Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Musket Reloaded - Part 8: McCourty, Harmon Key Patriots' Big Nickle Secondary

McCourty (L) and Harmon celebrate Harmon's game-ending interception against Baltimore last season
Bill Belichick has established an annual tradition of "reaching" early for a later round prospect in the NFL Draft - and three out of the last four "reaches" have been for safeties.

Indeed, starting with Illinois defensive back Tavon Wilson in 2012, Rutgers' safety Duron Harmon in 2013 and now 2014 Stanford prospect Jordan Richards, the New England Patriots' head ball coach and defacto General Manager has succeeded in something that no other selector in the history of the NFL draft has ever done: Leave ESPN Draft expert Mel Kiper, Jr. speechless.

Rather, Belichick's selections have caused Kiper to stammer and blurt out sentence fragments while searching desperately through his notes for something - anything - to eliminate the uncomfortable amount of dead air the network was experiencing, not something typically found on the second day of the draft.

Wilson, projected to be a late round hybrid corner / free safety, struggled in his rookie year - getting frequently burned in coverages, but still managing to pick off four balls in a Patriots' secondary that lacked any true cover man besides Devin McCourty - but over the next few years as the talent in the secondary improved, Wilson found himself primarily on special teams, where he has shown his mettle as a core-four cover ace...
Second-round pick Richards could unseat Chung

...while Harmon - who wasn't on anyone's draft board at all, let alone being projected in any round - has evolved into a slick centerfielder who has increasingly found himself on the field in critical nickle situations as his combination of size (6' 1" 210), speed (4.41) and instinctiveness allow him to play both free and strong safety positions with equal success.

That's a valuable toy to have in the secondary, as it optimizes the personnel usage on the back end and allows Belichick to mix up and disguise coverages more efficiently.  That is a staple of Belichick's philosophy, particularly on defense where, while the positions are not as defined and rule-laden as the so-called "Skill positions" on offense, they have nevertheless evolved to the point where finding a true hybrid between both positions on the blue line is rare...

...even more so than a corner / safety hybrid like McCourty or a strong safety / cover 'backer hybrid such as - well - the Patriots are still searching for one of those. Could they have finally found one Brandon King?

King generated zero interest in the draft, his draft profile providing only his vitals and the fact that he runs a 4.39 40 yard dash - and one look at the minimal tape there is on the University of Auburn product, fans will know exactly why Belichick sought him out for a tryout immediately following the draft.

The size-speed combination is already intriguing, but when you watch him put them both together at what Tigers' defensive coaches call the "Star" safety position, you come away with three immutable facts: The closing speed is impressive, his size is intimidating and when he hits someone, they go down.  Hard.

So...why wasn't King drafted?  Simply because the only real "tape" there is on the guy comes courtesy of Highlands Community College, an institution that boasts seven small campuses around the northeast corridor of the State of Kansas, from where " will be within two hours of cities like Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City."

Isolated much?

King transferred to Auburn in his junior season, the number three rated junior college safety turning down offers from Ole Miss, Arizona State and Texas Tech - but ultimately ended up in a deep Tigers' safety corps, rendering him to the sidelines except for spot duty on defense and as a core-four special teamer...

...but it is that spot duty that makes his skill set so enticing.  You see, the "Star" position in the Auburn defense - and in many SEC programs - is what many in the NFL call the Big Nickle - a position that requires the speed of a corner combined with the toughness and tackling ability of a linebacker - a cover 'backer, in other words.

Typically, in the nickle defensive alignment, a team will employ a third cornerback in place of either a lineman or a linebacker in an attempt to match up favorably with the opposing offense in passing situations, a formation that has become featured almost like a base defense for the Patriots and, indeed, many of their opponents as the NFL has evolved into a passing league.

