second level speaks to that end.

Coming out of Michigan in 2007, Harris was considered a two-down run-stuffer and a liability in pass defense - yet was taken in the second round, the Jets trading up from number 63 overall to number 47, surrendering that second rounder plus their third and sixth rounders to make Harris the anchor of Eric Mangini's 3-4 defense...

...and though he never made a Pro Bowl and notched just one lone second-team All Pro nod in 2009, Harris is a typical Patriots' pick up - a consistent, durable and amazingly agile athlete who does everything well, but is not elite in any particular aspect of the game and who finds himself in a circumstance of battling for a roster spot for the first time in his career.

Because the Patriots depth chart is loaded down with linebackers, but have experienced some volatility since Jerod Mayo's body started breaking down in 2013, eventually forcing his early retirement after the 2015 season.  In between, head ball coach Bill Belichick has ridden Hightower on the second level, his team-first attitude and flair for the dramatic turning the tables in two Super Bowls.

Veteran sidekicks have helped to fill the void left by Mayo's misfortune - Jamie Collins leading the list of temporary fill-in's that includes names like Dane Fletcher, Jonathan Casillas and Akeem Ayers - and now includes the likes of Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin...

...and as far as human missiles are concerned, the Patriots haven't had a true one since Brandon Spikes, though second-year man Elandon Roberts shows promise as a downhill stuffer - but there's also more to Roberts' game than meets the eye; pigeon-holed as a two-down run-stuffer with limited athleticism, Roberts posted a potential-sparking fifth-rated overall grade among rookie linebackers.

In fact, it was Roberts manning the middle of the second level zone, allowing for Hightower to blitz from the strong side and cause the strip sack that changed the momentum in the Super Bowl. But it was also Roberts who got tangled up with Falcons' receiver Mohamed Sanu and allowing running back Devonta Freeman to flow into the flat uncovered for a play that should have cooked the Patriots' collective goose.

So there's progress to be made with a young "Mike" linebacker with more game than advertised as a sixth-round pick - a low round pick surrounded by top round talent, in fact, as both Hightower and Shea McClellin are former first-rounders and Kyle Van Noy came into the league as a second-rounder, as did Harris.

That's some serious draft capital investment for a unit considered by many to be the weak spot of the defense - but if one takes the cup-half-full angle, they would realize that the linebacking corps being the weak spot of the defense just goes to show how good the defense actually is, and that the second level is actually designed this way for a reason.

Earlier it was mentioned that the defense played seventy-five percent of their snaps in the three-safety nickel alignment in 2016 - an alignment known to Patriots' fans as the Big Nickel - in which the linebacking corps "sacrifices" one of it's positions (usually the weak side linebacker) to allow the strong safety to reduce into the box and play the position to counter the opposition's off-the-line strengths.

That typically means coverage on either the tight end or the running back - vital because the type of linebacker that the Patriots employ usually leaves a bit to be desired in pass coverages which, as mentioned, is intentional in the scheme.  But it isn't as if the linebackers have no coverage skill, it's just that they typically have been a read-and-react entity, which leaves them subject to deception.

Case in point? We mentioned Roberts getting tangled up with Mohamed Sanu in the Super Bowl, leaving Devonta Freeman wide open in the flat for a 39 yard catch and run, and that was a designed play in which Sanu could have easily been called for interference for blocking downfield before the ball was thrown, but wasn't because he was also being engaged by strong safety Patrick Chung on the play.

On the play, Roberts had responsibility for the middle zone while Hightower shot the gap between the left guard and tackle as if expecting a running play, and the Falcons took advantage of the aggressiveness by isolating the rookie and easily eliminating him.  To his credit, Roberts recovered and eventually made the tackle, but that is a play that should have led to Atlanta icing the game...

...but their own aggressiveness got them in hot water a few plays later and they ended up kicking the ball back to the Patriots, who drove down the field to tie the Super Bowl and sending it into overtime. The same issue came up in Super Bowl 49 when former Patriots' linebacker Jamie Collins was isolated on Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who burned him in a similar manner to put Seattle in business late in that game.

The point is that teams have been able to exploit New England's defense when they take the aggressive route to try and force a play - and that can only happen when the opponent has put the Patriots in a mode where they have to take chances in coverage, and it usually involves a matchup issue between running backs and linebackers.

