Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reloading the Musket - Part 9: Patriots open The Revis Island School for Defensive Backs

Who will the obscure defensive back be that Bill Belichick shocks Mel Kiper with this year?

In 2012, it was safety Tavon Wilson, who hasn't developed into the strong side presence that Bill envisioned, but is a "Core four" special teams demon; and last year it was safety Duron Harmon, a versatile and skilled back ender who is in line to start next to free safety Devin McCourty this upcoming season...

...and it seems that only criteria for being the infamous pick is that they have to be a safety and they must be so obscure that Kiper stammers in frustration, shuffling nervously through his notes while trying to find something - anything - to say to the millions of TV viewers watching the draft on ESPN.
Revis can only help players like Dobson become all he can be...

But while seeing Kiper suffering through a dead-air moment is as riveting as it is funny - must-see TV, as they say - the fact remains that while Kiper didn't see those picks coming, neither did anyone else, so trying to determine what Belichick is thinking in regard to defensive backs available in the draft is an exercise in futility...

...but we can try, and the most logical place to start with assessing the needs in the secondary is with who is currently on the depth chart - which is overflowing with talent and potential, to the point that many feel that the Patriots don't need to "waste" draft capital in selecting a cornerback.

At the beginning of free agency, New England lost Aqib Talib to the Denver Broncos, and for many dollars - at the time causing a shit-storm of negativity toward the team as Talib's defection was viewed more as a symptom of New England somehow being "cheap", not opening their wallets for the only true shutdown corner on the team.

It wasn't very long, however, that the same folks were singing the praises of Bob Kraft for opening his wallet for the uber-talented Darrelle Revis, who will slide right into Talib's spot on the left while the gargantuan former Seattle Seahawks' right corner, Brandon Browner, signed on with the team shortly thereafter - instantly transforming a Patriots' secondary that was in flux into perhaps the best in the NFL.

That includes the Safety positions, where Pro Bowl and second-team All Pro Devin McCourty holds down the free safety position and Bill's obscure 2013 draft pick Duron Harmon showed enough as a rookie to be able to pencil him in opposite McCourty on the back end.

Depth isn't an issue whatsoever, as the team re-signed strong safety Patrick Chung after a one-year sabbatical from New England to Philadelphia where he bombed in the same capacity he held down for the Patriots while special teamers Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner hold down safety spots pretty much in name only...

...while Revis and Browner have a talented duo backing them up in 2012 seventh round steal Alfonzo Dennard and 2013 third rounder Logan Ryan, who earned the nickname "Instant Offense" by his teammates for his ball-hawking ways while playing a limited role with the team last season.  Veteran Kyle Arrington will again man the slot, unless he can't hold off Ryan, who shined replacing Arrington last season.

Taking inventory, that's a combined seven Pro Bowls, five All Pro honors, three Canadian Football League All Star selections and an AFC Defensive Player of the Year award, not to mention a Super Bowl Title and a CFL Championship, and not one player on the depth chart has reached the age of 30.

So, many may question when Belichick selects both a corner and a safety in next month's NFL Draft, but it has to be remembered that Revis is on what is essentially a one-year, $12 million contract with two team option years for massive bucks, meaning there is a distinct possibility that Revis turns into a one-year rental of sorts, so the Patriots must plan for the future...

...not just for depth, but for enrollment in the Revis Island School for Defensive Backs, as excellent backups like Dennard and Ryan will have the opportunity to be mentored by arguably the best corner in the game, and the team would do well to bring in a prospect with a huge upside and is ultimately coachable who could learn from the master as well.

But the Revis factor isn't limited just to shutting down the opposition's best receiver, and not only to the improvement in the efficiency of the pass rush because the quarterback can't find a receiver, but also to the Patriots' young stable of receivers who will have the opportunity to practice against him every day.

Those are the types of things that you can't put a price tag on - but since there is a hefty one, prudence dictates that Belichick should get full value out of every dollar his boss his doling out for Revis.

With Revis and Browner - and also Ryan and Dennard - the Patriots have four physical press corners with the collective ability to shut down their opponent's passing game, and with the trend in the NFL pointing toward that end, it makes sense that Belichick would be looking for a like-skilled corner as well as a violent safety that causes any receiver who does manage to gain separation from one of corners to develop a chronic case of alligator arms.

Selecting at number 29 in the 2014 draft, Belichick can be assured that names like Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert  Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller will likely be gone, but it is highly unlikely that he would select a corner with his top pick anyway - in fact, it will likely be into the middle rounds before he even thinks about addressing the depth in the secondary.

Ohio State corner Bradley Roby may still be on the board early on the second day, and although he has scheme versatility playing zone and man with equal result, Roby was beaten regularly by bigger receivers, most notably Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and may be nothing more than a number two corner or slot man, which isn't really enough upside to spend 2nd round draft capital on.

Projected third rounder Keith McGill of Utah may be more along the lines of what the Patriots are thinking - a big, rangy corner with a safety background and a heart full of ill-intent toward his foes.  McGill doesn't always make the best decisions - neither on the field or off - so he needs to go to a team that has the veteran leadership to bring out the best in him...

...same with TCU's Jason Verrett, who is a smaller corner, but plays like he's ten feet tall and bullet proof.  An agitator not unlike Cortland Finnegan, but has speed to burn and treats the football like it's his, as does Marqueston Huff, a cornerback/free safety hybrid out of the University of Wyoming who has absolutely insane closing speed, which prompted his coaches at Wyoming to try him at safety for his senior year.

Although Huff is projected to be a fourth rounder, his is just the type of all-around skill set that makes him a favorite to be Belichick's early round surprise.

Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste leads a group of middle round prospects that fall right into Belichick's wheelhouse, where third or fourth round draft capital should yield a better return.  Jean-Baptiste is another big corner with lots of strength but not a whole lot of speed, while Virginia Tech's Antone Exum, whose size and confidence are very appealing, would be good value so long as he's fully recovered from off-season knee surgery.  At six-foot-even and 220 pounds, Exum is an excellent physical specimen for both corner and safety duty.

Not every excellent press corner in this draft is big and physical, as some, like Oregon State's Rashaad Reynolds, make up for what some would consider a lack of size at 5' 10" and 190 pounds with great instinctiveness and athleticism.

Reynolds may be the most natural man cover corner in the class, and is considered a steal if a team can pick him up at his projected third round grade - obviously shorter than the trend toward taller corners would be able to satisfy, Reynolds still does everything well and would benefit from New England's luxury of being able to bring him along at his own pace rather than just be thrown into the fire, but from the looks of it, he would be able to handle that anyway...

...which is pretty much the book on similarly sized Bashaud Breeland out of Clemson, who shows some of the same stickiness in coverage that Reynolds does and is a better overall athlete, but has pedestrian speed at best, which would limit him to zone or short area man, such as the slot.


Safeties are the bane of Bill Belichick's existence.

Actually, Belichick's misfortune with selecting any defensive backs in the NFL draft is well documented - and there is simply no way around it, but the safety position has been particularly frustrating as the head coach of the New England Patriots has tried in vain to redefine the position to match his vision for what it should be.

Blame Rodney Harrison.

Ever since Harrison started down the winding and painful road to retirement following the last of New England's three NFL Titles, missing all of 2005 and half of the 2006 season with injuries, the first part of 2007 due to suspension and nearly all of 2008 with a torn femoris muscle that ultimately prompted his retirement just before training camp in 2009.

Belichick is on record as stating multiple times that he considers Harrison one of the best players he has ever coached which, if you follow the Patriots with any regularity, is something that Belichick just doesn't blurt out on a whim - and it seems as if the Hoodie has been trying to find a reasonable facsimile since it became obvious that Harrison was on the way out seven years ago.

First he drafted Brandon Meriweather in 2007, then Chung in 2009, followed by Wilson, Ebner and Harmon and bringing in Steve Gregory and then Adrian Wilson in free agency - but Merriweather turned out to be nothing more than a thug, Chung had talent but broke like cheap glass, Wilson and Ebner are special teamers, Gregory never figured out how to tackle properly and Adrian Wilson never saw the field, spending his one season in New England on the IR...

...things got so bad that Belichick pegged 2010 first round cornerback McCourty to take over at free safety to lend some semblance of continuity while the strong spot remained a turnstile - but Harmon appears to be the best all around safety the team has had in nearly a decade and Chung is back for a second tour of duty, picked up by Belichick when Philadelphia showed him the door after just one season.

