Friday, April 17, 2015

Reloading The Musket - Part 4: Patriots Looking For Pass Rush Depth To Step Up

Sheard is a relentless strong-side pass rusher that could spell Ninkovich, or even bump him to outside linebacker
Most folks who follow football will be familiar with the name Whitney Mercilus.

No, the relentless edge rusher for the Houston Texans hasn't popped up in any rumored connections with the New England Patriots - though their starry-eyed fans are always on the lookout for a big-name player that they can connect the dots all the way to Foxborough - but his former college teammate at Illinois can be connected to the World Champions...

...because he's already under contract and spent the majority of the 2014 season on the Injured Reserved list.

Taking a look at Mercilus' career statistics can give us a pretty decent idea of what Patriots' fans could expect if former University of Illinois Michael Buchanan defensive end can overcome the long strange road he's had to travel since being named All-Big Ten after his junior season, an honor that he shared with the senior Mercilus, and often the better all-around player of the two.

And when Mercilus went to the Texans in the middle of the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, many in-the-know had the bigger and faster Buchanan as a sure-fire first rounder, the only knock on him was being a bit too lean to play defensive end in the pros, but at 6' 5" and 255 pounds, Buchanan had his entire senior year to add a few pounds of muscle to entice the scouts.

One punch to mouth in a bar altercation later, Buchanan was drinking his meals through a straw and lost a full 20 pounds before his broken jaw was released from it's wire bondage.

Buchanan struggled to gain back the weight in muscle, which resulted in a senior season where he fell far short of the lofty expectations laid at his alter - and instead of traipsing across the stage to get a hat and jersey from the commissioner, he had to settle for a quick phone call from Bill Belichick to let him know that the New England had spent a seventh round draft pick of the 2013 Draft to make him a Patriot.

The Patriots haven't been very successful in the draft with defensive linemen of late, and Buchanan is just one in a long line of ends that have yet to produce.

Chandler Jones was pretty much a given, an All American out of Syracuse became a first-round selection for New England out of Syracuse in the 2011 NFL Draft - but the picks since then have been less than productive thus far, with Jones followed in line by Jake Bequette out of Arkansas in the 4th round of the 2012 Draft, Buchanan in 2013 and small-school prospect Zach Moore this past off-season...

...not exactly a Murderer's Row of defensive ends, but if any of them develop into what head ball coach Bill Belichick expected of them when he spent his draft capital on them, there is the nucleus of pass rushing and edge-setting talent.

The Patriots have pass rushing talent all up and down the defensive line and on the second level, but have never really been able to put together an elite unit- but Belichick's big free agency splash in nabbing former Cleveland Browns' hybrid defensive end Jabaal Sheard covers the Patriots on the edge for the foreseeable future, and gives them a potentially elite rush demon from the strong side.

Sheard is a virtual clone of Patriots' middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower, as they are nearly identical in stature - both Hightower and Sheard stand 6' 3" tall, but Hightower's 270 pounds has Sheard by five - and both played a combination of positions in college, including outside linebacker and defensive end, and both were known more for their ability to disrupt the quarterback than anything else.

A monster fit in a 4-3 defense with his hand in the dirt, Sheard also graded out as the second-best 3-4 outside linebacker against the run in 2014, when Browns' coaches changed the defensive philosophy.  His sack total hit rock bottom as a linebacker, however, and Sheard's overall numbers dropped significantly as what explosion he possesses comes up and out of a three-point stance.

But where Sheard falls short as a stand up linebacker is where crusty veteran Rob Ninkovich excels, as his late-season performances during the title run bears out.  Ninkovich was used as a chess piece in what can only be described as a "Cloud" rusher in 2014, standing up as an end, but dropping back as a linebacker on multiple occasions, using his instincts to rush the passer from a variety of angles once the blockers on offense were committed to their gaps.

Ninkovich always seems to be around the ball and a good argument could be made for him being the most valuable player on the defense, but the man is 31 years old and under contract - a very reasonable contract - for only for another two seasons, while Jones is headed into his contract year and can expect to be heavily pursued in free agency after the 2015 season...

...and what would give new England a little bit of leverage when it comes to negotiations with Jones is if one or more of the aforementioned recent draft picks stepped up - even even roster dark horse Rufus Johnson, whom the Patriots picked up on a futures contract.

New Orleans spent a 6th rounder in 2013 on the tiny Tarleton State product but, like Sheard, he was an improper fit in the Saints' 3-4 as an outside linebacker.  Not surprisingly, Johnson lasted one season on the team's practice squad, then was released in August of last year, eventually ending up in Foxborough on the futures deal on New Years Eve.

So in addition to Jones, Ninkovich and Sheard, the Patriots have one - two at the most - roster spots reserved for an additional defensive end - the only question is, will Moore, Bequette or Buchanan step up to claim those spots, or will they go to one of many impact hybrids available in the draft?

With the quality of the ends already in a starting rotation, the need level is low so don't be surprised if all three days of the draft pass by without Patriots' fans hearing a defensive end's name being called for them in the draft.

However it works, Belichick is putting a lot of eggs in one basket with his front seven to get to the quarterback and keeping backs and tight ends contained so that the young secondary doesn't get overwhelmed - and with the big time draft capital spent on the line and linebacking corps in the recent past, one would think that they could do just that.

Potentially, the front seven could start four 1st round draft picks (Jones, DT Dominique Easley, MLB Dont'a Hightower and weakside backer Jerod Mayo), and three 2nd rounders ( Sheard, strongside backer Jamie Collins and DT Alan Branch), with former 5th rounder Ninkovich and undrafted free agent Sealver Siliga bucking the trend.

On paper, it's a fantastic unit, with the linebackers potentially being among the best units in the NFL - but while Patriots' fans can expect some draft action on the interior of the defensive line and in the box on the second level, there will probably be no other pass rushers joining the Champs via the draft.

The Patriots sack the quarterback, make no mistake, but they don't consistently generate enough pressure to disrupt the opposing quarterback's rhythm when they don't sack him...

...a certain sign that the Patriots defense is headed for a bit of a philosophical change back to their defenses of the past decade - the bend-but-don't-break approach that gives up plenty of yards, but with more field goals than touchdowns.

For people with high blood pressure or unremitting anxiety, this defense will probably drive them to the medicine cabinet for some soothing elixirs, but this very bend-but-don't-break approach has been a trademark of Belichick's defenses for the past decade, with spotty results at times, but their win-loss record and the fact that they have been to seven conference title games and four Super Bowls in that time frame probably means that Belichick knows what he's doing.

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