Friday, February 7, 2014

Reloading the Musket: Part 6 - Nickle rusher top priority for defensive line

Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald represents New England's best case first round scenario in the draft (Getty Images)
The nickle pass rusher.  A hot commodity for the New England Patriots, seeing as that the kid that they signed to be just that in 2013 spent the entire season on the non-football injury list.

By all reports, Armond Armstead has fully recovered from surgery that he had to eradicate a bacterial infection, purportedly a complication stemming from a 2011 taradol-induced heart attack that robbed him of his senior year at USC and causing him to go undrafted and unwanted in the NFL.

Of course, he went to the Canadian Football League and performed every bit his top NFL Draft projection that crumbled when the doctors at USC refused to medically clear him for his senior season,  Armstead showed what a disruptive force he could be against the finest the CFL had to offer - earning an All Star bid as a rookie - before the call came from Bill Belichick.

It was a coup.  Belichick signing the projected 2nd round defensive tackle to the league minimum three year deal.  But so enamoured was the Hooded One with Armstead that he guaranteed his salary for all of 2013 and half of 2014...

...and from watching the above video, one can easily guess why.  Armstead has a cat-quick first step, violent punch to disengage from the blockers and keep them back on their heels, which sets up his killer array of moves - from any position along the line.

Belichick got nothing out of him in 2013 except having to dodge questions about Armstead's health but he has high hopes that he'll get his money's worth in 2014.

The nickle pass rusher.

Armstead joins a defensive line that, when healthy, should be among the best in the league.  Injury sapped the entire interior of the Patriots' line last season, having to rely on a weird variety of undrafted rookies and waiver wire finds, forced to change their philosophy from an attacking entity to a read-and-react smoke and mirrors act that had a negative effect on the entire defense.

The linebackers were always a step slow to their assignments because their first priority was in the box to plug holes that the opposition created for their backs to run through, and making them just that much susceptible to the play-action pass - and even more so with the safeties...

...and forget about disrupting the flow of a passing game, because while the Patriots were sixth in the NFL with 44 sacks, the majority of those came in bunches, usually after New England's offense had built a lead and was able to turn their pass rushers loose, not having to worry so much about stopping the run with the clock on their side.

Oh, what might have been.

In successive weeks, New England's defense lost nose tackle Vince Wilfork to a torn Achilles tendon against the Falcons, rush tackle Tommy Kelly to a torn ACL in the loss to the Bengals and defensive play caller, linebacker Jerod Mayo to a torn pectoral muscle in the miraculous win over the Saints - these three injuries gutted the Patriots' defense.

Gutted them right up the middle, and while rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano tried to fill in, the difference between the starters and two rookies that nobody else wanted was like the difference between night and day, and the Patriots dropped to one of the worst rush defenses in the NFL as teams gouged their wounded middle...

...that is, until coach Bill Belichick signed and then activated nose tackle Sealver Siliga - then suddenly teams weren't ripping off seven yards per carry, the Siliga was holding the middle, making it possible for the linebackers and safeties to start creating plays instead of the offense dictating to them.  But in the end, the Denver Broncos just had too many weapons and took the Patriots out in the AFC Championship game.

But think about that last sentence for a minute.  Even with all of the Patriots' devastating injuries, they still made it to the AFC Title game, the defense holding the Broncos' prolific offensive juggernaut to just 26 points, but falling short of the Super Bowl when the New England offense failed to take advantage of their opportunities.

Again, Oh, what might have been.

But in following the axiom that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, the adversity that this unit endured in 2013 leaves the defensive line with incredible depth in 2014, health permitting, of course.

Wilfork and Kelly will return fully healed and take their places as starters in the Patriots' 4-3 alignment, backed up by Siliga on the nose and Chris Jones at the rush - and with Armstead plugged in as the nickle rusher, aligned just about anywhere Belichick can think of to put him.

Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich return as excellent defensive ends, but backed up only by a seldom used Michael Buchanan and an aging veteran in Andre Carter.  Needless to say, the line could use one more piece to put them over the top into an elite unit - but where that comes from is a matter of some conjecture amongst experts.

Salary cap space being what it is, the free agent market for rush ends is extremely limited, the top options either in line for a big-time payday or the franchise tag, so the Patriots will most likely have to find their depth and another nickle rusher in the draft.

At the very top of the free agency class, including names like Carolina's Greg Hardy, Cincinnati's Michael Johnson and Oakland's Lamar Houston are out of New England's price range, plus there's the probability that any or all could be tagged - but a relative of one current Patriot and a pair of Minnesota Vikings could be possible targets.

Arthur Jones, brother of Patriots' defensive end Chandler Jones, would bring some positional versatility to the line, as he goes 6' 3" and 315 pounds and could double as a rush tackle while having the speed to come off the edge as well.  He could cost a team a pretty penny, but would the chance to play along side his brother in Foxborough trump being overpaid by some other team?

If not, the Vikings have a pair of ends that aren't likely to return, one because he wants too much money and the other because he wants to play for a title.  The want of money probably excludes the possibility of Everson Griffen ever being in the Silver and Blue, but even if they could afford his asking price, maturity questions and various runs-ins with the law are concerning...

...and while there are no such questions regarding the fun-loving and great locker room presence of Jared Allen, his likely monetary demands could preclude him coming to New England - though he has hinted that he would play for less money for a shot at a championship.

"I don't want to be chasing the ring. I want to earn the ring," Allen said just before the trade deadline last season. "I want to be somewhere, and obviously, you've got to have parts in place and you've got to be contenders."

That aside, to sign any of these players would put a big dent in the Patriots' cap - which leads us to the NFL draft, which is deep in defensive ends and tackles.

But there is only one player that the Patriots should be targeting, and he should be the number one priority because the man is so versatile, so fast and arrives at his target with such violent intent that Patriots' fans would be in perpetual drool in anticipation of how Belichick could use him.

His name, Aaron Donald:

Pittsburgh's Donald is an undersized defensive tackle at 6' 1" and 290 pounds, but with 4.80 speed - yes, 4.80 in the 40 - he is faster than most defensive linemen and most linebackers - no need to go into superlatives with Donald because it's all on the tape.

Donald has lined up as a rush tackle, rush end and rush linebacker - his versatility, speed and non-stop motor screams "New England Patriots.", and if the experts are correct (they are) that New England's number one defensive priority is to find a nickle rusher to compliment the athletes that they already have, there can be only one choice at #29...

...if he lasts that long.  Donald blew up the Senior Bowl, abusing every guard and tackle the coaches threw in front of him, blowing by them with a variety of moves like they were standing still - relatively obscure playing for the Panthers and due to his size, or lack thereof, Donald opened many eyes this post-season - and the Patriots could call themselves very fortunate if he fell to them in the first round.

Man love?  Gushing admiration?  Perhaps, but watch the tape and you tell me, and then think about a rush lineup that features Donald, Armstead, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.


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