Thursday, July 21, 2016

Reloading The Musket, Part 7 - Patriots' Defensive Line A Matter Of Addition By Subtraction

Jagged Edge: Sheard is an elite edge-setter who will take over for the departed Chandler Jones on the weak side
How much will the New England Patriots' defense miss defensive end Chandler Jones?

After all, Jones led the team in sacks last season and made the Pro Bowl - but his numbers and inclusion to the Pro Bowl roster were ostensible, and there were times that his presence actually hurt the team last season, especially in the second half of the season and particularly as a run defender.

Harsh words, and akin to spitting on the now buried contributions of the former first round draft pick, but the a look inside the numbers don't lie.  As explained when he was dealt to the Cardinals back in March, Jones exploded out of the gates, collecting 10.5 sacks in his first nine games, then all but disappeared down the stretch, collecting just two more sacks.

Pulling a Claude Raines in the second half of all four of his pro seasons is now a full-fledged trend as his 36 sacks in 55 games translated to a combined 29.5 sacks in the first halves of each season, evaporating to just 6.5 in the second half of those same seasons...

...but that wasn't where the issue lied with Jones, as his inability to consistently set the edge in the running game was his bitch-kitty, to the tune of giving up 5.3 yards per carry last season when the play went off left tackle - but now he's in Arizona and listed as an outside linebacker in the Cardinals' 3-4 alignment, from where he will primarily rush the passer....

...which is no concern of the Patriots' - or at least it won't be on the other side of an opening night matchup with the red birds in Glendale - as New England now boasts a plethora of defensive ends that have the skill set and the wherewithal in their individual games to set the edge in the running game.

Newcomer Jabaal Sheard elevated his game as Jones faded down the stretch last season, and is the favorite to take over on the weak side while steady old-timer Rob Ninkovich should retain his strong side position, though Belichick had the 11th year veteran playing some middle linebacker in OTA's, where he looked pretty comfortable.

And he should have looked that way, as he played as a strong side linebacker for the first three seasons of his Patriots' career before being moved to defensive end at the start of the 2011 season - a juggling which tested his skill set, and the Patriots were rewarded with perhaps the most under-rated performance by a defensive end on the team during that span, perhaps in the entire league.

Free agent pick up Shea McClellin bounced around in a similar fashion while a member of the Chicago Bears for the past four years, starting at strong side end, then moving to outside linebacker before settling in the middle of the second-level last year.  In Chicago, he was far more successful as a linebacker than with his hand in the dirt, but Belichick had him setting the edge during spring drills.

McClellin is one of two reclamation projects to be undertaken by Belichick in 2017, with defensive tackle Terrance Knighton being the other.

A former first round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, McClellin's career in Chicago was doomed from the start as Bears' general manager Phil Emery christened him the defensive savior and lined him up at defensive end opposite All Pro Julius Peppers, but when his stats - seven sacks and 45 total tackles in his first two seasons - didn't equal what Bears' fans expected, he was moved to linebacker...

...but when he still struggled as a strong-side 'backer, he was moved to the middle linebacker position and blossomed into a tackling machine, duplicating his career tackle count in just one season.

The problem is, McClellin is just not built to be a full-time defensive end, as he comes in a good 15-20 pounds lighter than what the Patriots normally covet in their ends - but he has excellent pass rushing skills so one could reasonably expect Belichick to use him at his natural middle linebacker position, then have him reduce down on pure passing situations to provide speed off the edge, which is exactly what he did in college and why he became a first-round draft pick in the first place.

That still leaves the Patriots with two veteran full-time defensive ends, and the depth behind Sheard and Ninkovich includes veteran free agent pick up Chris Long, career journeyman Frank Kearse and a pair of second-year players in Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom.

At 31-years-old, Long is a situational pass rusher, but is also a proven veteran who brings a wealth of experience and some edge-setting skill, which is important because, as we saw increasingly with Jones, opposing quarterbacks will audible out of a third and four-or-five and run right at a situational pass rusher, the tackle guiding the rusher around to the backside of the play

That won't happen to Long, who as a strong-side end has good length and excellent hands to break off his pass rush and shed blocks when his instincts tell him that the run is coming his way - at least it shouldn't happen, but he has been injured for much of the past two seasons and there are concerns that his body is breaking down.

