Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reloading the Musket: Part 7 - Impact depth sorely needed at linebacker

Collins (C) was coached up early, then came on strong late
Steve Beauharnais hits people.

When he was a three year staring middle linebacker at Rutgers, he hit 274 people and sacked 12.5 quarterbacks - rather, he tackled multiple people a total of 274 times and accounted for twelve and a half quarterback sacks.  Pretty sure he hit them hard though.

When the New England Patriots took a seventh round flyer on the 6' 1", 240 pound downhill run-stuffer in last season's draft, the only buzz surrounding Beauharnais was from the bees flying around the practice fields at Gillette Stadium - a curious afterthought, considering that he was the last of a group of players from the State college of New Jersey to be drafted...

...joining cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon in the draft class plus fellow alum, safety Devin McCourty, to give the Patriots a group of players that already had familiarity with each other - and that helped Ryan and Harmon immeasurably, but didn't trend toward Beauharnais as the rookie linebacker was a healthy scratch for 13 games.

Even so, there was a reason why coach Bill Belichick kept Beauharnais on the 53 man roster, and with starting middle linebacker Brandon Spikes likely gone in free agency, we may be about to discover why.

No one is going to mistake Beauharnais for Spikes - there is no flash or swagger to his game, just all business and the task at hand - uncomfortable in front of the microphone and cameras, he prefers to let his play do his talking, which means he didn't say much in 2013, except in the preseason where he filled gaps quickly and stood up more than a few backs in the hole.

Beauharnais is not at an elite level at anything, but he does many things very well.  He doesn't have the speed or lateral agility to cover backs or tight ends one-on-one, but he's a pest in the middle of zone coverage with a knack of getting his hands on the ball. He's not known an an elite pass rusher, but he can get there.  What he is known for is meeting the running back in the hole and making sure he knows that it's going to be a long day.

But is that enough? As things stand now, the answer would be a resounding "No!", but that's why we go through the reloading process every offseason.

Depth is important in New England.  It has been said of Belichick that he believes that the bottom third of the roster - comprised mostly of special teams standouts and young developmental players - is just as vital to the success of the team as the rest of the depth chart, and even though the Patriots haven't hoisted a Lombardi trophy in the past decade, they've been right there to give themselves the chance every season.

"I think how you manage the bottom third of the roster is critical to your development, so how you invest your dollars." said Patriots' owner Bob Kraft many times over this offseason. "It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, but I think with what happened this year and the fact that we got to the championship game, it’s a pretty remarkable feat. You’re always looking to improve the team on both sides of the ball.”

That said, in entering the offseason acquisition process, it is safe to say that the Patriots' linebacking corps is set with it's starters, even with Spikes being shown the door, and that the players Belichick will be looking to back them up will be affordable depth types - like Beauharnais.

Strong side 'backer Jamie Collins is an example of this philosophy.  Drafted for his unique athleticism, Collins came into the NFL as a man without a position - a jack of all trades, it seemed, but a master of none.  Used sparingly in the first two-thirds of the season, Collins was being evaluated, coached up and then groomed to have a significant impact when he finally hit the field - and what an impact it was.

So now he, along with weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo and middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower comprise one of the most unique and functional corps of starting linebackers as you will see.  Hightower will finally be in the position to capitalize on his strengths as an elite run stuffer, while Collins and Mayo handle things on the edges and the flats.

So what this team needs out of the offseason is depth - affordable, durable, coachable depth. Particularly on the wings where, as usual, the Patriots' cap issues along with the overall lack of talented depth in the free agent class will have the team looking toward the draft more than likely - with names like Brian Orakpo, Jason Worilds, Shaun Phillips and Mike Neal all are expected to remain with their current teams.

One name to pay attention to in free agency however is Seattle Seahawks' outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield whom the World Champs picked up from the waiver wire at the beginning of their championship season - cutting his pay in half and promptly burying him on their depth chart behind their excellent starters.  Schofiled started two games at strongside linebacker, picking up 9 tackles and a sack in his limited opportunities.

“Absolutely getting after the passer,” Schofield replied when asked what he does best. “Pass-rusher, first.".

Though his skill set and experience and speed make him an intriguing prospect in covering tight ends, an area that the Patriots were deficient in last season - another area where the Patriots deficient in last season was on the edges and on screens, something that Schofield plays particularly well - and how many times did we see the Pats get burned on screens, particularly on third down?

The price will be right if New England decides to give him a look, as his depth status with the Seahawks will render him into a cap friendly deal - but as far as quality depth through free agency, it doesn't get any better from there, which leads us to the draft.

It is uncertain how the Patriots view their need at linebacker, given their futures contracts and the presence of Beauharnais, but one thing is for certain, the need for a physical nickle safety type that doubles as weak side depth is something that is a high priority for the team, and if the Patriots are looking for versatility in that regard, there is but one player who fits the bill cleanly.

Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier is undersized for a linebacker, but has every intangible that there is for a big nickle safety - and at 6' 2" and 230 pounds, Shazier fits the profile of a monstrous underneath cover backer - a throwback of sorts in the mold of Tampa's Lavonte David and San Francisco's Navarro Bowman...

...and if New England is seriously seeking a big safety/weakside linebacker hybrid that will put the fear of God in running backs and slot receivers coming over the middle, Shazier would be the choice.  Problem being, he is projected to be a top 60 selection and perhaps a late first rounder, so it would take some finagling to get in position to draft him.

Florida State's Christian Jones is more of a strong side entity who is an incredible athlete - not quite in the mold of Collins, but is projected to be more NFL ready that Collins was.  At 6' 4" tall and 240 pounds, Jones runs a 4.64, 40 yard dash and uses his length to keep tight ends for gaining separation from him.

Used as a defensive end at Florida State, just as Collins was at Southern Miss, he can probably be found in the late second round or even the third round as athletic depth on the strong side.

Bill Belichick has shown an affinity for local products in the recent past, which makes UConn's Yawin Smallwood a candidate to be selected by New England.  A late second day or early third day prospect, Smallwood is an excellent run defender and has a quick twitch to close on ball carriers, and doesn't get lost in space.

He also is good dropping into coverage with enough speed to stick with backs or tight ends, which gives him the flexibility and versatility to back up any position on the second level - and at 6' 4" and 240 pounds has great length to play on either the weak or strong side for three downs.

Other names that will pop up on the second and third day of the draft that could possibly fit with New England are BYU's Kyle Van Noy, Arizona State's Carl Bradford, Louisville's Marcus Smith and Wisconsin's Chris Borland.

As stated earlier, there is no way of knowing where the Patriots view their linebacking corps at present, but the layman's eye tells us that they have three quality starters and zero experienced depth - and while the free agent pool is shallow for linebackers, the draft is as well, so if the Patriots want a top quality linebacker, they will have to spend a second day pick - at minimum - to get what they desire.

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