But with the rise of the athletically dominant tight end, just being in the nickle wasn't good enough as pass catchers like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and the monstrous Rob Gronkowski challenged the nickle like no other athlete could.  Too big and strong for corners, many teams employ their fastest linebacker to coverage on tight ends to match up in size, but the results are mixed - and as the entire world saw in the Super Bowl, even the speediest of linebackers are still no match.
...while converted linebacker Wells is NFL ready

In the Big Nickle, however, instead of a third cornerback on the field, there is a third safety - normally a larger back with the bulk to jam the tight end coming off the line to disrupt the timing of their pattern, and the speed, pursuit angle and athleticism to challenge for the ball in the air down the seam.  This is not a new concept, as it was borne out of frustration over fifty years ago when a similar athlete threatened the very fabric of traditional base defenses.

During the 1961 season, The Philadelphia Eagles under head coach Nick Skorich were taking on the Chicago Bears' in an early November matchup when Bears' quarterback Billy Wade connected with rookie tight end Mike Ditka on a four yard in-look pass, watching in horror as Ditka dragged, then broke away from several would-be tacklers for a 76 yard touchdown.

At 6' 3" and 255 pounds, Ditka was too big and strong for corners and too quick and illusive for linebackers, so Skorich inserted 6' 2", 200 pound rookie safety Irv Cross for the express purpose of getting some size and speed underneath to handle Ditka and the top five passing game of the Bears.

Ditka has held without a catch for the remainder of the contest and the Bears' prolific passing attack was held to an abysmal 22 yards the rest of the game - and, though unbeknown to the football world, the Big Nickle was born.

Of course, George Allen, the legendary Washington Redskins' coach had a hand in promoting the package in the 1970's and former Phoenix Cardinals' defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur is widely credited with employing the Big Nickle in the modern game by using a box safety as a weakside linebacker out of desperation in the late 1980's when the team was beset with injuries in their linebacking corps - but in it's simplest form, it's simply as a way for defenses to match up with today's athletic tight end and running backs.

New England has been trying to fill out their safety depth chart for years, never quite able to put it all together, but with Harmon starting to come of age, Belichick may finally have the horses to pull off the Big Nickle - and not just compete with it, but to dominate, giving rise to the hope that the Patriots' secondary isn't in as bad of shape as many perceive.

Because of the way that the Patriots' front seven is constructed as an aggressive, attacking entity, they should, in theory, be able to quickly collapse the pocket of the opposing offense, causing the quarterback to look for his safety valves - tight ends and running backs and slot receivers - more often than his vertical threats simply due to the time involved for the pass catchers to break the jam at the line and get to the top of their pattern...

...something that New England has struggled doing in the past decade, as opposing quarterbacks have been able to stand tall in the pocket and go through his progressions, yet still target tight ends and running backs because the Patriots matched up poorly, speed-wise - and all anyone needs to do to confirm this is to look at what opposing offenses were able to accomplish against them last season.

Despite the lack of an elite pass rush, Patriots opponents still completed 55% of their passes to tight ends and running backs, accounting for half of their passing yards and half of their touchdown totals - and with New England's pass rush looking to be improved over last season, the opposing offenses will be forced to increase their looks at the underneath pass catchers this season.
Ebner is a special teams demon and will have a spot on the roster

The Patriots will be able to counter this, however, in ways that they have never been able to before.

Regardless of how many safeties the Patriots keep on the roster, they should have a real corner on the Big Nickle market, as incumbent starters McCourty and box safety Patrick Chung are considered one of the top safety tandems in the league, and with Harmon evolving into a terrific safety in his own right, New England may be the lone team in the NFL that can play the Big Nickle effectively.

Chung earned a reputation as a violent striker during his first four seasons in Foxborough, though his disregard for his body found him on the trainer's table more often than the team would have liked, so they let him walk in free agency, playing for one season in Philadelphia before returning to New England last year - turning in his best season to date...

...surprising in that the time he spent in Philadelphia, he was burned repeatedly in coverage and consistently took poor angles in the running game, contributing to the issues in woeful Eagles secondary.  The quality of the Patriots' corners last season perhaps masked his deficiencies somewhat, given his abysmal history, so it makes a lot of sense that the Patriots would target box safety types to compete with him in camp.