The need for a safety was tempered somewhat by the re-acquisition of Chung, and also trumped by the greater need at nickle linebacker, but if there is a way to get both at the same time, that lies in the person of Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier , who has sub 4.4 speed and safety size in an explosive weak-side linebacker.

Shazier could become the all-coveted Big Nickle, eliminating the need for a strong safety in the draft, particularly combined with the fact that the Patriots already have a fine set of back-enders and quality depth in Chung - a part-time role that should help the injury prone big hitter remain fresh and healthy.

Worst case, however, is that if Shazier is not available, neither will Louisville strong safety Calvin Pryor be, nor will Alabama free safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix , as they are projected top 20 selections, leaving the best value for their draft capital on the second day of the draft.

Clinton-Dix probably wasn't in the picture to begin with as the Patriots are looking to get heavier in the box, not necessarily more speedy at the position, though he offers true Day One starter potential with instincts and technique - which also may preclude Shane Vereen's kid brother, Minnesota's Brock Vereen, from plying his trade in New England.

The more heavy types who can contribute in both the box as well as in pass coverage should start coming off the board with Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward at the head of the line.

Ward is actually a combination between the free and strong varieties - like Harmon, but a more violent striker in the mold of Chung, going for the knockout blow when making contact, but whiffing on occasion. Like Chung, unfortunately, Ward is injury prone so he would also benefit from a part-time role. His speed in coverage is undeniable and would make a good backup for either Harmon or McCourty.

Should New England miss out on Shazier, Washington State's Deone Bucannon possesses the size to handle the nickle safety duties, and may be the most violent striker in the draft - delivering the nasty hit, but is choppy in coverage, which relegates him to the box in the pro game.

If New England fails to move on any safeties in the early rounds, the middle rounds hold good value for the position, which is the case for most positions in this draft.

Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner is much smaller than the position calls for, but has all of the intelligence, toughness and skill that would be tough to pass on in the fourth round.  Many say he's got a little Honey Badger in him, but Joyner is a much more physical tackler and hits like he means it.

LSU's Craig Loston  is a box defender with good size and a big mouth, and while he's not the fastest guy on the field, his upside as a more raw prospect is intriguing and he could be groomed to be an impact difference-maker on the back side.

The draft's third day offers intrigue and versatility was some 'tweeners that could be the nickle presence that the Patriots desire, with names like USC's Dion Bailey, Utah State's Maurice Alexander and Baylor's Ahmad Dixon all possessing the desired traits and experience as a nickle 'backer but lacking in the size to become a successful starting linebacker in the NFL...

...while Memphis safety Lonnie Ballentine, Alabama's Vinnie Sunseri and Jerry Gates out of Bowling Green are all projects that could stick with an emphasis on special teams and an eye on development.

As mentioned before, the Patriots are well-manned and very deep in the secondary, but with Revis possibly being just a one-year rental and McCourty coming up on a contract year, the forward thinking Belichick most likely will pluck a targeted defensive back or two if the guys that he covets fall into his wheelhouse...

...and if Revis does turn out to be just that, you can be certain that Belichick isn't paying the guy $12 million just to blanket receivers for one season, he's going to give him the title of "Professor Revis", with an honorary Doctorate in smothering receivers, filling his classroom with corners, safeties and receivers.

After all, if he's going to be paid like a top-shelf doctor and educator, the Patriots should take advantage of all he has to offer, both on the field and in the film room.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

New England Patriots on Paper - 2014 Schedule: Patriots open at Miami, close with three straight division foes

Two straight on the road to start the season, three division rivals in a row to end it, and with a literal plethora of Nationally televised night games in between, the New England Patriots 2014 schedule has been released by the National Football League.

New England opens at Miami on September 7th, then travel to Minnesota, luckily for an early autumn day game at their temporary digs at the University of Minnesota before finally playing before the home folks, hosting the Oakland Raiders in Week 3...

...the middle of the season highlighted with a Monday night visit to Kansas City, a Thursday night home duel with the hated Jets and three Sunday night games hosting the Bengals and visiting Indianapolis and San Diego.

New England ends the regular season with successive contests hosting the Dolphins, traveling to New York to play the Jets and then hosting the Bills.

Regular Season

Sunday, September 7th

New England @ Miami Dolphins
Sun Life Stadium - Miami Gardens, Florida - 1:00PM

After running for 156 yards in a November contest with the Dolphins in Foxborough, the Patriots came into the December game with Miami and completely abandoned their running game - and the result was predictable as the Dolphins took a 24-20 win at Sun Life Stadium as unknown and freshly signed safety Michael Thomas broke up a pass intended for Danny Amendola and then picked off a pass in the end zone intended for Austin Collie to secure the Dolphins' win.  Thomas was awarded AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.

Sunday, September 14th

New England @ Minnesota Vikings
TCF Bank Stadium - Minneapolis, Minnesota- 1:00PM

The Vikings will play all of their home games on the campus of the University of Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium, which precludes them from hosting any Monday night or Thursday night games until the last two weeks of the NFL season due to conflicts with the scheduling of other events on the campus.

What a lucky break for the Patriots, as they catch the Vikings in the early fall with an early afternoon start.  Since the Vikings are forced to play their home games outdoors for the next two seasons, whomever has to visit Minnesota in late December is going to be very cold.

Sunday, September 21st

Oakland Raiders @ New England
Gillette Stadium - Foxborough, Massachusetts  1:00PM

Two words: Tuck Rule.  Be prepared to hear that over and over and over again leading up to this matchup in Foxborough.  Ask any Raiders' fan about that playoff game back in 2001, when Raiders' cornerback strip-sacked Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady, the fumble recovered by Oakland linebacker Greg Beikert for what would have probably been a game ending turnover, but referee Walt Coleman overturned the call of fumble on the field, saying that Brady's arm was moving forward and deemed in an incomplete pass.

The Patriots were able to get an Adam Venitieri field goal to send the game into overtime, then another to beat the Raiders on their way to the first NFL title in New England franchise history.

Monday, September 29th

New England @ Kansas City Chiefs
Arrowhead Stadium - Kansas City, Missouri - 8:30PM

These teams may not have played each other in a while, but that doesn't mean there's not a history between them - and just the fact that they are playing at Arrowhead is chilling, as it can be one of the more intimidating venues in the league.

Bernard Pollard is no longer with the Chiefs, but was wearing the uniform when he shredded Tom Brady's knee on opening day in 2008 - in fact, there is no one left on that Kansas City team from that fateful day, but New England coach Bill Belichick is good buddies and frequent draft day trading partner with Kansas City coach Andy Reid.

Again, a lucky break for New England as they catch a Chiefs' team in the Fall instead of winter time, when it becomes bitterly cold in Kansas City.

Sunday, October 5th

Cincinnati Bengals @ New England
Gillette Stadium - Foxborough, Massachusetts - 8:30PM

A grudge match of sorts for the Patriots, as they fell to the Bengals 13-7 last season in monsoonal rains in Cincinnati - the dismal offensive performance leading to New England's first loss of the season after a 4-0 start.  The game also marked the end of the season for defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who suffered a torn ACL one week after nose tackle Vince Wilfork went down with a torn Achilles tendon.

Sunday, October 12th

New England @ Buffalo Bills
Ralph Wilson Stadium - Orchard Park, New York - 1:00PM

The Patriots paid a heavy price for their season opening win in western New York, losing running back Shane Vereen to a broken wrist and Danny Amendola to a completely torn adductor muscle - though both finished the game, Vereen rushing for over 100 yards despite breaking the wrist on the first play of the game and Amendola gutted out 104 receiving yards on 10 catches.

Vereen went on the IR - Eligible to return list and Amendola was never a factor the rest of the season but showed plenty in his Patriots' debut to be excited for his potential, and the Patriots set an ominous tone for the season with the first of many come-from-behind wins.

And again, catching the Bills in Buffalo in early October is much preferable to challenging both them and Old Man Winter in late December...

Thursday, October 16th

New York Jets @ New England
Gillette Stadium - Foxborough, Massachusetts - 8:25PM

Tom Brady had a very public meltdown just before halftime of this contest last season, jumping all over his rookie receivers for zigging instead of zagging, and the Jets' defense held the Patriots' offense to a paltry 232 total yards, but the New England defense forced four turnovers and the Jets' inexplicably turned away from their dominant running game as the Patriots' escaped with a 13-10 victory in a nationally televised Thursday night game.

Looks as if the Patriots and Jets are going to become annual Thursday night rivals..

