Saturday, June 20, 2015

Musket Reloaded - Part 6: Reserve Linebacker Stable Full Of One-Trick Ponies

Lynch could be another undrafted gem picked up by Belichick

In football acumen, a player like D. J. Lynch shouldn't have a role anywhere on defense.

The Bowling Green University product has good cornerback height and awareness, but speed is not his friend.  He hits like a rogue safety, but is too bulky and inflexible to make many plays in that capacity.  He has requisite weight and instincts to play defensive end, but if far too short to be effective in the passing lanes.

Lynch is a linebacker by default, as his 6' 0", 255 pound frame precludes him playing anywhere else, but it is his limitations in those other areas that makes Lynch an intriguing fit in the New England Patriots' defense.

His awareness in coverage, violent physicality and football instincts all come into play as he was often asked to drop into zone coverage to patrol the middle and punish pass catchers in college, as well as playing on either side as an edge setter who has shown great instinctiveness and awareness to break off of his responsibility to shut down the wings by taking perfect pursuit angles, blowing up screen before they ever get the chance to start.

His closing speed is evident in his game film, as is his decision making and willingness to pound the gaps:

Lynch will likely never be a starter in the National Football league, but he is far from the one-trick ponies that comprise the Patriots' depth chart at linebacker as the team breaks for its "Dog Days" vacation preceding the opening of training camp - which doesn't bode well for the Patriots should weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo continue to prove fragile and if middle linebacker Dant'a Hightower is not ready to start the season due to surgery on his labrum...

...leaving only rising superstar Jamie Collins as the lone incumbent among a stable of linebackers whose depth is anything but super - which makes the status of Mayo and Hightower even more crucial as, when healthy, these three make up perhaps the best starting trio in the NFL.

Weakside stalwart Mayo has played there since the Patriots made him the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft, a rookie season which saw him earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and a Pro Bowl selection - followed by middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower at number 25 overall in 2012 and strong side freak Jamie Collins the team top pick in 2013, at number 52 in the second round.

But depth has been an issue for New England for many moons, which consecutive season-ending injuries to weak side linebacker Mayo has exposed as being a weak spot in the Patriots defense.  Last season they were able to mask that deficiency somewhat by being able to obtain linebacker Akeem Ayers in a trade with Tennessee and also made a deal with Tampa to acquire Jonathan Cassillas...

...but, curiously, head ball coach Bill Belichick allowed both to sign elsewhere in the offseason, leaving the cupboard relatively bare behind his top shelf starting talent - countering with the signings of two former Patriots in Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher, both just a year removed from the team and finding that the grass is nowhere near as green in Buffalo and Tampa respectively.

Spikes, who had been an effective two-down run stuffer for the Patriots for four seasons before electing to bolt to Buffalo, was being counted on to perhaps fill the void left by Hightower if he was unable to contribute right away, but a night of reckless driving destroyed what was apt to be a glorious homecoming for the fan favorite, and he was released the following day.

Three days later, the Patriots signed Lynch who, while not as tall as Spikes, is like-weight and decidedly faster, plus comes to Foxborough with a squeaky clean resume as a team leader and an imposing hitter - in fact, the only drawback to Lynch's game is his height, but given that he models his game after four-time pro bowl linebacker London Fletcher and plays with the same intensity, that shouldn't be an obstacle.

Lynch went undrafted - his size and a 2014 knee injury hurting his draft stock - but joins sixth round pick, Mississippi State Matthew Wells, and Alabama's Xzavier Dickson, plus hybrid defensive ends Geneo Grissom out of Oklanhoma and Trey Flowers from Arkansas, all candidates for weakside duties when the Patriots go 3-4.

Those five join a crowded depth chart consisting of incumbent veteran reserves Darius Fleming, Chris White, Eric Martin and James Morris, while veterans Rufus Johnson, Jonathan Freeny and Dekoda Watson signed on as free agents.  That's quite a list, though not unusual on a 90 man pre-camp roster, but the one thing that they all have in common is that if they were horses, they would know only trick.
Some feel Wells would make a better candidate as a strong safety

On the weakside, Wells seems to have the inside track to back up Mayo by default, as there just isn't another linebacker that has coverage ability. This is by no means to make light of Wells' skill, as he is fleet of foot and has shown the ability to cover backs and tight ends - problem is he is not overly physical and is closer to safety size than linebacker, so if Mayo were to go down again, it is inconceivable that Wells would be able to pick up that slack.

Perhaps a combination of Wells on third down and someone like Fletcher as the early down back, as the Montana State product was the choice coming off the bench for four seasons before bolting for Tampa last season.  Freeny, Johnson and Watson are more pass rushing types that are hard-core tweeners, never really finding a groove in the pros despite multiple opportunities.

Fleming is the lone strong side reserve and shows plenty of promise as long as his surgically repaired knees hold up, and is a pure edge setter who is instinctive enough to disengage from blocks to blow up screens, which he did several times last season backing up Collins and coming in as the third linebacker in obvious run situations...

...but that spot could also be manned by veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich, as the Patriots' acquisition of former Cleveland Brown Jaball Sheard gives Belichick some flexibility in moving the clutch pass rusher Ninkovich all over the formation.

Martin, White, Morris and Lynch are all capable of playing inside, with Martin the fastest of the group who could play some third downs to give one of the starters a breather.  White is purely an inside run stopper with limited athleticism while Morris offers little more, but is a bit more fluid in breaking down and getting to the gaps.  He has also been spotted aligning the defense during OTA's which is a good sign for him that the reserve role is his to lose.

Needless to say, the depth situation behind the starting three is volatile at best, even with returning reserves like Fleming, White and Fletcher - and Belichick's charge is to find the right combination among the back ups so that he isn't left scrambling to find a quality reserve is another season ending injury occurs on the second level.

Linebackers on the 90 man roster heading into summer break (Plus some notes on their abilities):

Dont'a Hightower 6' 3" 270 - Solid interior presence, disruptive and plays at Pro Bowl level
Jerod Mayo 6' 1", 250 - Perpetually injured, but smart and instinctive
Jamie Collins  6' 3", 250 - Plays inside and out, most athletic linebacker on squad
Matthew Wells 6' 2", 220 - speedy, good in man or zone coverage, not a physical tackler.
Darius Fleming 6' 2" 255  pure edge setter, occasional pass rusher
Eric Martin 6' 2" 250  4.53in the 40, good chase ability sideline to sideline
Chris White 6' 3" 238  purely an inside run player and an outstanding special teams player
James Morris 6' 2" 240  try hard tough and duyrable, liability in passing game
Rufus Johnson 6' 5" 275 More of a defensive end, gets lost in coverage but plays edge well
Jonathan Freeny 6' 2" 254  Special teams player only despite good size on weak side
Xzavier Dickson 6' 3" 266  more effective as an end line pass rusher along with Grissom and Flowers
Dane Fletcher 6' 2" 245 4.6 in 40 as OLB
D. J. Lynch 6' 0" 255 4.7 in 40, natural gap blitzer and good anticipation technically sound
Dekoda Watson 6' 2" 240 3rd down LB that has some speed, mostly special teamer

This is the sixth installment in a multi-part series focused around the philosophies of the offense and defense as it pertains to the building process.  Part seven will focus on the secondary, and how the Patriots have plenty of talent to make up for big personnel losses on the back end...

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