Richards is a no-brainer for the roster, as the draft capital expended on his selection dictating that the rookie has a spot already sewn up, While he doesn't possess the requisite speed to patrol the back end, Richards' college coaches insist that he not just a box safety, as was his moniker with draft experts - but what he really is comes from the notion that with his intelligence and sideline to sideline range, Richards is more of a middle linebacker in a safety's body.

The question is, what does Belichick plan to do with him?  At 5' 11" and 211 pounds, Richards' options are limited.  He's considered a liability in coverage by the experts, yet he logged 21 passes defended the past two seasons.  He has linebacker speed, but is still always where the ball is - which can be attributed to off-the-charts football intelligence and taking flawless pursuit angles.

King has electric intangibles, closing speed and sure-tackling skills coveted both in the secondary and on special teams, but is facing an uphill battle for a roster spot, particularly with like-sized sixth-round draft pick Matthew Wells a much more refined option.  Wells played linebacker at Mississippi State, but is far too small for the role in the pros though he will most likely find the roster as a hybrid and on special teams, but don't be surprised to see him in a coverage role.

Wilson and fourth year man Nate Ebner are primarily special teamers who will find the field on defense occasionally, usually in a mop up role and both figure to back back in that capacity again this season - meaning that the Patriots could end up employing six blue liners.

Obviously, Belichick is hoping that Chung repeats his career performance from last season - as evidenced by the three year, $8.2 million contract extension he was signed to in January, with a $2.5 million signing bonus - but those numbers are hardly elite and could easily be absorbed should Chung regress to his former level.

McCourty started his career as a Pro Bowl cornerback, with the team slowly integrating him as a free safety out of desperation, a position that earned him a handsome pay raise in the offseason, the five year, $47.5 million contract expressing a level of respect for McCourty that transcends conventional wisdom as only the Seahawks' Earl Thomas makes more money, and only by a smidgen and with more guaranteed money.

Some will tell you that the Patriots overpaid for him, but McCourty's value lies in his versatility and where it begins to make more sense, is when one peeks at the salaries of cornerbacks, where McCourty would fit in the top 10 salaries in the league, making Aqib Talib / Byron Maxwell / Jimmy Smith money - and that tells you all you need to know about how the Patriots plan to deploy McCourty this season, and it's not at cornerback.

McCourty is going to be part of the Big Nickle package, reducing down with Chung or one of the rookies to play along side the weakside corner, probably taking the outside release from the popular bunch formations and leaving the back end for the speedy Harmon to patrol.  What happens beyond those three is tough to know at this point of the team building process.

But one thing is certain: Belichick finally has the back end corps that he envisioned years ago when he started the trend of reaching for safeties, and now that he is going to be able to deploy the Big Nickle as part of his defensive scheme, the talent at safety and along the front seven able to mask many deficiencies among the ranks of the corners, either real or imagined.

Strong safety
Pat Chung 5' 11" 210 - had a career year in 2014, hard hitter but somewhat undisciplined.
Nate Ebner 6' 0" 210  - Solid special teams maven, will have a role on the team.
Tavon Wilson 6' 0" 215 - Also a solid ST contributor but will be threatened by the rookies
Jordan Richards 5' 11" 210 - smart but slow box safety, takes terrific angles and is always around the ball.
Brandon King 6' 2", 215 - fast, big hitting hybrid, raw and may find a spot on practice squad
Matthew Wells 6' 2", 222 - Elite speed and excellent in coverage, could push Chung - and will find the field in the dime and on special teams

Free Safety
Duron Harmon 6' 1", 205 - Speedy and slick centerfielder who can manage the back end and punish receivers and backs
Dax Swanson 5' 11", 185 - small and fast but still very raw, may find practice squad, but there's no guarantee.
Devin McCourty 5' 10" 195 - Elite speed, terrific cover ability. McCourty is everything that you could want from a free safety.

This is the eighth and last installment in a multi-part series focused around the philosophies of the offense and defense as it pertains to the building process....

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