Sunday, October 26th

Chicago Bears @ New England
Gillette Stadium - Foxborough, Massachusetts - 1:00PM

Just as with the Green Bay Packers, the history that the Patriots have with the Bears is limited to a game every four years, and that dismal Sunday back in 1986 when the Bears and their Super Bowl Shuffle crushed the Patriots by a score of 46-10 in one of the worst blowouts in Super Bowl history.

Going into the game, the Patriots were said to have a rampant drug problem that permeated the team, a story that was told with gusto by the national media, prompting one national writer to quip, "The Bears gave the Patriots their drug problem - they drug them all over the field."

Sunday, November 2nd

Denver Broncos @ New England
Gillette Stadium - Foxborough, Massachusetts - 4:25PM

No build up needed for this game, though it figures to be hyped and over-hyped ad nauseum for the entire week before the contest.  And why not?  After all, the teams split their two meeting last season, the Patriots taking an epic come-from-behind win in Foxborough during the regular season, then the Broncos winning the AFC Title over New England in January.

Sunday, November 9th

Bye Week

Sunday, November 16th

New England @ Indianapolis Colts
Lucas Oil Stadium - Indianapolis, Indiana - 8:30PM

Surprise, surprise, surprise...the Colts and Patriots meet once again - this time in Indianapolis where quarterback Andrew Luck will try to lead his Colts to a payback victory of sorts over a Patriots' team that eliminated them from the playoffs last January, former Patriots' running back LeGarrette Blount enjoying an epic performance against the Indianapolis defense and their kick coverage units.

Sunday, November 23rd

Detroit Lions @ New England
Gillette Stadium - Foxborough, Massachusetts - 1:00PM

The New England offensive line may feel like they owe the Lions' defensive line a good beating for the way the Lions jacked them up in the preseason last year by a score of 40-9 that wasn't even that close.  It was supposed to be the dress rehearsal for both teams, but Brady was pulled at halftime for the sake of his own health as the Lions pummeled the quarterback into submission.

Sunday, November 30th

New England @ Green Bay Packers
Lambeau Field - Green Bay, Wisconsin - 4:25PM

Not an abundance of history between the teams, just a little game called Super Bowl 31, a game where Patriots' quarterback Drew Bledsoe and running back Curtis Martin led a third quarter comeback to get the Patriots to within six after trailing by two touchdowns, Martin taking it in from 18 yards out to make the score 27-21 and give New England all of the momentum - but then Desmond Howard broke their backs with a 99 yard return of the ensuing kickoff and the Patriots' didn't score again.

Will it be deathly cold in Green Bay?  If so, the Patriots can always just think about the warm sun and sandy beaches of San Diego next week...

Sunday, December 7th

New England @ San Diego Chargers
Qualcomm Stadium - San Diego, California - 8:25PM

So long as LaDanian Tomlinson isn't playing, all should be good between these teams.  Tomlinson was part of a team that was eliminated two consecutive years by the Patriots, including a 21-12 win in the 2007 AFC Title game in which Tomlinson essentially quit on his team - and was one of the first players to speak out against Bill Belichick when SpyGate emerged, stating, "I think the Patriots actually live by the saying 'If you're not cheating, you're not trying,'"

recently, there hasn't been much of a history, other than New England signing since-departed Steve Gregory three years ago, and the Patriots losing third-down back Danny Woodhead to the Chargers last offseason.  The Chargers' offense will be a stiff test for New England's new-look defensive secondary with a revitalized Phillip Rivers tossing the most deep balls in the league last season.

Sunday, December 14th

Miami Dolphins @ New England
Gillette Stadium - Foxborough, Massachusetts - 1:00PM

The Patriots beat the Dolphins in a tightly contested struggle in mid-November last season, coming back from a 17-3 halftime deficit to outscore Miami 24-0 in the second half as part of an amazing six-week stretch where they opened each contest with poor offensive performances, then came screaming back into the games to win going away.  The New England running game gouged the Miami defense for 156 yards while quarterback Tom Brady suffered one of his worst days as a pro, barely hitting the century mark.

Sunday, December 21st

New England @ New York Jets
MetLife Stadium - East Rutherford, New Jersey - 1:00PM

The New England defense surrendered 177 yards on the ground to the potent Jets' running attack and the offense was limited to 295 total yards, but as had been a theme with the Patriots all season, they were resilient enough force the Jets into overtime, but a pair of personal fouls in the extra period - including one on rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones for unsportsman-like conduct for using the backs of his defensive teammates to launch himself in the air to try and block a long field goal attempt - doomed New England to their second loss of the season.

New York kicker Nick Folk missed the long field goal attempt which would have given New England excellent field position close to midfield, but Jones' penalty gave the Jets mew life and three plays later Folk nailed a 42 yarder to end the game.

Sunday, December 28th

Buffalo Bills @ New England
Gillette Stadium - Foxborough, Massachusetts - 1:00PM

The Patriots closed out their season on a roll, particularly on the ground as their power running game accounted for 267 yards as New England dominated the Bills.  As usual, the Bills racked up plenty of rushing yards themselves, but their defense had no answer for LeGarrette Blount, who ran wild for the second week in a row.

Previously released Preseason schedule

Thursday, August 7th
New England @ Washington Redskins
FedEx Field - Landover, Maryland - 7:30pm

Friday, August 15th
Philadelphia Eagles @ New England
Gillette Stadium - Foxborough, Massachusetts  - 7:30pm

Friday, August 22nd
Carolina Panthers @ New England
Gillette Stadium - Foxborough, Massachusetts  - 7:30pm

Thursday, August 28th
New England @ New York Giants
MetLife Stadium - East Rutherford, New Jersey - 7:30pm

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Reloading the Musket - Part 8: Linebacker depth critical to New England Patriots' success on defense

Without question, the most important need to address in the 2014 draft is that of linebacker depth - and it is very possible that the Patriots' double-dip to bolster the core.

But a first rounder?

In projecting Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier to be the Patriots' first round selection, he is seen as more than just a linebacker, as his size, speed and overall skill set suggest strong safety in addition to being fully capable depth on the weakside backing up Jerod Mayo - but beyond him, an athletic and violent inside linebacker would allow the coaches unimaginable versatility that could impact the entire defense.
Hightower should find a long-term home in the middle this season

The starters are excellent, with Mayo roaming the weak side, Jamie Collins the strong side and Dont'a Hightower anchoring the group in the middle - the trio representing top draft picks of the Patriots in recent years - but depth is nearly non-existent now that middle linebacker Brandon Spikes has made his way to Buffalo, burning every bridge along the way...

...so one would think that an inside linebacker would be the priority in the group until they stop to think of what Hightower brought with him from Alabama, a skill set unique in that he doubled up as a middle linebacker and stand-up defensive end for the Tide, and that he now has the opportunity to make good on the enormous promise he brought with him as a first round draft pick.

Particularly when the emergence of rookie second rounder Jamie Collins at strongside linebacker coupled with Spikes' departure created a perfect storm of sorts, making sure that coach Bill Belichick will be able to get all of his best players on the field with designed roles - Hightower with the green dot, able to move to nickle rusher on passing downs with quality depth behind him - fulfilling the perceived need for nickle rusher on the left defensive end.

Another perception in the media is that the Patriots should be desperate for safety help, which isn't necessarily true - but the fact that the old axiom that you can never have enough defensive backs is true, it makes sense to at least explore the options in the draft...

...and it makes even more sense if you can find safety depth that also doubles down as a linebacker - and that's what's so special about Ryan Shazier.

Shazier has been the target since the process of constructing mock drafts began just before the combine - and dozens of hours of film study and endless draft profiles later, try as we might, there was no faulting Shazier as the one player available in the draft that would bring the most value to the team - hands down.

Consider, the Big 12's leading tackler by a wide margin ran a 4.37 at Ohio State's Pro Day, a remarkable 40-time for a 6'1", 240 pound linebacker - and combined with his cover skills in both man and zone and the fact that he is as explosive a pass rusher as you'll find in this class coming off the second level and you have one freakish Big Nickle Safety.

But now, Shazier's draft stock has risen to the point that he may not be available when the Patriots' select at 29, as most national mock guys have him going in the early 20's - so if Belichick really wanted Shazier's versatility, he may have to trade up, but if he feels like he can find it elsewhere, it would be prudent for him to trade down...

...down to the second day, where he nearly always finds value in an area of need - and where a plethora of good linebacker depth roam.

