Thursday, May 4, 2017

Scripts Set For Patriots' Undrafted Free Agents; Vereen, King, Travis Primed To Steal Roster Spots

It's a tradition in New England for at least one undrafted free agent to make the 53 man roster - but the way the Patriots are handing out guaranteed cash to them, it might be more than one.

The problem is, this team is so loaded with talent, what chance does any of them have to break into the best roster, top to bottom, in the NFL?  Some would say slim-to-none, but don't tell that to players like Malcolm Butler, Brandon King, Jonathan Jones or Ted Karras, all of whom have cracked the code in recent seasons, with Butler being the most high-profile of the group...
Tennessee DE Corey Vereen

...showing once again, that draft status means absolutely nothing to Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick, whose approach to the draft was covered in depth - or at least as in-depth as is allowed - by Belichickian friend Michael Lombardi recently:

"Instead of predicting the rounds, our system forced our scouts to grade every player as either a starter, a potential starter, a developmental player, a backup, or someone who couldn't make any NFL team." Lombardi offered recently, "We wanted to define the prospect's role on our team, and we wanted to predict how long it would take him to achieve that role."

So it goes to figure that just because someone is rated in the first round by the draft experts doesn't necessarily make them a starter in Belichick's world, nor does someone rated a priority free agent make them a player who couldn't make any NFL team - and as many in the media have pointed out, that should explain some of the weird draft choices that the Dark Master has made in the past.

But there's more to it than that.  What Lombardi omitted from his diatribe was that there is other criteria that goes into selections, such as philosophies and need.

The philosophies are, of course, the Erhardt-Perkins system on offense and the Fairbanks-Bullough approach on defense - both with Belichick's twisted little spin on them that makes them progressive rather than archaic in the modern NFL.

The approach on offense even has a mantra attached to it - "Pass to score, run to win" - which means that the philosophy on offense is to build up a lead with the passing game, then kill the clock with the run, which is standard fare in the NFL - but the defensive philosophy is more up for interpretation to defensive geniuses such as Belichick, which is frustrating to fans that don't understand it...

...and even more frustrating for opposing offenses, even though they do.

The Fairbanks-Bullough defense is a passive-aggressive two-gap system that when initially implemented back in the mid-70's, featured a three man line that was supposed to contain the offense rather than aggressively attack it, preferring to let the linemen occupy the offensive line and preventing pulling guards and tackles from reaching the second level to obstruct the movements of the linebackers.

In theory, this allows the linebackers free movement to flow to the ball, which is a large part of the modern strategy, but in Belichick's world, the key to the entire defense is to bring a strong safety/weakside linebacker hybrid down into the box in the place of a linebacker, and protecting him from the big uglies so that he can fly around and make plays.

It takes a certain collection of athletes to make this philosophy - known simply as the Big Nickel - work.  It calls for massive, five technique defensive ends anchored by a gap plugging nose tackle, rotated in and out of the lineup much the same way hockey teams make line changes, keeping these large individuals fresh for their next shift and for late in the game...

...rangy linebackers who possess instincts and recognition traits to find the ball and flow to it, press-man corrnerbacks that mix it up with receivers coming off the line, and a trio of safeties that make the entire thing possible - a traditional free safety and a traditional box safety mixed in with an old-fashioned "centerfielder" who has the range, speed and angle recognition to be the last line of defense.

On the Patriots, those players are Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, respectively - but while this lineup represents perhaps the best set of safeties in the National Football League, it took Belichick some trial-and-error and the requisite time to put the beast together.

McCourty started out as a cornerback as a rookie from Rutgers, taken 27th overall in the 2010 draft, then transitioned to the free safety position gradually over his second and third seasons, his coverage instincts and angle recognition perfect for the spot.  Chung came to Foxborough via the second round in the 2009 draft with a reputation as a brick wall as a college run support safety and Harmon arrived on campus as a virtual unknown, a third round pick in 2013 when most experts had him listed as a priority free agent.

In the midst of all of this, Belichick took chances on players like Illinois cornerback Tavon Wilson, Ohio State's Nate Ebner and Stanford strong safety Jordan Richards in an effort to find the right mix to run his formation, and his priority free agent classes have been filled with safeties to supplement the process - and 2017 is no different.

Chung is aging before our eyes and Richards, who was drafted to be Chung's eventual replacement after a couple of years of grooming, has to be considered a bust.  McCourty is still playing at a high level and Harmon is valued as the best centerfielder in the game today, as evidenced by the solid contract he was given in the offseason to retain his services - but the future of the Big Nickel leans heavily on finding that strong safety/weakside linebacker hybrid to fill the box.

