Sunday, April 10, 2016

Big Nickle Offers Patriots Versatility in Team Building Process

Shea McClellin is an enigma.

At least to Patriots fans he is.  But to the fans of his former team, he's a first-round bust with a capital "B".

The Chicago Bears are in the midst of their annual task of dumping talented, miscast players so that they can bring up the rear of the NFC North once again, and Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick has felt compelled to oblige them twice this offseason, first by trading a fourth-round draft pick to Chicago for tight end Martellus Bennett, then following it up on the same day by signing free agent linebacker McClellin.

The Bears refused to pick up the Boise State alum's fifth-year option, and McClellin took visits with the Jets and Seahawks before landing in Foxborough with a contract that pretty much guarantees he will be on the 53 man roster come September - but why would Belichick sign a guy being called a "typical Bears' draft bust"?

Well, we all know that the Dark Master is a different cat from most in his position of authority in that he doesn't just select a player and then try to jam him into a scheme like a square peg in a round hole as most other coaches do, instead he takes that round hole and bores it out so that the square peg fits.

It's been the not-so-secret of his success as a general manager - not to mention the success of the product on the field - his ability to see a player for what he is and adapt his scheme to take advantage of his strengths and minimize or even mask his deficiencies. It has been this ability that has gotten the most out of castoffs like Rob Ninkovich and Alan Branch, as well as the rabbits that he pulls out in the secondary each season.

So regardless of the barbs aimed at McClellin from Bears' fans, there still may be some hope for him - especially since the Patriots run a scheme where their linebackers are left free to flow to the ball.

This is due, of course, to the Big Nickle alignment that was a staple of the Patriots' defense last season, an alignment that employed an extra safety in nickle situations who essentially became a weakside linebacker, allowing for Belichick to run with just two linebackers who worked in tandem as a disruptive force.

Of course, that wouldn't have been possible without the defensive line plugging gaps and setting the edges, or without the superb group of safeties that Belichick has assembled - nor without the freakish athleticism of linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins.

Linebacker has been both a strength and a weakness for Belichick - a strength because his starters have always been top shelf, but also a weakness because the depth behind them have always been a crap shoot that most times, leaving Belichick scrambling to make mid-season deals to shore up the second level - and the past couple of seasons it's been to replace weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo, who has ended the past three years on the IR.

The sudden, but not-so-unexpected retirement of linebacker Jerod Mayo made the probability of the Patriots going after a linebacker in the offseason a foregone conclusion - but acute injuries to both Hightower and Collins last season outlines the need for quality depth. At the start of the league year, the questions was, would it be through the draft or in free agency?

Is it too much to ask for both?

McClellin is a versatile player in that he has the bulk (6' 3", 260 pounds) to play both inside on the second level as well as putting his hand in the dirt as a situational strong side defensive end, and also employs the requisite speed and proper pursuit angles to be a sideline-to-sideline edge-setter to provide a stop-gap in the event Hightower or Collins are forced to miss time with injury or illness...

...which happened in five games during the second half of 2015, and the Patriots' run defense suffered.  How much?  Well in those five games, the opposition averaged 113 yards per contest, while in the games where they were both present, that number dropped to 90.  Try as they might, New England's depth players just couldn't recreate what those two players bring to the defense.

Now, the Patriots have that insurance in the four-year veteran linebacker McClellin, who will also man the middle if the Patriots ever find the occasion to do something weird, like actually lining up in a 4-3...

Selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, then-Bears' General Manager Phil Emery stated that McClellin was drafted to play with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end, even though his natural position, and the position he played in college, was middle linebacker. Two disappointing seasons later, new Bears' coach Marc Trestman switched McClellin to strong side linebacker...

...then last season coach John Fox moved him inside to man the middle, and he responded with his best season as a pro - but the fans could never get over Emery "wasting" a first round pick on McClellin, and Fox, despite being quoted as saying that McClellin was the "quarterback" of his defense, left him unprotected by declining his fifth-year option, hoping to bring him back under a far more reasonable number.

But Belichick saw an opportunity to make this square peg fit without forcing him into a position to fail, and scooped him up as important depth and a capable part-time starter.


Last season, the Patriots ran a 4-2-5 "Big Nickle" as their primary alignment, meaning that they deployed four defensive linemen, two linebackers, two cornerbacks and three safeties. The result was success beyond the wildest dreams of Big Nickle enthusiasts, as New England finished the season surrendering just 18 points per game and held the team together through the second half of the season, when the offense seemed to have lost their way.

The Big Nickle is tough to attack for two reasons: first, the extra safety drops into the box and will act as a weak side linebacker, keying on the opponent's running back, taking him in the pattern or plugging a gap in run support. Secondly, the team plays with a single high safety in this alignment, meaning that they could employ both a run-support strong safety and a cover corner-type free safety at the same time.