In a trade-down scenario, names like Shazier and Alabama inside 'backer C. J. Mosely will be long gone, even if the trade down is just into the top of the second round, so the Patriots would have to lay their sites on second-tier talents, led by Florida State inside man Telvin Smith an instinctive but undersized linebacker that projects as a weaksider in the pros - and is a fall back candidate as a strong safety if Shazier doesn't fall.

At 6' 3" and 250 pounds, Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu provides a relentless pass rush from the weak side but offers little against the run, relegating him to nickle duties only, the same of which can be said of  Stanford's Trent Murphy and BYU's Kyle Van Noy , who is as a genuine talent with a wide variety of pass rush moves but needs to add significant bulk to hold up against the run.

To get a little of both pass rush ability and edge-setting physicality, the middle rounds hold promise with names like Adrian Hubbard , a 6' 6", 260 pound strong side 'backer that can play upright or with his hand in the dirt against the opposition's right tackle and tight ends - attributes which make Florida State's Christian Jones, a potential find on the second day.

Jones is a bit smaller than Hubbard, but very active and actually would work equally well as strong side or weak side depth.  After Jones, however, the drop off in regard to outside linebacker talent is conspicuous and is relegated to inside, downhill thumpers in the mold of former Patriots Brandon Spikes...

...which isn't the worst thing in the world, but given that New England has some depth on the inside already in the form of second year man  Steve Beauharnais, the question arises as to whether any of them are an upgrade over the mostly untested Rutgers product.

Throwbacks Max Bullough of Michigan State, Chris Borland out of Wisconsin and Louisville slugger Preston Brown are all two-down run stuffers with limited special teams value and no versatility, while Stanford's Shayne Skov and UCLA's Jordan Zumwalt offer more, but are wildcards due to injury.  In fact, Skov tore his ACL in his junior season and struggled through his senior campaign unable to plant and drive - otherwise he would be a steal in the middle rounds.

But if the Patriots decided to wait it out and select in the later rounds, Kevin Pierre-Louis of Boston College is a local product that could be a hidden gem on the third day.

A workout warrior, Pierre-Louis could very well be the most versatile linebacker in the class this side of Shazier, as he played the weakside for half of his college career, strong side the latter half, while playing the equivalent of nickle safety when the situation dictated - and he ran a 4.51 at the combine, plus finished in the top three in just about every agility drill there.

The fact that Pierre-Louis also played Lacrosse at Boston College will probably score points with Belichick, who is an aficionado of the sport.

All told, the linebacker class is fairly shallow when it comes to the versatility that the Patriots desire from their second level players - and with the need so high on the priority list, it's either Shazier in the first, Telvin Smith or Adrian Hubbard in the third or Pierre-Louis in the 5th or 6th rounds.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Reloading the Musket - Part 7: Stout run stuffers, edge-setters the need for Patriots' defensive line

There is much conjecture among fans and media surrounding the needs for the New England Patriots along their defensive line, but a brief look at the struggles of last season tells one all they need to know about the true needs.

Of all the season-ending injuries suffered by the defense last season, the loss of Vince Wilfork to a torn Achilles tendon in the week four win at Atlanta was by far the most debilitating - the very cornerstone of the unit got ripped out from underneath them - and losing Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo in successive games insured that the Patriots would never fully recover from it.

They nearly did anyway, which is unbelievable in and of itself - but by the time New England arrived in Denver for the AFC Championship game, they were a true skeleton crew.

So broken on offense that Tom Brady became a sitting duck and so short-handed on defense, particularly after losing cornerback Aqib Talib in the first half, that the Patriots' pass rushers were relegated to chipping receivers and playing the run before initiating their pressure on the quarterback, Peyton Manning toying with them relentlessly with all of his free time.
'Bama's Stinson could be a terror on the edge for New England

And yet they still held that prolific Broncos' offense to just 26 points.

Folks, the point is that the structure is so ingrained that it's not just part of the culture in Foxborough, it is the culture - so much so that the structure can absorb a blow or two every now and then and still function within specified parameters, but at full strength has the potential to operate at a very high level - perhaps even a top five standard.

But to lose the anchor, with virtually no depth behind him was a faux pas that Bill Belichick regretted almost immediately, and when he tried to fill Wilfork's spot with players who were woefully undersized to be true anchors, the run defense went from top ten to worst in the league in the space of three games.

The linebackers couldn't do their jobs because they were forced to play the run to support the undersized middle, and Mayo's injury took strongside linebacker Dont'a Hightower so far out of position and piled so much responsibility on top of him that he looked overwhelmed and downright foolish at times.

But when Sealver Siliga became available after being released from the Seahawks' practice squad, Belichick quickly signed him up, having had an eye on the massive nose tackle as he bounced between three different teams - and when he was activated immediately following the regular season win over the Broncos, suddenly the defense was stopping the run...

...the linebackers were flying around and making plays, free of the guards that always seemed to make it to the second level simply by running over try-hard Joe Vellano and no-try Issac Sopoaga.  All of that ended when Siliga took over in the middle as he and tackle Chris Jones clicked and the yards against average for their opponents came down by a full two yards a carry.

So when we're talking needs with the Patriots' defensive line, it has to start at the nose, where Wilfork will be back in some capacity - a 330-plus pound man returning from a torn Achilles is pretty much an unknown quantity, particularly manning the nose - and Siliga will be back and will have had a full training camp and preseason to prepare to split snaps with the big man.

At defensive tackle, there is some question if there is a need at all - but a pass rushing defensive end should be on the menu, one that not only gets after the passer, but can also set the edge against the run and sniff out the screen...

...and neither is as plentiful in this draft class as we have been led to believe - particularly on the interior where a lack of true options on the nose has experts and laymen alike preaching the joys of ill-fitting tweeners.

New England runs a base 4-3, which is relevant just three snaps out of ten, on average, as the team is in some nickle or dime sub package seventy percent of the time - which means that nickle rushers may as well be starters, so the fascination with taller, lighter, more scheme versatile three techinques is completely understood.

But all of that considered, what many mock draft guys are projecting for New England is what they already have an abundance in, the 300 pound quick-footed interior penetrator that gets after the quarterback, chases the screen, etc - which is well-manned in Foxborough by veteran Tommy Kelly and second year men Chris Jones and Armond Armstead.

Jones is undersized, but is quick and a slippery penetrator - he will play a back-up rotational role, and Armstead is truly an unknown but appears to be everything a 4-3 tackle should be - while Kelly flashed big-time technique and a great compliment to Wilfork on the interior line, so the focus on the defensive line should be on a two-gapping nose tackle on the interior.

Height is most critical with nose tackles, as part of their job is to get under the pads of the center or guard to gain leverage and dictate which direction the play goes, so massive guys at around 325 - 335 pounds and standing no taller than 6' 2" or 6' 3" should be the preference...

Notre Dame's Louis Nix is the top rated nose tackle available, and while he still had another year of college eligibility remaining, the big man has taken his college degree and said his thank you's and is headed to the NFL, hoping to help provide for 13 brothers and sisters with his salary.

The book on Nix is mixed, as he is a wide body capable of clogging two gaps, but doesn't play as strongly as his size might indicate - would definitely have benefited from another year in college, but may benefit more from a year under the tutelage of an NFL strength and conditioning coach.

A more ready product may be Florida State's Timmy Jernigan, who is undersized for the nose at 300 pounds, but is country strong and old-school tough - but is not really a 4-3 nose.  In fact, Jernigan, as well as tackles such as Notre Dame's Stephon Truitt, Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman and Florida's Dominique Easley are three or even five-technique tackles - or even base ends in the 4-3 - as is the phenomenal talent of Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald, but they are not nose tackles.

The Patriots' 4-3 base alignment requires the nose to take on the double team and to keep the guard off of the linebackers on the second level, forcing the play to redirect away from the double team, in theory making the middle linebacker's decision of which gap to shoot easier.

As mentioned, we noticed many times last season after Vince Wilfork went down with the torn Achilles, Brandon Spikes would shoot the gap as he normally would, but would be taken out of the play because backups Joe Vellano and later Isaac Sopoaga would become overwhelmed by the double team and the opponents would run right at them - the result being nearly seven yards per rush for the offense...

...but once the 6' 2", 325 pound Sealver Siliga was picked up and activated, the opposition no longer were able to run right at the nose and Spikes wasn't left hanging in the wind - and it wasn't just Spikes that benefited from Siliga's presence on the line, as Dont'a Hightower was able to flow to the action without a guard on him and without having to commit to the run before playing the pass.

So with Wilfork and Siliga entrenched - but both with expiring contracts after this season - the team should spare their top picks and be looking in the middle rounds for a developmental nose tackle, someone like Penn State's DaQuan Jones , who at 6' 3" and 325 pounds has a solid base to work with and a frame that could handle another ten pounds of muscle...