The solution? a switch back to the 3-4 base in which the "Mike" takes on the disruptor on the second level and freeing up the "Will", which in both instances would have been Hightower.

The depth is better now , with Van Noy and McClellin both able to play either the "Will" or the weak side and with greybeard Rob Ninkovich and rookie third-round pick Derek Rivers able to handle the strong side, and the signing of Harris providing invaluable depth as the "Mike" - not to mention mentoring Roberts in the role that Harris has excelled in during his ten-year career.

So the depth chart at linebacker is stocked to overflow, which means that it is likely names like Jonathan Freeny an d Rob Ninkovich become tough cuts at the end of training camp - perhaps even McClellin as well, if undrafted free agent Harvey Langi performs as advertised.

Langi is worth mentioning in the mix because he possesses a skill set that could make him an effective interior linebacker in the Patriots' scheme, though he needs work on the fundamentals of the position since he was used first as a running back, then linebacker, then defensive end in college, having the versatility to fill in where the team needed him to...

...which means that he has work to do, but what better way to learn the position than with Harris and Hightower showing the way, whether he make the 53-man roster or spends a season on the practice squad?

In the end, New England should sport a top linebacking corps.  They have essentially the same personnel that they ended last season with, but it has to be remembered that the unit was in flux most of the season - what with trading Collins during the bye and trading for Van Noy to take his spot - and they really didn't start to gel as a unit until their playoff run, but even then, it wasn't seamless.

This season, however, the corps starts fully stocked and ready to roll - and the competition for roster spots will bring out the best and cause the cream to rise to the top - and maybe, just maybe, this set of linebackers won't be a weak spot for the defense any longer...

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

General Manager Belichick Schools Rest Of NFL In Cap Management

The New England Patriots gave tight end Rob Gronkowski a raise a few weeks back. Kind of. Sort of.  Maybe?

That really all depends on his ability to stay on the field long enough to achieve certain levels of performance, the structure of which is rare in modern sports, and perhaps should serve as a template for athletes with elite-level talent, but with inherent frailty - or even for those whom have outperformed their current salaries, or even those who need a little push to perform at a higher level.

Gronkowski needs no such motivation to perform, but it goes without saying that, even though injury prone, he has still outperformed his current contract.
Belichick's cap savvy allows for contracts like White's

In what can only be described as an amendment to his current contract, the Patriots upgraded the incentive bonus structure of his 2017 season in such a way that give him an avenue to double his salary while at the same time protecting the team against injury to him, and the resultant lost time and onfield production.

Though Gronkowski's salary structure for the season will cost the team $6.75 million against their salary cap when factoring in prorated bonuses, the actual amount of cash being paid to him is a bargain basement total of $5 million.  The amendment to his contract will increase the amount of cash he can receive incrementally as he clears certain performance levels.

Such a contract could benefit other Patriots - wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back Dion Lewis come to mind - but the point of this is that the franchise took steps to ensure that Gronkowski's paycheck is commensurate with his production, as his 2017 salary structure makes him one of the highest paid tight ends in the game if he reaches certain incentives, the incentives very reachable provided he stays healthy and plays in all sixteen games.

Gronkowski's base salary for 2017 is a meager $4.25 million, though a bonus paid at the start of 2016 and prorated through the life of his contract plus roster and workout bonuses brings his cap hit up to $6.75 million - either way, the numbers are far below what one would expect the best tight end in the NFL should expect to earn... instead of renegotiating the contract, the Patriots added incentives that, if he plays 90% of the teams' offensive snaps, makes him the second highest paid tight end in the league, just behind Jason Whitten's salary profile for the Dallas Cowboys.

That certainly wasn't the case with strong safety Patrick Chung, though on Saturday the team took measures to put a little coin in his pocket by amending his contract to include a multi-tiered incentive template that could mean an extra $900k for a player who previous to 2016 was one of the better box safeties in the league.

Last season was an up and down year for Chung, according to Pro Football Focus, his "uneven" play causing him to plunge drastically from the fifth-ranked safety in the NFL to 81st out of 91 qualifiers, and this after signing a one-year, $5.7 million extension at the start of the league year that keeps him locked up in Foxborough until after the 2018 season.

