Wednesday, April 13, 2016

With Jones, Easley Out Of Picture, Patriots Philosophy Coming Into Focus

The New England Patriots on Wednesday handed three-tech defensive tackle Dominique Easley his walking papers, putting an end to two seasons of anxiety over whether the Patriots' top pick in 2014 would ever be the player he was before injuries to both knees ended his college career.

It was a calculated gamble on the part of Patriots' defacto General Manager Bill Belichick, selecting the massively talented yet incredibly fragile pass rushing tackle out of Florida, a decision that had it's share of detractors, what with several big names in positions of need for New England still on the board - and now Belichick is facing even more questions for letting Easley go, costing the Patriots $3.6 million against their already tight cap.
Sheard checks on the injured Easley

Whatever compelled Belichick to cut Easley loose is a matter of great conjecture - a blatant sense of entitlement and rampant immaturity seem to be universal indictments - though irrelevant to the question as to what do the Patriots do now with their tackle depth, but the reasoning behind the pink slip must have been very compelling indeed to take such a cap hit and dead money hit when training camp is still three months away.

The timing isn't all that curious, actually, as it comes a couple of weeks before the draft, and it comes on the heels of the high-profile signing of nose tackle Terrence Knighton, and explains the signings of five-tech linemen in ex-Redskin Frank Kearse and former-Giant Markus Kuhn.

The Easley release, when combined with the team moving Chandler Jones to Arizona in exchange for a potential starting offensive lineman and a second-round pick, may appear on the surface to leave the line a bit void of elite pass rushers, but the players that remain are effective at generating pressure and have some statistics to back them up.

With the trade Jones a few weeks back, New England turns over their blind side pass rushing duties to a group of smaller defensive ends who could also function as outside linebackers, defending and setting the edge in the running game an obvious priority, as well it should be as the Patriots surrendered over five yards per carry to the weakside in 2015.

All are like-sized, with veterans Jabaal Sheard (6' 3" and 260 pounds) and Chris Long (6' 3", 268) and youngsters Geneo Grissom (6' 4", 265) and Trey Flowers (6' 2", 265) joining 6' 2", 260 pound strong side end Rob Ninkovich as run-stuffing, edge-setting ends with the ability to pressure the quarterback when called upon to do so...

...just a collection of linebacker-sized lunch pail types who happened to be very successful in a Swiss Army Knife sort of way, which actually works well in tandem with the Big Nickle approach, and gives the team the ability to switch between three and four man fronts as needed.

Jones may have led the team in sacks, but he lacked the ability to set the solid edge in the running game, which Ninkovich and Sheard specialize in, while racking up 6.5 and 8 sacks, respectively.  The bulk of the remaining sacks came from the second level as linebackers Jamie Collins (6' 3", 250, 5.5 sacks) and Dont'a Hightower (6' 3", 265, 3.5 sacks) blitzed effectively when the opportunity would arise.

The remaining interior linemen are a collection of run-stuffing nose tackles and three-to-five-techs, suggesting that changes along the defensive line are imminent in Foxborough.  Not the entire defensive philosophy, mind you, as the Big Nickle will remain the team's bread and butter and Belichick's vast collection of safeties will continue to be intregal pieces to the overall puzzle...

...but the remaining talent indicates that there could be more opportunity to switch between even and odd man fronts - not necessarily a true 3-4 or 4-3, but more of a 3-3-5 or a 4-2-5 - which was their primary alignment last season - where Pat Chung reduces down into the box to take on backs or tight ends, and making linebacker depth suddenly not as important than it was when we all got out of bed this morning, particularly when combined with the recent Shea McClellin (6' 3", 260) signing.

Thankfully, the Patriots have at least five linebacker-sized defensive ends that together with the team philosophy will make the Big Nickle even more difficult for the opposing offenses to deal with, particularly if Knighton works out well, as a three-man tandem of him at the nose with athletic tackle Malcom Brown and long five-tech Alan Branch could occupy linemen on the other side, allowing for these hybrids to set the edge and hunt down the ball carrier.

Or they could line up in a four-man front and rotate their abundance of depth in and out depending on the circumstance, allowing Ninkovich and Sheard to get their fingers in the dirt, rotating in Long, Grissom and Flowers as need be...

That pondered, could the Patriots target a long defensive end in the draft, or do they wait and see if someone like journeyman Rufus Johnson shows well in camp?  How about an athletic three or five-tech? They sure could, and maybe they will - after all, Belichick has shocked the football world more than once this offseason, so drafting defensive line help now doesn't seem as far fetched as it did when the team-building period started.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff, liking the direction the team is heading