Louisiana Tech's Justin Ellis is a gargoyle, immovable in the running game but due to mobility issues is a fit only as a nose tackle in the 4-3 - making him perfect for the Patriots' rotational scheme as an early down run plugger - as is Arkansas State's Ryan Carrethers, a late round prospect that could emerge into a solid rotational player from the 5th or 6th round.

The aforementioned Truitt, Hageman, Easley and Donald could figure in the conversation of nickle rushers at the five technique or base end, though all but Donald figure as more three technique disruptors which, as mentioned, is well-manned already down the depth chart - and with the team eschewing talent along the line in the early rounds, there is one player that will be available in the middle rounds that could be versatile enough to bounce anywhere between a one to a five technique, and on the end as well.

Alabama's Ed Stinson is 6' 3" and a stout 290 pounds, and just might be the ticket in Foxborough - country strong, he doesn't worry about fancy moves, he just drives the tackle back into the pocket and may be the best 4-3 defensive end against the run in the class.  Similar in build to former teammate Dont'a Hightower and has a similar upside in versatility as he can move inside, all the way if needed.

At defensive end, one of the things that we constantly heard from the team last season was the need for depth that could provide a pass rush, but also was stout enough to set the edge in the running game - which Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich provide, but the depth behind them is suspect, to say the least - the very reason why the Patriots went out in mid-season and signed Andre Carter to provide depth, but he was never a long-term solution.

Third year bust Jake Bequette is a huge disappointment and most of the reason for the need for depth - and he will be extremely fortunate to still be on the team come September, which leaves only sophomore Michael Buchanan as depth on the outside - flashing impressive pass rushing skill in his rookie season, but floundered down the stretch as he lost his backup role to Carter because he couldn't consistently set the edge in the running game.

Part of that was his slender frame.  Drafted out of Illinois, Buchanan started opposite future-Houston Texans pass rushing demon Whitney Mercilus and many considered Buchanan a superior talent off the edge, but he suffered a broken jaw in a scuffle just before his senior season began and lost thirty pounds that he struggled to put back on - so at 255 pounds he was just not as stout as the Patriots needs him to be.

With a full season in the Patriots program under his belt, Buchanan very much figures into the plans for the defensive line, but there is nothing else otherwise as far as depth is concerned - and much of what Belichick does along the line will be connected to how the depth at linebacker shakes out, where if adequate, we could see Jamie Collins have a role off the left side.

Early round prospects such as Missouri's Kony Ealy could figure in as a versatile pass rushing demon off the edge and has the frame to get stronger and become better at setting the edge, though he is a project that would be better as a nickle rusher in his current capacity - which is exactly where Auburn's Dee Ford projects off the left side, as he offers next to nothing against the run.

North Carolina's Kareem Martin leads a plethora of second day prospects that offer more than just flashy pass rush moves.  Also in need of an NFL weight training program, he nevertheless offers intriguing upside  that could be honed into a starting position in the near future as a three-down edge defender - as does Oregon State's Scott Crichton, who has a similar size and build as Ninkovich and his upside on the left could see him in a rotational role initially, but could bud into something more down the line.

Bloomburg's Larry Webster is listed as a defensive end that could develop into a fine nickle rusher, though he is very thin for the position and most scouts see him value switching to the other side of the ball as a "Move" type tight end.

Oregon's Taylor Hart leads a list of third day candidates, most of whom at try-hard, lunchpail types who could stick as situational or rotational depth.  Zach Moore is an intriguing Division II prospect from Concordia College whose versatility could find him a spot and many different positions along the front seven, even as a strong-side linebacker - and West Virginia's Will Clarke has been most compared to Chandler Jones in style and size, but is a true project.

A wildcard in this scenario is Stinson's Alabama teammate, outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard, at 6' 6" tall and 260 pounds, Hubbard could project as a nickle rusher on the outside, either standing or with his hand in the dirt whose greatest attribute is setting the edge on the left side.  He is raw in his pass rush repitoire and is a bit of a diva, but not a bad look in the fourth or fifth rounds.

While the interior of the defensive line should not be considered a first day need for New England, all of the talent that they desire should be available on the second day, and even the third day as there are many scheme-specific athletes that could prove to be late round gems

The Patriots could do worse than a  DaQuan Jones or Justin Ellis or even a Ryan Carrethers to man the nose, while Ed Stinson could serve in many different roles on the interior of the line, and Hubbard or Zach Moore could be second and third day finds at defensive end.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Reloading the Musket - 2014 Mock Draft: Shazier remains atop Patriots' prospects; "Johnny Jaguar" to Jax

As expected, the weak quarterback class of 2014 is starting to manifest doubt in the hearts and brains of general managers all throughout the NFL, and if the downward trend continues, this draft could be forever known as the Clipboard Draft.

Most mock drafts have gone along with the trend, including this one as Volume 1 of this series listed three quarterbacks going in the top 10, omitting both Houston and Cleveland from consideration, then in Volume 2 we listed two, this time leaving Oakland out of the equation - but in all fairness, Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr has been a consistent choice for the Browns at 26 from the start...

...and there are many choices that were mere gut-calls back in February that have stood the test of time - relative to the NFL offseason, naturally.  For example:

*How could Houston pass up the best player in the draft and not draft Jadeveon Clowney with the first pick?

*The Jaguars need Johnny Manziel to be the face of their franchise for more reasons than one;

*Sammy Watkins will end up in Cleveland to be teamed with Josh Gordon and 26th pick Carr;

*Jerry Jones is going to crap down both legs when Aaron Donald is available at 16;

*Miami taking Notre Dame tackle Zack Martin will be the worst kept secret of the draft;

*Ryan Shazier remains the Patriots' pick and will become the final piece to a defense that is going to be among the best in football.

The first round of the 2014 draft comes with a caveat, however, in that the second day is loaded down with such great depth - including quarterbacks, tight ends and receivers - that there could be a record number of trades as teams with no one clear-cut need will be looking to trade their top pick to gain extra leverage where the meat is, between the 2nd and 4th rounds.

This is especially true for the St. Louis Rams, who could blast the entire draft sideways by doing just that with one or both of their first round selections - and any team from Cleveland at 26 on down are candidates to trade back if the teams needing signal callers look to move up and trump each other in their quest for something adequate.

1. Houston - Jadeveon Clowney, DE. South Carolina

It certainly sounds as if the Texans are planning to do everything they can to avoid picking a quarterback with the first overall selection in the draft, and it was a stroke of genius by Bill O'Brien to bring in veteran signal caller Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is a game manager if there ever was one.

With no sure-fire franchise signal caller in the draft, the Texans take the top rated player in the draft to team with JJ Watts to give them the most imposing pair of bookend pass rushers in the NFL.

A Quarterback?  They'll take Jimmy Garappolo with the first pick in the second round.

Original projection: Clowney

2. St. Louis - Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn

Unabashedly, the Rams are dangling the #2 overall pick in front of quarterback hungry teams willing to give up a boat load of picks as compensation - but it seems that the excitement surrounding the top three quarterback prospects has waned a bit with either poor combine showings, or not working out at all - so the Rams' status of having the second pick is a bit fluid.

On paper, this team has it all, everywhere except along the offensive line and a quarterback that doesn't break like cheap glass. If they stay at #2, they take the top rated tackle in the draft second overall, then address a need for a field stretching wide receiver at #13.

Original projection: Robinson

3. Jacksonville - Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M

The Jaguars are a mess, but they're not as bad off as they were at this point last season due to the drafting of Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, who protected the blind side of manic quarterback Johnny Manziel before becoming a Jaguar - and who has spoken on record that he believes that his former teammate belongs in northern Florida. The Jaguars insist that they are not targeting a quarterback, but they lie.

"Johnny Football" becomes "Johnny Jaguar" and gives Jacksonville their franchise quarterback - not to mention putting butts in the seats at EverBank Field - right now, that's what it's all about for the floundering Jags...

Original projection: Manziel

4. Cleveland - Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson

New Browns' bench boss Mike Pettine is apparently enamoured with brief 2013 starter Brian Hoyer and says that he's the top guy going into the offseason process - and while things change in a hurry in the NFL, for the moment it sounds like he won't take a QB with the #4 overall.

Cleveland follows the lead of the Texans and grabs the most explosive playmaker in the draft and waits until #26 to snag their franchise quarterback, who will have the luxury of being able to use his huge arm to throw to both Watkins and Josh Gordon, then solidifies their line with guard David Yankey in the second round.