Belichick didn't select any safeties with his limited number of draft picks this season, but he brought in five of them as undrafted, priority free agents, and a couple of them are potential gems in the alignment.

Richmond's David Jones is the most intriguing of the bunch, and is a Harmon clone on the back side as far as range and speed.  At 6' 3" and 210 pounds, he's a long-glider who can go sideline to sideline smoothly, and has the football IQ to know to read a quarterback's body language and not get looked off by wily signal callers.

LSU corner Dwayne Thomas is seen as a strong safety in the pros, mostly due to his lack of deep speed and because of his excellence in run support in the box, while Valdosta State's Kenny Moore is too short to play corner in the league at 5' 9", but is a terror in the box.

Utah's speedy Jason Thompson is a neophyte at the safety position, but despite his lack of experience - he was a quarterback at Wyoming before transferring to Utah and switching positions - he quickly worked his way into a rotation at free safety with Marcus Williams, who was drafted 42nd overall by New Orleans, splitting reps right down the middle with the second-rounder.

Minnesota's Damarius Travis was the highest rated (on the traditional scouting scale) of all of the defensive backs brought in by Belichick and has the look of a box safety in waiting.  Bigger than Chung at 6' 1" and 210 pounds, Travis has the requisite coverage ability to handle tight ends and backs underneath, but not the long speed or quickness to handle them in space.

The rest of the undrafted free agent class are players that fit squarely in "developmental player" classification of Belichick's five-tier criterion.

Iowa running back LeShun Daniels is a big back (6' 0", 225 pounds) that scouting reports state can't create for himself, yet he averaged 2.4 yards per carry after contact.  Northwestern wide receiver Austin Carr was Pro Football Focus's seventh-rated UFDA.  A 6' 1", 195 pound slot receiver, he does his best work within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and was a Bilitnikof Award finalist and was named Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year, yet scouts wonder if he can get open in the pros.

Jacob Hollister is a move tight end coming out of Wyoming and his twin brother, Cody, is a wide receiver out of Arkansas.  Try to find an in-depth scouting report from the experts, and there are none.  Neither was invited to the combine, but both have impressive stats and size for the next level.

At 6' 5" and only 295 pounds, Iowa tackle Cole Croston is not athletic enough to play tackle in the pros and is too light to play guard or center, positions that would mask his lack of athleticism.  Could be a practice squad stash to develop in the weight room.  Harvard's Max Rich is just the opposite from Croston, and was perhaps the most athletic tackle in the class.

Scouts downplayed his pancaking defensive ends due to his level of competition in the Ivy League, but at 6' 7" and 315 pounds, Rich has the slide step and hand punch to project as a swing tackle with an emphasis on the right side on the professional level, while Purdue guard Jason King has started 40 c0nsecutive games at left guard against the best the Big 10 has to offer, and at 6' 4" and 305 pounds may find himself with a backup role on the 53 man roster.

Defensive tackles Josh Augusta and Adam Butler are longshots to make the roster loaded with excellent defensive tackles, especially Augusta, who at 6' 4" and 350 pounds is merely an immovable blob who offered no pass rush at all at Missouri, so perhaps Belichick is hoping Augusta loses weight to gain more quickness as a five-tech...

Butler, however, is a svelte 6' 4", 295 pounder who started his college career as an offensive tackle, but was moved to the other side of the ball after a defensive coach at Vanderbilt witnessed him arguing with an official at a rib eating contest, one that saw Butler devour 30 ribs in 60 seconds, but noticed that one of his competitors grabbed several uneaten ribs off of his plate as time wore down and dumped them in a waste bucket at his feet.

The coach so admired his passion in refusing to lose that he developed him into a defensive tackle and end hybrid that started every game his last two seasons.  At that light of weight, Butler truly is a five tech defensive end, which Belichick is currently collecting, so he has a shot...

...as does Tennessee defensive end Corey Vereen, who looks every bit the defensive end prospect on his college film, though a cat named Derek Barnett gained most of the headlines for the Volunteers.


 As you can see, Vereen has a quick get off, particularly from the strong side, and can bend around right tackles like they are standing still.  From the blind side, Vereen often stunted into the middle of the line and taking advantage of gaps created by the nose tackle being double teamed.

It's a mystery why Vereen and several of these other players went undrafted, but Belichick obviously had them on his board somewhere, and with a classification of anything but someone who can't make any NFL team...

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