But here's the thing: There isn't another box safety in the league quite like Pat Chung, who should really be graded as a weak side linebacker as he spends 75% of the team's defensive snaps within eight yards of the line of scrimmage, and is one of the game's best at both tight end coverage and in blitz success.

Of course, this is due to the fact that New England runs with a three-safety, "Big Nickel" alignment that features the best tandem of blue liners in the league, with both Chung and free safety Devin McCourty reducing down into the box as coverage and run support entities, leaving the blue line to centerfielder Duron Harmon.

So his overall grade as a safety decreases as he becomes more valuable to the defense as a whole, an irony that is pervasive throughout the Patriots' team philosophy in which head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick demands that the game plans accentuate the positives of each player in a never-ending effort to keep the game bigger than the individual player - and adding incentive clauses to active contracts is his way of rewarding the player.

The team could have done that with Amendola as well, though they would have had to set the bar pretty low - not due to talent level, but simply due to the amount of snaps and touches he could be expected to receive in such a crowded receiver corps - and same with Lewis and the similarly loaded backfield.  Instead, Amendola agreed to a reduction in pay from a salary that would have actually paid him just as much as Gronkowski, due to the enormous, back-loaded contract he signed to come to Foxborough in the first place.

The difference between Amendola and Gronkowski is that Amendola is 31 years old and a redundant talent in this offense - clutch as he may be - while Gronkowski is 27 years old and the most dangerous weapon in the league when he is actually on the field.

Amendola is clutch in the biggest of moments, but the contract that he originally signed upon joining the Patriots was based on future production - and while it goes without saying that his regular season production isn't even close to what the team was expecting (mostly due to injury). there is zero doubt that he's worth his weight in gold when the lights are the brightest.

By contrast, Julian Edelman is also 31, but has toiled near the bottom of the receiver pay scale since assuming the role once held by Wes Welker four years ago, a role that Amendola was expected to fill but was never healthy enough to fully grasp the role.  Edelman has been the main cog in an receiver's corps that has essentially shouldered the load for New England during that time frame - and despite being the age when most players see their skill begin to erode, Edelman is as clutch as ever... the degree that the Patriots offered him a contract (three years, $15 million) that will keep him in Foxborough through the 2019 season.

It's a mid-level contract for Edelman, and comes on the heels of the same sort of mid-level signings of core players like James White (three years, $12 million), safety Duron Harmon (four years, $17 million) defensive tackle Alan Branch (two years, $8.45 million) and center David Andrews (three years, $9 million) that is consistent with the Patriots habit of trying to be fair in distributing cap dollars to core role players.

It is also consistent with money being doled out to players coming in as free agents, as running backs Rex Burkhead (1 year, $3.15 million) and Mike Gillislee (2 years, $6.4 million) and defensive end Lawrence Guy (4 years, $13.4 million) signed up for money in that two-to-five million range in which Patriots role players reside.

Because that's the going rate for role players with tenure - meaning they've been in the league for at least three seasons - and in many cases, the Patriots are willing to pay more to a guy whom they envision having a particular role than other teams would who don't profess the week-to-week opponent-specific game plan philosophy that Belichick does.

It is important to note that all of this has been possible due to the masterful way that Belichick manipulates the salary cap.  Of the nearly $60 million in cap space that the Patriots started the league year with, they still have an $18 million buffer, despite spending big money on free agent corner Stephon Gilmore and incumbent defensive captain Dont'a Hightower... addition to the aforementioned players to the mid-level contracts, while taking on the contracts of Brandin Cooks, Kony Ealy and Dwayne Allen, all of whom were acquired through trades.

Now Belichick's off-the-field attention should fall to the many players scheduled for free agency in 2018, though some such as tackle Nate Solder and cornerback Malcolm Butler would essentially eat up all of the remaining cap space, and then some.  Solder is could be a goner unless he takes a Marcus Cannon (five-year, $32 million) type deal, which would put him in Donald Penn territory in - you guessed it - a mid-level salary structure, and even then, it all depends on the development of rookie third-round pick Antonio Garcia.

Butler is a little easier to figure out.  Playing on a restricted free agent first-round tag, he was the central point in rumored trades throughout the offseason, and will most likely cash in on the open market in 2018 as an unrestricted free agent - motivated and guided by the fact that Belichick spent big money on Gilmore.