Original projection: Watkins

5. Oakland - Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M

The Raiders brought former Texans' fans' punching bag Matt Schaub and immediately anointed him day one starter - and who knows how Schaub will prosper in the Black Hole - but one thing is for certain: If they don't protect the quarterback, it won't matter who's taking the snaps.

Oakland tried to spend major money on their tackle positions in free agency, Bringing in Austin Howard from the Jets and Roger Saffold from the Rams, but Saffold somehow managed to fail his physical and reverted back to the Rams, so the Raiders look to the best tackle available in the draft.

Original projection: Teddy Bridgewater; in Volume 2: Matthews

6. Atlanta - Kahlil Mack, OLB, Buffalo

Jadeveon Clowney all but begged the Falcons to trade up to the top pick of the draft to select him - but that's going to take some draft capital that the Falcons can't afford to part with, and the Falcons have already pretty much played that hand out in free agency by spending big bucks on their defensive line.

With both of the top offensive tackles off the board, the Falcons have some decisions to make as far as draft value - do they take the next best offensive lineman, or wait until the second round and take a pass rushing terror to continue their defensive overhaul?  The bet here is that they won't be able to pass on Mack.

Original projection: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M

7. Tampa Bay - Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA

The biggest need in Tampa is for an edge rusher, and short of Jadeveon Clowney slipping to the Buccaneers at seven - which wouldn't happen in even the strangest of parallel dimensions -  Barr is the guy, whether the new regime has a stongside linebacker spot waiting for him or they need him to bulk up to play with his hand in the dirt.

The Buccaneers with Lovie Smith appear to be in full rebuilding mode, as they have dismantled their offensive line and dumped major salaries across the board, and also have brought in Smith favorite Josh McCown to call signals under center so there is work to do everywhere and nothing should surprise Bucs' fans on draft weekend.

Original projection: Barr

8. Minnesota - Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida 

Bortles has climbed most mock drafts all the way to the top pick of the draft, but this quarterback class has it's share of mystery and certainly no locks to be a success - and with a talent evaluator's charge being to find the guy that give the offense the best chance of succeeding, the Vikings would have to be considered a perfect destination for Bortles.

Classic pocket quarterback that can balance the Vikings' offense and with the play action talent to take advantage of the attention that defense pays to their running game - and the big hands that you want your quarterback to have when you go to places like Green Bay and Chicago in the middle of the freaking winter.

Bortles remains the pick though it is rumored that the Vikings have expressed interest in LSU's Zack Mettenberger, who should be available when they select in the second round - and if the Vikings do plan on going into the second for Mettenberger, the slide for Bortles could be Rodgers-esque.

Original projection: Bortles

9. Buffalo - Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina

When approached on the matter of trying to resign tight end Scott Chandler, coach Doug Marone was less than enthusiastic in his response, telling reporters that it was a matter for team management, not him - not exactly a ringing endorsement, yet they re-signed him anyway.

Without a doubt, the fastest and most versatile tight end in the draft is an immediate upgrade over the plodding, yet effective Chandler - which is more an indication of Ebron's skill than any thing to do with the serviceable Chandler and immediately gives quarterback E.J. Manuel a solid safety valve in the middle of the field and a huge, athletic target in the red zone.

The Bills lost free safety Jarius Byrd in free agency, so it would not surprise to see them go for the best safety in the class to replace him, though it sounds as if the coaching staff is counting on strong safety Aaron Williams to make the switch.

Original projection: Ebron

10. Detroit - Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M 

The Lions desperately need a big, fast wideout to take some heat off of Megatron, and the speedy Evans can do just that. At a rangy 6' 5" and a sturdy 231 pounds and the longest arms of any receiver in the draft class, the only question the Lions needed answered was what manner of straight line speed Evans brings - and he ran a respectable 4.53 at the combine.

Don't be fooled by the Lions acquisition of Seattle's Golden Tate, who at 5' 10" projects into more of a slot role.  The team needs Evans.

Original projection: Evans

11. Tennessee - Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State

Gilbert is a high-wire act, taking incredulous risks and relying on his his range and athleticism to get him by if his plans backfire - but a solid man corner with a nose for the ball, and while he isn't overly aggressive or physical at the point of contact, his risky style leads to some spectacular plays and with a little NFL coaching, he could be the outside shut-down corner of the immediate future in this defense.

Original projection: Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo

12. New York Giants - Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan

Lewan's got a questionable reputation coming out of college, being linked (in name only) to a couple of indiscretions on the campus of the University of Michigan, but he did his best at the combine to quell the talk and stop the rumor mill - did he say enough to keep the Giants enticed?

This is need number one for the Giants, protecting Eli Manning's blind side.

Original projection: Lewan

13. St. Louis - Calvin Pryor, SS, Louisville

St. Louis is a wildcard in the draft as they will be given every opportunity to trade down with one or both of their 1st round picks - however, if they do keep the picks, an offensive tackle is a must and then it comes down to who's available at safety and wide receiver...

...and after taking a bath in shame for last year's 1st round debacle, will they be hesitant to re-up on a wide receiver in the first round again? Another issue facing the Rams is that they desperately need a big, violent strong safety - and many good pure strong safeties will be available throughout the second day of the draft.

St Louis has tons of leverage with two picks in the first round and seven picks on the third day, so a very good argument could be made for the Rams to move down and collect second day picks, where all of the great depth lies.

Those thing said, they could just stay the course and take the best safety in the draft to ensure quality, and Pryor is nothing if not a huge hitter and a force in the running game - and being as they play in the NFC West with those prolific power running schemes....

Original projection: Marquis Lee

14. Chicago - Hasean Clinton-Dix, SS, Alabama

With the passing attacks that the Bears have to face in the NFC North, not to mention a couple of pretty good running backs, the Bears just can't continue to rely on patchwork in the safety positions any longer.  In Clinton-Dix, Chicago gets a free safety that can cover deep or underneath and has some man press abilities.  He's not the most physical of safeties, but his speed and lateral quickness could work wonders.

Original projection: Clinton-Dix

15. Pittsburgh - Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State

Ike Taylor fell apart in the second half of last season and carries a cap hit equivalent to what the franchise tag offers, and the Steelers just can't afford it. Releasing Taylor for cap relief is probable, and even if they somehow manage to retain him, he's 33 years old with a lot of wear on his tires.

As fluid a corner as you'll find in the draft, the Steelers will snatch up Dennard in a heartbeat if he's there for them at 15.

Original projection: Dennard

16. Dallas - Aaron Donald, DT/DE Pittsburgh

What a mess the Cowboys' defense is in now.  They've needed a safety since - well - forever, and then they allow their top two defensive linemen to escape the circus.

Luckily for them, there will be some quality safeties available in the second round and into the third, but to get an impact-type defensive lineman, they need to do it right here - and Aaron Donald is a Godsend to the Cowboys in the middle of the third round.

Donald is undersized for a defensive tackle, but somehow manages to slip through the tiniest of openings and causes all sorts of chaos in the opponent's backfield, and he's so quick that he can play five technique and abuse offensive tackles as well.

Original projection: Donald

17. Baltimore - Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State

How perfect was Anquan Boldin for the Baltimore Ravens' offense?  Well, good enough to take a stab at another big, reasonably fast possession receiver - and the Ravens should be a top destination for Benjamin regardless of the Steve Smith signing.

Benjamin is a beastly cross between the storied Ravens' possession receiver and a move-type tight end and will undoubtedly draw plenty of attention away from Torey Smith on the other side of the field - and at 6' 5" and 240 pounds and huge hands, he could be a natural insurance policy should tight end Dennis Pitta either not be retained or get injured.

Original projection: Benjamin

18. New York Jets - Marquis Lee, WR, USC 

Poor Rex Ryan.  He can't get anyone to sign with the Jets outside of the over-rated money grabber Eric Decker from the Broncos.  At least Decker fills that need, but the fact that Ryan had to cut his best remaining cornerback while banking on picking up a top DB in free agency blew up in his face.

The feeling is that while Decker is on board, he is a limited possession receiver and the need for a true number one is glaring, not because Geno Smith needs more weapons to throw to, rather, Michael Vick needs more weapons to throw to - Smith may be the starter at the beginning of the season, but don't think for a second that Ryan isn't looking for an excuse to make Vick his signal caller, and a slow start by the offense should provide that.

So with Eric Ebron off the board, the choice is between the inconsistent speedster Odell Beckham and the solid playmaking after-the-catch ability of Marquis Lee - and if he gets it right, Lee will be wearing a Jets' jersey come September.