As a result, the offense will have a difficult time ascertaining who has whom in pass coverage as well as who will be bringing pressure and where that pressure is coming from.

The Patriots are perhaps the only team in the league with the personnel to run such an alignment on a full time basis, and it is the primary reason why New England kept seven safeties on their roster last season in contrast to just four cornerbacks and five linebackers for the majority of the year.

And there are even solutions to the much-maligned linebacker depth already on the roster, as weaksider Jon Bostic - McClellin's former teammate at Chicago - is still under contract as well as run stuffing former Dolphin Jonathan Freeny - but the one player on currently on the roster who could make the biggest impact as a linebacker in the Big Nickle isn't a linebacker at all.

In college at Auburn, Brandon King played what is known as the "Star" linebacker position which, in the pro lexicon means a hybrid strong safety / linebacker - or, simply put, the Big Nickle - despite tipping the scales at a light 215 pounds, and even found himself playing defensive end in the Tigers' 3-2-6 dime alignment due to his exceptional speed and pass rushing skill.

King was brought aboard the Patriots' bandwagon as a priority free agent after the 2015 draft, and was impressive enough in his special teams play to be signed to the practice squad after being one of the final cuts as the Patriots trimmed their roster to 53 on final cut down day - elevated from the practice squad just three games into the season, King proved to be a menace to the oppositions' punt and kick return teams, finishing second to All Pro special teamer Matthew Slater in tackles.

It isn't often that one comes across a kid who is 6' 2", 225 pounds (he has added 10 points of bulk since joining the team) and can run in the 4.4 range, and who finishes play with jarring, finite hits, but if last season is any indication, the team values him more for his special teams stardom than as being the "Star" linebacker.

King is just one of the aforementioned seven safeties kept by New England last season, a group led by team captain and free safety Devin McCourty, veteran strong safety Patrick Chung and hybrid centerfielder Duron Harmon. McCourty, a former corner with blazing speed, helped in coverages underneath (usually on tight ends) while Chung proved to be a violent striker in run support and an able tag-a-long on backs curling into the pattern...

...with Harmon patrolling the deep end like a soccer goalie and with second year kid Jordan Richards backing up Chung.  Joining King as special teamers-only is Nate Ebner, who was re-signed by Belichick this offseason and is currently on loan to the United States Olympic Rugby team slated to compete in Rio De Janerio this summer before resuming his football career.

It was be a huge shock if Belichick decided to draft another safety, especially early in the process, given the incredible depth he has, but what would not be a shocker is if he saw a cornerback fall to him in the second or third round and he pounced, given the deep draft class at the position.

Currently, Pro Bowl corner Malcolm Butler headlines the corner, with Logan Ryan the only other veteran corner of note on the roster, though second year players Justin Coleman and Daryl Roberts hold significant promise as young blankets. The team has said that they are interested in bringing back nine-year veteran Tarell Brown, who is currently scheduled for free agency.

Brown was a starting corner for the San Francisco 49ers during their recent peak, when they lost to the Giants in the 2011 NFC Championship and to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl 47 the following year before hitting the skids with knee problems, the same knee problems which forced him to the Patriots' IR last season.

If Brown's knee has now sufficiently healed, he could bring a wealth of experience opposite Butler and relegate Ryan to the slot, where he has shown to be a worthy performer, and also give Coleman and Roberts time to grow.  Belichick also made another under-the-radar move recently, bringing in big corner E.J. Biggers, formerly of Philadelphia.

Another benefit of the Big Nickle, as mentioned earlier, is that the quarterback won't have an easy time figuring out where the pass rush is coming from or where to deploy his backfield help, but it goes without saying that despite New England dumping Chandler Jones and his annual late-season disappearing act, they have improved their ability to get to the quarterback...

...which sounds like crazy talk considering Jones just made the Pro Bowl, but when you can take Jones exorbitant salary and split it up to sign edge rusher Chris Long, late of the Rams, meaty nose tackle Terrence Knighton, and massive three-techs Frank Kearse and Markus Kuhn - not to mention getting a 2016 second round pick and a former first-round selection in guard Jonathan Cooper from Arizona in a swap for Jones - the pattern becomes clear.

This is not to discount Jones' contribution, but the six-to-one ratio that Belichick built from dealing Jones made the team better on the edges - with Jabaal Sheard taking over opposite the ageless Rob Ninkovich at ends with Long and a plethora of second year talent chomping at the bit for playing time - and better on the interior with Knighton beefing up the rotation at nose tackle while Kearse and Kuhn offer competition to Alan Branch and Dominique Easley at the under-tackle.

Combine that with the already more-than-impressive back seven in the Big Nickle, and the Patriots have given offensive coordinators many reasons to be up nights.

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