If they let both walk and also subtract the salaries of players who will likely look for employment elsewhere next offseason, the Patriots would carry $50 million in cap space into 2018, not counting the increase in the cap ceiling that has trended upwards of $10 million annually - and that means that Belichick would have the same amount of cap space to play with as he did this past offseason...

...all the while having suitable backups for each departing player already under contract - but with that much cap space, it be more prudent to pay Butler ( one can never have enough defensive backs) and invest the remaining money on keeping players like backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo around in order to maintain a competitive team for years to come.

Only Belichick knows for sure, and he's not going to tip his hand to anyone - but if there is a certainty, we already know that the Patriots will be loaded with a bunch of role players that are happy to be playing on mid-level or incentive-rich contracts in order to maximize their careers in a place where the culture breeds winners.

That is, after all, the Patriot's way.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

New England Patriots Projected 53-Man Roster: The Dog Days Edition

A changing of the guard is underway in Foxborough.

Actually, the forward-thinking head ball coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, has been slowly reworking his depth chart for the past couple of seasons, but this offseason and next could very well be the most crucial in deciding whether the team continues to remain contenders for the foreseeable future, or if they sink back into the pack.

Staples on the championship teams are aging or have otherwise run their course, and Belichick has proven time and again that he is not timid when cutting players loose when they no longer serve his purpose - this is not to say that the Dark Master is heartless, as his respect for players that have performed under his leadership is also well documented...
Wise, Rivers, Garcia and McDermott all figure to make the team as rookies

...and with the number of new players under contract via the most impactful free agency period in Belichick's reign - particularly on offense - the writing could be on the wall for some incumbent talents.

The Patriots came into this offseason with seventeen players scheduled to hit the open market, but the list of players that they let walk or released outright tells a story of attrition.

It came as no surprise that Belichick released anchor tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who most likely told tale of wanting to retire while he could still walk, nor was it a head-scratcher to unload young but injury prone guard Tre Jackson, which thinned out the offensive line ranks and made the unit a priority in the draft, especially considering that left tackle Nate Solder is an impending free agent after this season.

Consequently, Belichick brought in two college tackles through the draft.  One, Troy's Antonio Garcia, is projected as a Solder replacement as the Patriots are unlikely to be able to absorb the huge contract he will almost certainly command, while UCLA's Conor McDermott projects as a swing tackle who could also double up as a left guard in an emergency.

The defensive line became a priority as well when the team let defensive ends Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long and Barkevious Mingo ply their trade elsewhere, then replaced them with former Carolina Panther Kony Ealy and ex-Baltimore Raven Lawrence Guy in free agency, then using two of their four draft picks on Youngstown State's Derek Rivers (who actually projects as a strong-side linebacker instead of a defensive end) and Arkansas' Deatrich Wise.

Belichick did re-sign defensive tackle Alan Branch, who along with Guy and Wise give the Patriots the versatility to morph between three and four-man fronts, as all three, plus defensive ends Trey Flowers and Ealy, are capable of handling three and five-technique gap responsibilities.

Along with Branch, the Patriots retained the services of both linebacker Dont'a Hightower and centerfielder Duron Harmon as core mainstays, and also retained the rights to exclusive right free agent and core four special teamer Brandon King and elite cornerback Malcolm Butler, who just recently signed his restricted free agent tender...

...teaming him with former Buffalo Bills top corner Stephon Gilmore to give New England one of the best defensive backfield in the league.

The receiving corps and backfield will have a different look as well, as Belichick let power back LeGarrett Blount go to Philadelphia and washed his hands of short-term rental Michael Floyd, the troubled wide receiver headed to Minnesota.  Neither loss should have as much of a negative impact on the offense as will losing tight end Martellus Bennett to the Packers, as free agent pick up Dwayne Allen from the Colts appears to be a step down in class...

...while picking up running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead give the Patriots redundant talents in which to open up the playbook more than they could with Blount on board, and then trading for vertical slot threat Brandin Cooks opens up the offense even more.

All told, the Patriots did an excellent job of cutting fat from the roster and replacing it with lean youth - and don't be surprised if Belichick cuts a few more veterans to round out his 2017 roster, with an eye to the future...

Quarterbacks:  A bit of a quandary here.  The team is so loaded with talent and depth at just about every position that some may ponder whether the Patriots will keep three quarterbacks - it's a decent argument, but one that is steeped in karma and dependent on things going just right for the Patriots leading up to the regular season.

