Sunday, May 11, 2014

New England Patriots on Paper - Pats go old school on final day of draft

Midway through New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick's post-draft opening remarks, the hooded one gave us an explanation as to why he defied popular opinion and dismissed the weeping and gnashing of teeth from the uninitiated sector of the fan base, going heavy and relatively anonymous with most every draft pick.

"Three year starter for Stanford, right tackle." Belichick said of fourth round selection Cameron Fleming. "Big kid that played against a lot of good competition out there, played against a lot of good players on a good football team. They run the ball a lot."

A perfectly innocent statement, right?

Down the stretch last season, the Patriots discovered a running game that was so dominating that quarterback Tom Brady needed to throw for just 458 yards combined in wins over Baltimore and Buffalo to end the regular season and over Indianapolis in the divisional round playoff game - a running game that averaged over five yards per carry and accounted for nearly two-thirds of their offensive snaps.

Of course, when they came up against the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game, the Broncos were able to take advantage of New England's decimated pass catching corps like the previous three opponents could not - stacking the box and daring Brady to beat them through the air with his skeleton crew of receivers, knowing that Pats' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would panic and scrap the running game at the first hint of failure...

With health, the Patriots would never have been reduced to that one-dimensional attack - and Belichick knows this and spent this draft trying to ensure he will never have to be reduced to that again.

Never mind that the Patriots were still in the game as late as the middle of the fourth quarter, the fact that New England couldn't run the football - and therefore had no offensive balance - combined with the defense being down their best corner coupled with their inability to get to Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning, doomed them to that 26-16 loss.

But it wasn't just that game, though that was the biggest stage the Patriots played on all season - several times during the season New England abandoned the run against some of the more stout run front seven units in the league, losses to the Bengals and Panthers and in both games against division rival New York Jets stand out as regular season examples of this curious anomaly.

Why?  Simply, McDaniels inexplicably quit calling running plays - his offensive line losing the trench battles with the bigger and more violent foes - so the only way to rectify the situation was to go "Old School" in the draft, bringing in massive road graders along the offensive line and a running back that appears to be a hybrid between current backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.

Old School.

When looking for adjectives to describe the third day of the National Football League draft for the New England Patriots, that would work.  It was a throwback draft to the days when linemen were Grade-A Prime beef and coaches built their teams from the inside out.

Of course, there are a vast majority both in the media and in the fan base that would come up with other descriptions - mostly of the "colorful metaphor" variety - but most of these folks didn't grow into the game when the Patriots had the likes of John Hannah, Leon Gray and Dr. Bill Lenkatis opening big holes for the likes of Horace Ivory, Don Calhoun and Sam "Bam" Cunningham...

...and while neither Fleming nor guard Jon Halipio nor center Brian Stork will remind anyone of those shades from the past, their selection conjures the feeling that Belichick is going big and powerful, dominating on the ground and able to dictate to the opposing defense at will - public opinion and fan ignorance be damned.

Of Bill Belichick's nine selections, five went to the trenches - including four on Day 3 - then one each to quarterback, running back, safety and receiver.  No seam-stretching tight end and no field-stretching wide receiver - just heft, and plenty of it.

And perhaps it's just the way the dominoes fell in the draft that influenced the words Belichick in the presser, but most of the comments were directed at running the ball on offense and stopping the run on defense - but merely running the ball isn't good enough, not with the emphasis that the Patriots put on the line in the draft, because while all three linemen are good pass protectors, their forte is in plowing the row.

Dominating the line of scrimmage is the expectation, also known as running the ball down the opponent's throat.

The Rimington Trophy winning Stork was the first of three Patriots' selections of the fourth round and offers an immediate upgrade in size and technique to incumbent center Ryan Wendell.  At 6' 4" and 315 pounds, Stork is a lean-looking pivot (In the presser Belichick said he didn't think he was a 300 pounder) that has the initial quickness to deliver the ball to the quarterback in shotgun mode or in the traditional exchange and get up to seal off the tackle or head upfield...

...while Belichick added the massive Fleming with his final pick of the round, sandwiching Wisconsin running back James White between.

Fleming, a self-described "nerd", is a powerful drive blocker that started 38 of a possible 40 games played at Stanford at right tackle in the Cardinal's pro-style power running scheme, but may be a better fit at right guard where veteran Dan Connolly is the incumbent.  Many believe that Fleming is insurance in the event the similarly skilled Marcus Cannon bolts in free agency next offseason, but is probably more of insurance in case Sabastian Vollmer's broken ankle limits his effectiveness.

While the book on Fleming is that he needs to develop a mean-streak, his initial pop is more than adequate to stun the pass rusher in protection and to pancake his man in the running game, which is pretty much the story with Halapio - except Halapio already has said mean-streak and is a punishing drive blocker in the ground game and also offers good in-the-booth protection skills.

No one will ever question Halapio's toughness, as he played through 10 games last season with an 80 percent tear of a pectoral muscle.

The details are irrelevant at this point, however, with the fact that Belichick selected power drive blockers in the draft - added to the fact that he did not restock the tight end position, nor go all-out on pass catching weapons - to anchor a power running game designed both to overwhelm the opposition and to preserve what's left of Brady's career by trying to reduce the hits on his 38-year-old frame...

...looking to build upon the dominating ground game that the Patriots enjoyed for the last part of their 2013 season at the same time - which makes White's inclusion all the more intriguing.

White is compact at just 5' 9" tall and 205 pounds, but has all of the attributes that make him dangerous in a power running game.  While lacking elite speed, White is what is known as an "ankle breaker", displaying sudden change of direction skills utilizing violent cuts, exploding out of the cuts and finishing runs by initiating contact with the defender when he feels as if he's gotten all he can.

When asked about the selection of White, Belichick offered that White had "four-down value", and has a style similar to that of a Vereen or of a Kevin Faulk - which is a compliment coming from Belichick no matter how one looks at it - adept at running between the tackles where his diminutive stature enables him to get lost behind the big uglies, emerging at full speed to beat the linebackers on the second level.

His receiving skills are on par with what Vereen brings to the offense, but while the California product is about speed and change of pace, White is about strength and juking the defender out of his socks - he explodes through the hole like Ridley but is far more deliberate with his cuts and protects the football with his life.

"He's been productive in the kicking game, he's been productive catching the ball." Belichick said in his assessment of White." He has a high average per carry. He can run inside. He can run outside. He makes good space plays and he can get some tough yards."

The Patriots' offensive line was adequate last season, but adequate isn't going to cut it any longer.  The left side is one of the best in football with young tackle Nate Solder emerging as one of the brightest stars protecting the blind side, while tough guy Logan Mankins still plays at an elite level despite some rough mileage on his wheels...

...but beyond them is a series of question marks, with Wendell and Connolly being merely servicable and Vollmer mending a gruesome broken ankle - and while there were already some talented depth already on the roster in second-year guard Josh Klein and swing tackle Marcus Cannon, Belichick obviously feels that he has made the line better with his selections, and the battle for the right side has all of the earmarks of being a free-for-all in camp.

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