Original projection: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU

19. Miami - Zack Martin, T/G, Notre Dame

It requires zero brains to realize that dysfunctional Miami needs to rebuild an offensive line torn apart by scandal last season, and Martin could wind up being the binding agent that brings it all together.  While not as accomplished as a Matthews or a Robinson, he is far more versatile and can play every position along the line - though his best spot would probably be holding down Richie Incognito's old left guard position.

Original projection: Martin

20. Arizona - Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri

Arizona may have solidified the core of their team more than any other in free agency, finding a starting left tackle and plenty of cornerback help - leaving the outside pass rush as the top need - and while outside linebacker could use an upgrade, there's linebackers crawling all over the second round. 

The Cardinals got a lot out of greybeard John Abraham last season, but they would be wise to lock up a young defensive end for Abraham to mentor.  Ealy has some positional versatility and can rush the quarterback from the blind side from an end position or from a standing weakside linebacker position.

Original projection: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech

21. Green Bay - CJ Mosely, ILB, Alabama

The Packers need many things, but for their defense to take a step up to the next level, the front seven must be stabilized.  They took steps in free agency to do just that by signing Julius Peppers and re-signing OLB Mike Neal.  Neal can play anywhere in front seven but his best position with Green Bay is on the outside, which mean the need for an interior linebacker is key.

There's nothing spectacular about his game and he is rated as high as a top 10 pick in some mocks to as low at the top of the second round in others, so it's more or less a crap shoot with Mosely - but less so with Green Bay, surrounded by top notch outside backers and a stout defensive line.

Original projection: Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State

22. Philadelphia -Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota

An interesting prospect that would be among the highest rated tackles in the draft were he more consistent.  He's explosive in getting into the backfield, and when rushing the passer he can shoot through gaps or simply pull his man to the ground and run over him, but he is a project when it comes to the running game, his length working against him as shorter guards can get under his pads.

Not a bad pick in this spot for an Eagles' team that values mobile and versatile linemen in their defensive scheme.

Original projection: Calvin Pryor, SS, Louisville

23. Kansas City - Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

Speed is what Andy Reid needs.  Actually, what Reid needs is some consistency, and with the explosive Dexter McCluster probably on his way out of town, it leaves just Dwayne Bowe and the wildly inconsistent Donnie Avery for Pro Bowl quarterback Alex Smith to throw to on the outside and down the field.

Enter the appropriately named Cooks, who absolutely burned up the field at Lucas Oil Stadium during the combine with an overall best 4.33 on the 40 yard dash, coupled with him going for over 1,700 yards and catching 16 touchdowns in an incredibly average Oregon State offense and winning The Bilitnikof Award for the nation's best receiver...

Original projection: Cooks

24. Cincinnati -Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech

The Bengals needs are very simple: they need some help at offensive tackle, maybe at guard depending on how things shake out in a seemingly fluid situation - and also at corner, where Terrence Newman is getting a little long in the tooth and Dre Kirkpatrick is not the successor.

In this instance, Fuller gives the team some versatility as he is a scrapper that has extensive collegiate experience at both inside and outside techniques as a corner and at safety as well.  He could be the Swiss Army Knife on the back end of the Bengals' defense.

Original projection:  Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State

25. San Diego - Jason Verrett, CB, TCU

Verrett is the intense, twitchy guy that would be the pest on a hockey team - smallish, talkative, always buzzing around your head, just waiting for the opportunity to drop the gloves...

The TCU product is smallish in stature but big in confidence and attitude, a perfect combination for a nickle slot back - his athleticism and natural football instincts allow him to be exceptional in space and he is willing in run support - a perfect addition to an over-achieving team.

Original projection: Verrett

26. Cleveland - Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State

So now Cleveland has Josh Gordon and Sammy Watkins and a truly great offensive line - they also have Brian Hoyer at quarterback, who will play the part of "incumbent" to the strong-armed rookie and let the chips fall where they may.

Ideally, Carr would win a quarterback competition (isn't that what you would expect from your first round pick?) and have one of the most able backups in the NFL in Hoyer, just in case.

Original projection: Carr

27. New Orleans - Dee Ford, DE, Auburn

Ideally, the Saints could use a good cover corner, but the best ones are off the board by this time.  The Saints are pretty lean on pass rushers as well, and Ford is the best athlete left on the board in an area of need.

Ford is undersized for defensive end, but is perfectly sized for either the nickle rusher in Rob Ryan's defense or at weak side.  He is strong at setting the edge and for holding containment.

Original projection: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri

28. Carolina - Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State

The Panthers have an emergency need at wide receiver and some help along the offensive line, but all of the elite talent has already been scooped up - so a question to ask themselves is if they reach for a second round talent in an area of need, trade out of the round and pick up draft capital for the second day or take the best athlete left on the board?

At this point Robinson would be a decent pick as a bigger receiver who has a knack for making himself available as a safety valve type possession receiver who picks up the majority of his yardage after the catch.  He's not a burner by any means, but gets constant separation and works the middle of the field like a tight end - and is also a willing downfield blocker in the mold of recently departed receiver Brandon LaFell.

Original projection: Robinson

29. New England - Ryan Shazier, LB/SS, Ohio State

The need here is for a nickle rusher as well as a physical intimidator underneath the coverage - and Shazier could be both.

Small for a linebacker at 6' 2" and 235 pounds, Shazier was the fastest linebacker in the nation the past two seasons, easily covering running backs and tight ends in the pattern underneath with a penchant for causing cases of alligator arms amongst them - he was a finalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, and anyone who saw Ronnie Lott play for the 49ers knows what "impact" means.

An accomplished blitzer who hits like a ton of bricks, coupled with being one of the best sideline-to-sideline talents in college football, Shazier projects as a big nickle who would also provide quality depth on the weak side - a cover backer with his safety skill and range, as well as being an explosive pass rusher, Shazier would complete the back seven picture for the Patriots' defense.

Read our seven-round Patriots' mock draft here! 

Original projection: Shazier

30. San Francisco -O'Dell Beckham, WR, LSU

Beckham can flat out fly, and plays even faster than his 4.3 forty time suggests.  his greatest advantage of playing in the 49ers' system is that his strengths lie in his solid route running, sticky fingers and creativity and elusiveness after the catch.

San Francisco is loaded with short-area play makers, and Beckham would add another dimension to an offense that gets bogged down when defenses can take away their short passing game - and his kick return experience is an added bonus.

Original projection: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota

31. Denver - Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State

Perhaps a reach in the first round, but Denver has a need for a corner opposite newly signed Aqib Talib with Rogers-Cromartie turning down many dollars from the Broncos and bolting for the Giants.

What may end up happening is that Denver could move up or down the board - up to take a stab at Mosely or Shazier to bolster their linebacking corps, or down to get better currency out of their draft picks.

Original projection: CJ Mosely, ILB, Alabama

32. Seattle - Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech

How does one replace a Golden Tate in this offense?  Right, bring in the guy that amounts to the biggest slot receiver in the draft.

Amaro is huge, but he has tremendous foot speed and is adept at splitting the seam but he's not a full value tight end in that he offers little in the way of inline blocking but would be a huge, fast safety valve for Russell Wilson to look for while he's scrambling around...

...and the kid offers a large target with big mitts that swallow the ball.

Original projection: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reloading the Musket - New England Patriots 2014 Mock Draft, Volume 2: Shazier still the pick

Always trust your gut.

When it's dinner time - or even when I'm just feeling snackish - my gut tells me that a double quarter-pounder with cheese is my main course, but not until I've visited Burger King for their fries and Wendy's for an order of their chicken nuggets and, of course, a chocolate frosty.

And Taco Bell for a six pack of tacos.
Potential Patriots S Marqueston Huff (2) and TE Crockett Gillmore (10)

If I'm feeling like something different, it's the KFC people for their famous bowl, an order of biscuits and extra mashed potatoes and gravy - and a six pack of tacos.  Never underestimate the versatility of a taco.

Some would feel like it would be a lot of unnecessary travel just to satisfy my overly sensitive palate, but all of these places are within a mile of each other on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, a filthy little burg of about 35,000 people in south-central Maine, the city's only claim to fame the 1965 Heavyweight Championship rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston.

That was the "Phantom Punch" fight, where legend has it that Liston took a dive to satisfy some undisclosed debt to the mob, turning what was supposed to be "one of the great things to happen in Maine", as said by then Governor John Reed into an embarrassment that ruined the mill town.