Belichick is apparently all-in on Jimmy Garoppolo remaining in Foxborough, and it's going to take some record-setting cash for Prince Ali to continue holding a clipboard for another couple of seasons - but the status of second-year signal caller Jacoby Brissett isn't as clear.  Brissett struggled in OTA's and in minicamp when he had some extended reps as Garoppolo dealt with a minor leg issue...

...and Belichick has some really tough decisions to make at just about every point on the depth chart - so having an extra roster spot would make things easier in that respect.  But for the time being, let's assume that he carries three quarterbacks - at least up to the trade deadline, where some quarterback desperate team could make him an offer that would be tough to refuse.

Tom Brady
Jimmy Garoppolo
Jacoby Brissett

Running Backs: On paper, this unit is a compendium of what a bell-cow running back should be, but split up between four guys.

Redundant talents in that they can all carry the ball between the tackles and also are adept at playing catch, each still has attributes that make them unique.  White has gained the most trust with Brady in the pattern, and has effectively renamed what was previously known as the "Vereen Role" as the primary passing back while Dion Lewis specializes as a tough change-of-pace back...

...while newcomers Gillislee and Burkhead give the Patriots versatility on early downs, Gillislee a controlled power back who should project to a short-yardage specialist in addition to being the closest thing to a bell-cow that New England has had in a decade, and Burkhead is the helter-skelter back whose combination of loose hips, elusiveness and power could make Lewis a surprise cut or a candidate for the PUP or IR if his injury history continues down it's dark path.

James White
Mike Gillislee
Dion Lewis
Rex Burkhead
James Develin

Receivers: In the space of two offseasons, the Patriots have gone from primarily a dink and dunk passing game to one that properly spreads the field.

With the addition of Cooks this offseason added to last offseason's grab bag of Chris Hogan in free agency and Malcolm Mitchell in the draft, the Patriots went from an aging, over-achieving, try-hard cast to a young, legitimately frightening corps of pass catchers that can play it any way Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can dream up.

Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are both into their thirties and have both had contracts reworked in some manner this offseason, and both have proven their mettle in the biggest of moments under the brightest of lights and should be locks.  Mitchell is an emerging talent on the cusp of stardom while Hogan is the ultimate possession receiver who average over nineteen yards per reception last season.

Cooks sends this unit over the top with his blistering deep speed that resonates from anywhere on the field, though he is most effective working out of the slot, catching shot throws and turning on the afterburners to separate from defenders.

Julian Edelman
Brandin Cooks
Chris Hogan
Malcolm Mitchell
Danny Amendola
Matthew Slater

Tight Ends: The Patriots may have missed with former Indianapolis Colt Dwayne Allen, as he has developed a case of the dropsies.  Coming out of college at Clemson, Allen was known particularly for his hands and his ability to shield off defenders to show the quarterback his numbers - and while the latter will be on display only after the pads go on in training camp, the former has to have the Patriots a little concerned.

Or perhaps even disappointed, as the whole purpose of having Allen on the roster is the peace of mind that Martellus Bennett gave the Patriots last season, knowing that if All World tight end Rob Gronkowski went down, they still had a legitimate starting-quality tight end to fall back on - Gronowski did go down and Bennett did step up in a big way,

That said, it's too early to call Allen a flop, but the good news on the salary cap front is that his contract is guaranteed only for this season, so if he doesn't turn out to be the angel on Gronkowski's shoulder, it won't cost the team long-term...

Rob Gronkowski
Dwayne Allen
James O'Shaughnessy

Offensive Tackles: This is most likely Nate Solder's swan song, as the Patriots are unlikely to be able to afford his asking price when he hits to open market after this season, which is likely why Belichick snagged Troy's Antonio Garcia in the third round of the 2017 draft - and if Garcia performs in the pros anything like he did in college, Solder will be gone for sure.

A street fighter who plays through the whistle - meaning he relishes putting opposing players on their butts - Garcia is also a technician who understands leverage and should make a fine replacement for Solder and an excellent bookend to go along with Marcus Cannon, who made several All Pro lists last season and finally has been able to emerge from the shadow of Vollmer to claim the spot solely for himself.

