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.

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