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.

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