But we still have fast food joints - except Wendy's, which has relocated the the good side of the Androscoggin River - and the arena that the fight took place in is still standing as a hockey arena, but that's about it.

Things would be a lot easier if there was such thing as a buffet joint in the center of town where one could go and get their different favorites in one convenient place - which is kind of like what the Patriots get when they go to the NFL Draft in New York, all of their favorite flavors together in one place...

...the line is very long and there is a chance that the select menu item will be out of stock by the time Bill Belichick bellies up to the buffet table and grabs the big nasty spoon, but that's where having diverse tastes in many different cuisines comes in handy - and the Hooded one is rarely disappointed with the leftovers.

Because to him, they are not leftovers.  They are players that Belichick has projected to be still on the menu when it becomes his turn - and the proof is in the pudding, so to speak, as every player drafted by the Patriots in 2013 made the 53 man roster.

As far as my gut is concerned, I have felt that Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier should be the Patriots' first round draft choice since the beginning of the evaluation process, given his versatility, speed and the ability to track running backs in the pattern like a safety...

...and that a feature back, some help along the defensive line and at safety, a multi-dimensional tight end and some interior offensive line help should be included in the draft mix - and lastly, a big, developmental quarterback with a cannon for an arm.

At least, that's what my gut tells me - and since it's speaking, I guess it's time to hit Mickey D's...

1. Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State

Identified before the combine as the best fit of all potential first rounders within reach of the Patriots at number 29, Shazier is what an evil scientist might piece together in a lab as the prototypical Big Nickle - and if anyone were to doubt his ability to play amongst the big boys, take a look at this goal line stand last season:

Shazier is lightning quick and has violent intent in the pass rush and run support, and has the kind of instincts and big hitting ability that makes receivers account for his whereabouts on the field before they go venturing over the middle.

Nicknamed "The Eraser" by his college coaches for his ability to make bad decisions made by his teammates go away, he is projected as either a weak-side linebacker or a strong safety in the pros, but is it too much to ask for both?

2. Marqueston Huff, FS/CB Wyoming 

Bill Belichick's annual pick of an unknown defensive back.  In 2012, it was Tavon Wilson out of Illinois and in 2013 he selected Duron Harmon from Rutgers - and while Wilson has developed into a core-four special teamer, Harmon is in line to start opposite Devin McCourty on the back end - and where depth is somewhat of an issue behind those two, we present to you:

Unbelievable closing speed in run support and as a centerfielder and terrific in blanket coverage, Huff arrives fast and with malicious intent.  Played corner for three years at Wyoming before giving safety a shot in his senior year - is very talkative and is a special contributor on special teams.

Granted, the cornerback depth chart for the Patriots is loaded for bear, not only with the best in the business on one side and a three-way dogfight for the right to operate opposite him, there may be no deeper group in the league - but if Revis ends up being a one year rental, the hit in the secondary would be catastrophic if there wasn't good blanket men ready to ascend.  Besides, isn't it Belichick who always says that you can never have enough defensive backs?

Perhaps Huff would remain at safety for the Patriots, as he packs a wallop and would certainly cause receivers going over the middle to develop a case of alligator arms, but his man coverage skill dictates a move to corner eventually.

3. Terrence West, RB, Towson 

There isn't a better place for West to end up than in Foxborough.  The small-school power back embodies what the Patriots should desire in a featured back, as he can do it any way you want to play it - because he is a one-cut, downhill bulldozer that has a nose for the end zone and likes to initiate him a little contact.

While he doesn't possess breakaway speed, he's got the wheels to slash and create in the open field, but his best attributes are running over folks and celebrating touchdowns.

So why is Foxborough the best place for West to be?  He rumbles and explodes like Ridley and has soft hands to contribute in the passing game - and with all three backs on the Patriots' roster seeing free agency after this season, West has the opportunity to make the position his for a long time to come.

It's a worn-out axiom that reigns false for most backs, but West truly does get stronger as the game goes on, and he's dynamic to the point that he can handle being a three down back.

4. Will Clarke, DE West Virginia

Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin went into the Senior Bowl a few months back as one of the best tactical pass protectors in the country and a sure-fire first round draft pick - and got absolutely used by the long and strong Clarke.

That doesn't mean as much now as it will in November and December when the 6' 6", 275 pound defensive end is beating offensive tackles with a combination of good initial quickness and excellent hands to keep them from locking onto him - and just about any "expert" you talk to about Clarke will tell you that he's a poor man's Chandler Jones...

...hence the 4th round grade, which could turn into a second day steal according to some, but a potential bust to others, so it shouldn't be surprising that the projections on Clarke are all over the place, some experts having him as high as a second rounder, some as low as priority free agent.

Excellent size and length for the position, Clarke has a variety of pass rush moves that can take him both out into the flat to set the edge or to stunt inside where he can use his quickness to beat guards - and being compared to Jones can't hurt.

4. John Urschel, G/C, Penn State

A trend that I've noticed in the evaluation process is that the athletes that make the list have at least a functional understanding of the pro style offenses, and players coming out of Penn State are particularly adept at the Patriots' Way of doing things, having worked under former Pats' offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien for a couple of years.

One gets the feeling that Urschel's pursuit of his PhD in Mathematics will ultimately mean more to him than being a professional football player, but there is something in the game that intrigues him, pushes him.  If there was an answer to the question that the game poses for him, perhaps the drive wouldn't be there...

Durable and requisite tough, Urschel started every game in his last two seasons at right guard, but possesses the quickness and intangibles to overtake the center position - and at 6' 3" and 315 pounds, a more perfect size for the pivot does not exist - and his versatility will prove attractive in a draft capital sort of way.

And if he can't intimidate the opponent with his guile and tenacity, he can whip out that Masters' Degree and the scientific journals that he's been published in.  That should scare the hell out of them.

6. Crockett Gillmore, TE, Colorado State 

A nasty inline and down field blocker who also has soft hands and catches everything thrown his way.  Excellent size (6' 6", 260 pounds) for the position and has the aptitude and experience to be a hidden gem as a "move" tight end.

Gillmore is another player all over the board, but gets a 4th round grade here due to having the attitude and ability to do it both ways.  We saw in this video that he takes pride in blocking, frequently pancaking the defensive end, plus the receiving skill is evident and appears to be a good stretch in the seam.

Of course, the defensive ends that he's shoving around are in college and not the pros, but just the fact that he finds the leverage to be effective despite being a bit lean shows an eye for technique and an aptitude to be mentored and coached up.

Fresno State's Marcel Jensen is a nice alternate choice, but a bit of a wildcard in that he was underused and his body of work is not conclusive to the layman's eye.

6.Ryan Carrethers, NT, Arkansas State

The Patriots are in need of a nose tackle - not a defensive tackle.  DT is well-manned in the Patriots' scheme, where NT is a bit shallow in the depth pool.  Vince Wilfork was extended by the team, but the contract guarantees him nothing after this season, which is a good business decision by the suits because no one really knows how Wilfork's power and athleticism have been affected by his Achilles tear.

Late-season pick up Sealver Siliga proved to be a stout run plugger who will be perfect in a rotation with Wilfork in the base defense, that's really what the team should be looking for is someone to develop in the role - and the stronger, the better...

Ryan Carrethers is a house.  The video confirms that he's a gargoyle that is difficult to move off his spot even when double-teamed.  He's not the most athletic guy in the world and isn't going to chase anyone down from behind, but the nose tackle in the Patriots' system occupies a center and a guard, redirects running backs and re-establishes the line of scrimmage in the passing game by forcing his mirror back into the pocket.

Take notice of the difficult time that linebacker Dont'a Hightower had last season when all of the injuries occured.  He was consistently late in picking up tight ends coming into the pattern because he had to react to even the hint of a running play without a true nose tackle to funnel the plays to a particular gap, and that all changed when Siliga was signed, and Carrethers can be molded in the same manner.

7. Jeff Mathews, QB, Cornell

The one thing that separates Cornell quarterback Jeff Mathews from the pack - in the wrong direction -  is the perception that he doesn't move well enough either inside or outside the pocket to be an affective NFL passer, something that prompted him to spend all of his Junior and Senior years to try and improve - which should be evident from the video below:

Though the producers of the video are obviously big-time homers, the product on the field is impressive.  While not the first rounder that the narrative would have you believe, there is certainly more than enough upside to Mathews' game to warrant a third-day pick - and given that he's a four-year starter and generally considered to have the best arm in the class, he is well worth a shot to develop for a year and see where some professional coaching takes him.