Cameron Fleming is excellent as a sixth offensive lineman in short-yardage situations, but isn't suited for pass protection, which makes him one-dimensional in a role - that being swing tackle - that calls for doing everything well.  In this instance, McDermott could factor in to Fleming's demise as he is certainly and all-around better athlete.  This is one battle that bears watching.

Nate Solder
Marcus Cannon
Cam Fleming
Antonio Garcia
Conor McDermott

Interior Offensive Line: The trio of left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are looking to become a stone wall to both protect Brady and to open holes for the four-headed monster at running back, but can only do so if Thuney makes an expected second-year jump in performance.

Thuney was the main culprit when Brady was hit in the pocket, but he fared well as a run blocker. Both Andrews and Mason made huge improvements in 2016 over their rookie seasons, but depth is a huge concern as only Ted Karras currently projects as a backup to all three spots - such is the nature of the interior line that someone like McDermott could figure in as an emergency replacement at one of the guard spots.

The interior is well taken care so long as health doesn't become a concern.

Joe Thuney
Shaq Mason
David Andrews
Ted Karras

Defensive Line: With the team making somewhat of a transition to more of a three-man front to accommodate the size, strength and talent of their defensive linemen, it made sense to extend Branch and to bring in Ealy, Wise and Guy to give Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia a truly enormous rotation.

Flowers is an emerging star and even at "just" 265 pounds does his best work as a five-technique (inside shoulder of the offensive tackle).  He is the smallest of the linemen, with Ealy and Wise (both at 275) the only other linemen under the 300 pound threshold.  Guy (310) and Branch (350) can both work the three and five-tech spots while Malcolm Brown and Vincent Valentine (both 320) are pure nose tackles.

Belichick has a policy of rotating his big uglies to keep them fresh for crunch time, and he looks to have succeeded in finding incredible depth, not just for a three-man front in the Big Nickle, but also in four-man fronts where linebackers Derek Rivers and Rob Ninkovich can contribute with their hands in the dirt...

Malcolm Brown
Alan Branch
Trey Flowers
Vincent Valentine
Kony Ealy
Lawrence Guy
Deatrich Wise

Linebackers: Could we have seen the last of Rob Ninkovich in New England?  A fan favorite and one of key members of the unit for the past eight seasons, "Nink" has seen his snap count steadily decrease and put up his worst stat line since 2009, his first year with the Patriots.  Belichick could have to make a tough cut to make room for the younger, more dynamic players on the roster, and with the Blue-collar Ninkovich at 33 years old and counting -  not to mention that he looked a step slow in the playoffs and Super Bowl - he may be wearing down.

It's a numbers game. Derek Rivers was a defensive end in college but projects as a strong side linebacker in the pros, as does undrafted free agent Harvey Langi.  Both Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts can handle the interior positions and Shea McClellin looked natural at the weakside spot - of course, Hightower is the key to this unit, as he is capable at any position on the second level and makes the defensive calls.

Look for Van Noy to have increased responsibility in that capacity as well, as he integrated as well as anyone could to the complex Patriots' defensive scheme upon arrival from Detroit last season.

Dont'a Hightower
Kyle Van Noy
Shea McClellin
Derek Rivers
Elandon Roberts
Harvey Langi

Cornerbacks: Oh, what an awesome problem to have!  The Patriots sport three starting-quality corners on the 2017 roster, with second-year speedster Jonathan Jones making all kinds of waves in mincamp, taking most of the slot reps.

That is not to say that he will absolutely man the slot, as Butler is more than capable in the phone booth, where Cyrus Jones could also see some action.  Gilmore and 2016 pickup Eric Rowe are taller corners and could get the call on the outside against the bigger receivers that New England is likely to see this year, though Butler will see time on the outside against the likes of Antonio Brown and Jarvis Landry.

The diversity of the cornerback corps gives Patricia many options in the Patriots' week-to-week game planning, and if either of the Joneses contribute, Gillette Stadium could easily turn into a no-fly zone...

Stephon Gilmore
Malcolm Butler
Eric Rowe
Jonathan Jones
Cyrus Jones

Safeties: There is not a better combination of safeties in the league than Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, and all three are signed to multi-year contracts - while Nate Ebner and Brandon King more than earn their bones on special teams.  The problem is that in order for the Patriots to run their preferred Big Nickel alignment (one high safety and two in the box), they need McCourty, Chung and Harmon healthy and on the field.