The same could be said for Flowers, who was active for only one game in rookie campaign, but is an intriguing prospect.  The Arkansas product is not an elite pass rusher, but is almost like a space-eating defensive tackle playing on the edge as his game is all about power.

In college, Flowers easily man-handled many opposing tackles in the running game and was projected to compete for snaps as a strong-side edge defender, playing the run first.  It remains to be seen if Flowers' open gait, long arms and superb power translates to getting after the quarterback, as his has next-to-no explosiveness out of his stance and is a plodding straight line runner...

...but, like a defensive tackle, Flowers has the ability to reestablish the line of scrimmage a couple of yards deep in the backfield, and has strong hands to shed blockers and force the ball back inside in the running game.  His pass rush is dependent on that power, so he is also a candidate to reduce down to a five-tech and bully a guard or two.

Grissom is a man without a position, as he came out of college as an outside linebacker but is a limited athlete who gets by on smarts, though he still has a lot to learn.  Power is his game as well, and he mainly held his ground in limited snaps and rushing with inside technique as the Patriots looked to determine where he fit.  His roster spot is far from secure, however, and really all depends on how the defensive tackle positions pan out.

But there really isn't much ambiguity regarding the defensive tackle spots.

Gone is the fragile and apparently entitled sociopath Dominique Easley, released suddenly in mid-April under a cloak of secrecy, leaving the team dangerously thin at the three-tech position, which has been reported by several sources to be phased out of the Patriots' defensive philosophy, in it's place a second huge space eater to go along with nose tackle Malcom Brown...

...though a case could be made for exactly the opposite as pass rushing tackle Alan Branch remains an integral part of the tackle rotation.  What makes the philosophy switch make sense, however, is the fact that Branch elevated his game once Easley went on the IR late last season, and turned out to be an elite run-stuffer, not allowing the guards to get under his pads despite standing a gargantuan 6' 6" tall.

That said, there's not much chance that anyone gets under the pads of Brown, who moves like a linebacker despite being a stout 6' 2", 320 pounds, nor newly acquired free agent Terrance Knighton who claims to be just five pounds heavier than Brown.

That seems like a bit of a stretch as he played north of 350 pounds last season with the Redskins, but Knighton signed a modest deal of just over $2 million to join the Patriots, though he could more than double that total through incentives, many of them weight related.

Knighton was a rising star for the Denver Broncos before becoming complacent and going from a svelte 320 pounds to 360 from one season to the next, incurring a series of weight-related fines from the Broncos before they tired of his act and refused to entertain his contract demands of $8 million a year without assurances that he would return in better shape for the 2015 season.

Turns out that "Pot Roast" had a much higher opinion of himself than teams that pursued him in free agency, and had to settle for a one-year "prove it" deal with the Redskins for half of his asking price, and then the Redskins informed him that they would not be talking contract with him because he still did nothing about his weight...

...though he graded out as a top-10 run-stuffer for the season.  Despite the high grade, Knighton heard only from crickets in the current free agency period, even though he claims to have shed 30 pounds in the offseason.

If true, a rotation of Brown, Knighton and Branch combined with the aforementioned rotation of edge-setting defensive ends should make New England a top shelf run stopping unit, though some question remains as to what kind of pass rush the Patriots will be able to generate - but the fact that Belichick runs a 4-2-5 Big Nickle as his base defense can afford him blitzing linebackers and safeties, which we will get into in the final two parts to this series

Depth is lacking on the interior despite names such as Vellano, Kuhn and Johnson, though third-round selection Vincent Valentine should make the team as a project.

Huge and with a tremendous amount of negativity surrounding his work ethic and attitude, Valentine was seen as an impossible reach for the third round, but a look at his 2014 tape reveals that when fresh, the Journalism major possesses the base strength to toss around guards and rag doll centers - which makes him a good fit for what Belichick believes in in regard to a rotation to keep all of his linemen fresh for the fourth quarter.

In the end, the Dark Master should have four tackles and five or six ends rotating in and out on his defensive line, something made possible by a thing called "addition by subtraction", dumping a one-dimensional end with a huge salary and a sociopathic three-tech with bad knees for a couple of respected professionals...

...and in the process getting bigger and stronger along the defensive line - good news for linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, who should have huge gaps to blitz through as the tackles take on multiple double teams and the stout ends set the edge, filtering everything back into the middle in the running game where the duo and a bunch of ill-mannered safeties await...

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