Friday, April 24, 2015

Reloading The Musket - Part 5: Patriots Boast Best Linebacking Corps In NFL, Though Depth Is Lacking

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) and defensive end/outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich are tough run stoppers
The New England Patriots possess what may well be the best set of starting linebackers in the National Football League...

...which is all well and good, so long as one of them doesn't get injured, because their depth may very well be the most pedestrian list in the entire league (quick, name one of the Patriots' backup linebackers!) so expect to see at least one linebacker taken on the second day of the NFL draft next Friday.

And not just a linebacker, but probably a man-on-man cover 'backer, because as multi-talented as the starting three are, it goes to figure that head ball coach Bill Belichick has some sort of demented scheme in mind to allow these guys to roam, read and react and become the disruptive forces that God intended without having to be impeded by pesky running backs curling into the pattern on passing downs.

These guys have all been together for the past couple of years, and the only reason why we're talking about them as being the best in the league now instead of two years ago is because weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo has sustained early, season-ending injuries in both campaigns, forcing the Patriot shave to scramble into Helter Skelter mode...
Toledo's Junior Sylvestre is a late round possibility that could rise

...middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower taking over the signal calling was initially a harrowing experience that saw him mentally and physically overwhelmed as he acknowledged that he was trying to do to much to make up for Mayo's absence - but as he grew into the role, he became what we saw late last season, which was an intimidating run stuffer while second-year freak Jamie Collins emerged as the sideline to sideline play-wrecker that we were promised that he'd be.

Undoubtedly, the experience gained by Hightower makes him the favorite to continue in that role in 2015, perhaps assuming the "heart-and-Soul" status that departed nose tackle Vince Wilfork rocked for the better part of a decade, as he is just now starting to scratch the surface of his enormous potential.

For those keeping score, that trio boasts two number one picks, Mayo in 2008 and Hightower in 2012, and one second rounder, Collins, as the team's top pick in 2013.  That's some pretty serious draft capital spent on linebackers in the past six seasons - so much so that one would think that there would be a cover backer in there somewhere that could blanket a running back curling out of the backfield but, alas, there isn't one in the bunch.

Mayo has been the best that the Patriots have been able to offer up, and he was merely decent / average at it to begin with, but coming off consecutive seasons where he had season ending surgeries to his pectoral muscle and Patellar tendon, his days of being somewhat effective in coverage are probably gone.

Collins has shown the ability to handle tight ends pretty well, but we all saw what Marshawn Lynch did to him with the game on the line in the Super Bowl, and Hightower tries hard but just isn't quick-twitch enough to move with a running back in the open field...
BYU's Fua is another late-round prospect that could help under coverage most of that action has been delegated to the Patriots' "Big Nickle", a strong safety - most recently Patrick Chung - who has the hips of a defensive back and plays like a big boy in the box, but with the emphasis in the Patriots' defense being shifted from the back end to the front, it would only make sense that New England also changes the emphasis to getting to the quarterback and making him find quick underneath targets.

Which, unfortunately, feeds right into what the linebackers don't do well, which is covering the backs curling into the pattern.  It's killed them for years, as had covering tight ends - but while Collins might be a suitable response to tight ends, there still is nothing to prevent running backs from dominating the underneath zones.

So what's a defensive genius to do?

Well, he could draft a cover 'backer, for one.  His success with drafting and working with linebackers is well documented - which goes to figure, given his rich experience both in New York and Foxborough - but if he's going to do that, history has shown that he values the position enough that he will take one in his top three picks.

If that ends up being the case, this year's annual "Reach" prospect may end up being a linebacker.

There are some top-flight cover 'backers projected for the first three rounds, obviously, but with value being the keyword for Belichick's draft capital, any selection made on the second day of the draft is likely to be a potential first rounder that happened to slip - which may or may not include UCLA's Eric Kendricks or Washington's Shaq Thompson.

Kendricks played in the middle in college, but his lack of size prohibits that in the NFL, where he is projected to be a weakside linebacker in a 4-3 alignment - a perfect assignment for the fluid brother of Philadelphia middle linebacker Mychal Kendricks.  The younger Kendricks is a man-on-man demon with running backs... is Washington's Thompson, who is even smaller than Kendricks. There are as many potential positions awaiting Thompson as there are people with opinions, but while Thompson considers himself a weakside linebacker, his college coach is telling anyone who will listen that his best position is running back, which Thompson performed at ably.  Many scouts, however, consider him a strong safety prospect, which screams "Big Nickle."

But it's possible that neither of those two will still be on the board when the Patriots select at 64, and are certain to be gone by the time the draft reaches Belichick's wheelhouse toward the end of the third round, which is where the "reach" comes into play.

There are kids like Louisville's Lorenzo Mauldin and LSU's Kwon Alexander who are marginal talents as far as covering running backs and producing against the run and in the pass rush make their 3rd to 4th round projections a little too rich for Belichick's blood, while intriguing third day prospects Junior Sylvestre out of Toledo and BYU's Alani Fua offer far more value due to their unique skill set.

If Belichick is going to reach in this spot, it is going to be with Sylvestre.

A fluid, sideline to sideline impact linebacker, the knock on Sylvestre is two-fold.  First, his level of competition comes into question playing in the MAC, but that can be quashed by watching his tape, where he easily blows past blockers in the pass rush and mirrors running backs wheeling out of the backfield, where his 6' 0", 225 pound frame reminds one of - you guessed it - a box safety.

Fua is another intriguing prospect that could go higher than anticipated, particularly to a team seeking players to help mask their coverages, such as the Patriots are going to have to do.

Fua is a bean pole at 6' 5" and 240 pounds, but is cat quick in coverage and takes a tight angle to the quarterback when he has a seam.  How quick?  The coaches at BYU moved him all over the formation in coverage, going from tight ends to running backs to covering taller slot receivers.  Someone as creative as Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would be able to find matchups to take advantage of with Fua.

What the Patriots have for depth at the linebacker spots already is a mixture of castoffs, unknowns and medical red flags, meaning that for a team looking to run more 4-3 looks, there are upwards of seven prospects vying for two, maybe three, roster spots - and one of those is likely already filled as a by-product of the Patriots top free agency move.

 Belichick went out and got Cleveland's Jabaal Sheard, who played both defensive end and strong side linebacker in his time with the Browns, but had a much greater impact with his hand in the dirt -  which leaves lunch-pail hybrid Rob Ninkovich as a likely stand up outside linebacker.  Both are relentless pass rushers and both belong on the field - and if the Patriots do indeed draft a linebacker, that could mean that just one spot would remain for the current depth.

The top returning depth options for New England are fourth year man Darius Fleming, second year reserve Deonte Skinner and Dolphins' castoff Jonathan Freeny, none of whom are excellent in coverage but are solid against the run and on special teams, but couldn't hold active spots last season against the acquisitions of Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Cassillas, both of who left in free agency.

That doesn't instill much confidence in the event Mayo or one of the other starters goes down for a protracted period, and one can never be sure what the trade market will bring in-season, even though Belichick appears to have a divining rod like ability to find players to fill in...

...though it is certain that he won't want to be scrambling mid-season to fill holes with whatever he can find - so look for the Patriots to take at least one linebacker in the draft, with the smart money being on a late round prospect being the annual "reach", probably as high as the third round.

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