Injuries haven't been a huge problem, but if one of them hits the shelf, it disrupts the entire defensive philosophy, so the search is on for players who can fill in at any of those positions.  While not drafting any blue liners, Belichick did pick up Big Nickel-type defensive backs in Richmond's David Jones and Minnesota's Damarius Travis, with Travis being the versatile box safety that could potentially spell Chung.

This means that third-year player Jordan Richards is the odd man out no matter which undrafted player remains, with Jones making his way to the practice squad...

Devin McCourty
Patrick Chung
Duron Harmon
Nate Ebner
Brandon King
Damarius Travis

Specialists: The only question here is if Stephen Gostkowski is going to rebound from his less-than-stellar 2016, when he missed several extra points, seeming to push everything to the right, which if put in terms of physics, means that he isn't striking the ball as consistently as he should be.

Some attribute that to Belichick's preference of easing up on kickoffs to force the opposition to return kicks rather that take a touchback out to the 25 yard line, perhaps throwing off his natural leg swing on field goals and extra points - but he is excellent at pinning the other guys deep on his kickoffs, so the trade off is congruent.

Allen is a field position weapon that has gotten the offense out of plenty of holes in his career, and is clutch when he absolutely needs to be, while Cardona's worth is in never hearing his name, which means he is spot on in his long snaps.

Joe Cardona
Ryan Allen
Stephen Gostkowski

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 6: Big Nickel Defense In Full Effect

The 2016 draft class supplied the New England Patriots with two cornerbacks named Jones.

The Patriots' top pick of the draft, Alabama corner Cyrus Jones had what can only be described as a mostly disappointing rookie season as he treated the football like a microphone after a hot take, while Jonathan Jones made a name for himself on special teams after edging out several other candidates to make the team as an undrafted free agent.

Neither saw many snaps on defense, as Jonathan - blessed with 4.28 speed - became a core-four special teams demon and Cyrus got benched and ultimately deactivated for his inability to hold onto the football when returning punts.
Patriots McClellin, Flowers, Branch, Hightower and Harmon celebrate

Now that the 2017 organized team activities and mandatory mini-camp are underway, Cyrus has done nothing but continue to pull gaffes on fielding punts and looks to be in danger of being perhaps the biggest draft bust of the Bill Belichick era, but Jonathan Jones is serving notice that he's ready to compete for the nickle corner slot left vacant by the defection of Logan Ryan in free agency.

If he can pull it off, the Patriots, who already have one of the top corner tandems in the league with Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore, would become the lone team in the NFL to employ two undrafted free agents as starters in their secondary, given that Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia run out of the nickel about eighty percent of the time.

Granted, the Big Nickel - a five defensive back alignment that utilizes three safeties rather than three corners - is in play a lot of the time to give the Patriots a more flexible unit to match up against teams with bigger personnel, but in a standard nickel, it is Jonathan - not the more widely heralded Cyrus - that looks to be in position to gain significant playing time this season.

But let's pump the brakes a little bit here.  We're talking about dime depth here, with names like Gilmore, Butler and Rowe ahead of the Joneses on the cornerback depth chart, and names like McCourty, Chung and Harmon filling out the Big Nickel before either of the youngsters get an opportunity in the defensive backfield, making the lineup a tough egg to crack.

Because the Big Nickel alignment dictates the Patriots' defensive philosophy.

For the uninitiated, the Big Nickel is an alignment that features flexibility on all levels of the defense. Originally, the alignment was nothing more than a desperation sideline adjustment made by the Philadelphia Eagles way back in the early 1960's, defensive assistant Jerry Williams,bringing in rookie safety Irv Cross to cover Chicago Bears rookie tight end Mike Ditka, who was too big for a standard nickle corner to cover and too fast for a linebacker.

Ditka was the prototype for what was to be known as the "move" tight end, and he was running roughshod all over the league until Williams put the clamps on him, in what he called the "Chicago Special" defense - and then some years later Los Angeles Rams' defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmer resurrected the alignment to defend against the juggernaut San Francisco 49ers offense...

...particularly against tight end Brent Jones and running back Roger Craig as both were too much for his group of linebackers, and used it as the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals in the early 90's when his linebacking corps was beset by a myriad of debilitating injuries

The philosophy had been dormant for several years since then, and only resurfaced in 2010 when Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick drafted a pair of elite tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.  Knowing that the success the two would bring to his offense would spur copy cats around the NFL - and also to find a way to cover the two in practice - he started collecting safeties through the draft.

That would account for the seemingly weird reaches in the draft, taking what many scouts considered to be undraftable, including safeties Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 draft and then Duron Harmon in the third round of the following season.  Wilson never really panned out, but Harmon became the centerpiece of the Big Nickle...

...the sideline-to-sideline centerfielder whose speed and other-worldly range enabled Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to run with one high safety, and to drop cornerback-turned-free Safety Devin McCourty and strong safety Patrick Chung closer to the line of scrimmage, where they could pick up man coverages on tight ends and running backs while filling the box in run support.

One of the main advantages of this alignment is that the Patriots are a rare team that has good enough coverage play from their safeties to line them up in the slot, if need be, causing confusion for the opposing quarterback and his offensive line - confusion as to who is actually in coverage and who is coming on the blitz, because in the Big Nickel, they are able to disguise their intent like no other team in the league.

This has a curious effect on the rest of the defense.  Since a weakside linebacker and a strong safety require similar skill sets - ie,. lateral agility, field vision and tackling skills to key on the running back - in the Big Nickel, especially against an offense that features good passing game production out of the backfield, a safety will take the place of the weakside linebacker.

Against offenses that rely more heavily on spread formations, the strong safety will still reduce down into the box even though the situation would normally call for a standard nickel because the defensive line has the ability to morph between 3 and 4 man fronts, and on several occasions last season we saw this play out, fans bitching about the pass rush not being able to get to the quarterback.

This offseason, however, Belichick stocked the line with players who can rush from the outside, and can also reduce down to a five-technique on a three man front and even to a three-technique on four man fronts - so the defense can essentially transform into whatever they need to be at the drop of a hat - and he didn't just stock the line, he stocked it with proven, veteran talent.

Lawrence Guy is a great example of what Belichick was seeking on the market.  Guy is an early-down run-stuffer who graded out as Pro Football Focus's eighth-best in that category last season, and was a vital cog in the Baltimore Ravens fifth-best rush defense, and now joins forces with the likes of Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Vincent Valentine on a Patriots' run-busting rotation that ranked fourth in 2016.

Guy is just one of several Patriots' defensive linemen with the versatility to produce in both three and four-man fronts - the breakdown for which is forthcoming in the next piece in this series - which gives even more flexibility to Belichick and Patricia in the Big Nickel, particularly given the quality of the linebacking corps.

Last season we saw a lot of the 4-2-5 alignment in the Big Nickel - four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs - but the preferred option this season may be the 3-3-5 look, given the fact that Belichick now seems to be collecting five-technique, 3-4 defensive ends and eschewing traditional 4-3 rush ends.

There is really only one of those on the roster, rookie Derek Rivers, but in this scheme he projects to be more of a stand-up rush linebacker, what with his 4.61 speed and penetration skills to force running backs to the sidelines laterally as an edge setter - and no one would be surprised to see Rivers execute much like departed Jamie Collins did on the strong side.

In fact both Rivers and fellow draftee Deatrich Wise were projected to be attractive to teams looking for 3-4 fits, with Wise having tons of experience in Arkansas three-man line as a five-tech. Everyone else on the line has the versatility to play on shifting fronts, and all of the linebackers have the flexibility to play any of the positions on the second level, led by clutch veteran Dont'a Hightower and flanked by names like McClellin, Van Noy, Roberts and Ninkovich.

The players that make the 2017 New England Patriots defensive unit are going to be the players that fit the Big Nickel scheme, which is not necessarily players who would be considered elite, all-around athletes - rather, the players that fit the scheme are those identified by Belichick as the ones whose skill sets can be incorporated into the game plans on a rotational basis...

...long a staple of Belichick defenses, the rotation allows for a wide open play book as well as keeping players fresh for the fourth quarter, both of which were on full display in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, as the Patriots' defense matched up fresh players with the Falcons' offense and eventually got to Matt Ryan to turn the game in New England's favor.

So all anyone has to do who is wondering why the Patriots are doing something that looks funky on the surface, is to remember that Belichick has been building his defense to accommodate the Big Nickel for years, and that if that confuses them, think about how confusing it is to their opponents as well.