Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 8: "Dog Faces" Give the Patriots' Secondary It's Flare

Patriots' safety Duron Harmon stops to admire the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl 51

The New England Patriots have so many premium draft picks on their defensive depth chart that they could field a starting lineup made entirely of first and second round draft picks.

No matter what traditional base alignment they play in, there is plenty of draft royalty to man the positions - why just take a look at what the lineup could look like in a 3-4:

Left Defensive End - Kony Ealy (2nd round 2014 by Carolina )
Nose Tackle - Malcom Brown (1st round 2015)
Right Defensive End - Alan Branch (2nd round 2007 by Arizona)
Weakside Linebacker - Kyle Van Noy (2nd round 2014 by Detroit)
Weakside Inside Linebacker - Dont'a Hightower(1st round 2012)
Middle Linebacker - David Harris (2nd round 2007 by New York Jets)
Strongside Linebacker - Shea McClellin (1st round 2012 by Chicago)
Right Cornerback - Eric Rowe (2nd round 2015 by Philadelphia)
Left Cornerback - Stephon Gilmore (1st round 2012 by Buffalo)
Free Safety - Devin McCourty (1st round 2010)
Strong Safety - Patrick Chung (2nd round 2009)

They could use this lineup, but they won't - for no other reason than they are a much better team when their "Devil Dogs" are on the field - their blue-collar, toiling in the trenches and anything-but-pretty working stiffs - because head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick really doesn't care in what round a player was drafted, doesn't care how much a player makes in salary.

None of that makes any difference on the field. The only thing that does matter is how well a player does his job, and while all of the aforementioned royalty have all had their highlight reel production and individual accolades, there are other players on the team - the Devil Dogs, the Dog Faces, the big ugly collection of irrelevants - who were considered reaches by some draft experts and outright garbage by others that make the ultimate difference.

Which makes no nevermind to Belichick, as he considers draft experts on the same level as beat writers: a complete waste of his time. Belichick has his own formula for grading potential draftees, and has instructed his scouting department to not give players grades on projected rounds, but instead based on a five-tier system of potential.

The criterion is simple.  Belichick wants his scouts to grade players based on how they would fare under his philosophies, placing them in a linear progression of "starters", "potential starters", "developmental players", "backups" and "players who wouldn't make it on any NFL roster." - which precludes status, popularity and any other superficial label that could be applied.

For example, the team's best pass rusher is 2015 fourth-round selection Trey Flowers. Their most consistent defender over the past decade has been former fifth-round pick Rob Ninkovich while rotational nose tackle and 2016 third-round pick Vincent Valentine saw significant snaps late last season and was a force in the running game...

...but it is in the secondary where the "dog faces" make the most impact on defense, as former third-round safety Duron Harmon and undrafted cornerback Malcolm Butler make their bones as two of the best in the game at what they do.

Unless you are one of the people who have been living under large rocks for the past few years, you already know of Butler's heroics in Super Bowl 49 and his corresponding meteoric rise to the top of the NFL's cornerback ladder - this is where I question my own usage of the term "meteoric rise", as meteors tend to fall, not rise, but I am a slave to commonly used metaphors - but not many are truly aware of Harmon's contribution to two championship teams.

Pro Football Focus published some interesting numbers in regard to the Patriots' secondary, a unit that they graded out to be the third-best in the National Football League at the end of last season, and while they've added a very sturdy piece to their cornerback kennel in former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore, it is the steadiness of the safety corps that they opine is what makes this secondary.

And, of course, we know this because the Patriots were said to be in their nickle or dime defensive alignments on 80% of their snaps in 2016, with an extra safety in on the action the majority of that time - so is it any wonder that the Patriots ponied up a four-year, $20 million contract to keep their all-important nickel safety, Duron Harmon, in Foxborough for the immediate future?

Harmon is that rare blue-liner that has the size (6' 1", 210 pounds) and speed (4.41 at Rutgers' pro day), plus the requisite lateral agility to play the single high safety role well enough that it allows New England's defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to use free safety Devin McCourty as a coverage chess piece and strong safety Patrick Chung as an impromptu weak side linebacker without losing anything on the back end.

There is not another team in the National Football League that features such capability in their secondary and, as such, the versatility of what is known as the Big Nickel defense - that is, a nickle or dime alignment that features three safeties - is often overlooked when assessing the talent level of a coverage unit, but the talent of the Patriots' safety corps has not eluded the folks at Pro Football Focus.

The one weakness that the report identified in the secondary was the lack of a true nickel cornerback, which was offset by Harmon playing deep and McCourty - a former cornerback with elite speed and an All Pro selection at both corner and safety on his resume - moved around in coverages, often taking the double slot in a spread formation much like a nickel corner would.

But the Patriots appear to have strengthened their cornerback positions by adding former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore in free agency, who joins Pro Bowl talent Malcolm Butler and ascending star Eric Rowe to form an imposing corps - and with Rowe being a former college safety with like-attributes as Harmon, it gives Patricia many, many options in coverage.

Rowe and Gilmore come as like-sized boundary corners who will most likely fixate on the larger outside receivers, while Butler, who has proven his mettle both outside and in, figures as a chess piece that will be moved around to take advantage of mismatches.

With Gilmore on board and with Rowe ascending as a legitimate corner (see his coverage on Julio Jones in the Super Bowl for an example), teams that employ bigger wideouts to create those mismatches really don't apply against New England as they are well above the curve - again - when it comes to neutralizing a competitor's advantage.

Add to that the aforementioned coverage skill of McCourty and Chung's ability on tight ends, there's not much that's going to get by the Patriots' secondary.

That said, depth is going to be more a matter of who Belichick and Patricia see as having the most developmental upside, because with Butler's contract expiring at the end of the season and with Chung and Rowe scheduled for free agency the following offseason, the Patriots are in good shape to bring along potential replacements.

Actually, Belichick drafted Jordan Richards out of Stanford to develop into a Chung replacement, but he's been a disappointment in a backup role, and no Patriots' fan can hear the name Cyrus Jones without cringing and then falling into a drooling, blank-staring stupor in recalling his struggles in the role as a punt returner last season...

...the fact of which has many forgetting that he was a shutdown corner at Alabama, and never really got a chance to showcase that potential as a rookie as his fumbling issues on punt returns sapped him of so much confidence that Belichick didn't even bother dressing him for the final six games of the regular season, nor for the playoffs.

Jones has always bounced back from disappointment in his football career and has the talent to do so again, and don't expect Belichick to throw the towel in on him after just one season, especially as a second round draft pick.  But while Jones looks to improve on his disastrous rookie season, the jury has spoken in Richards' case, and he may well get the axe as a former second rounder who didn't make much improvement from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign.

Like Jones, Richards looked like a bust from the very start - but unlike Jones, Richards doesn't have the speed nor the instincts to play the strong safety role in New England, as his lumbering style is more scripted for an inside linebacker role, but he just doesn't have the size.  His roster spot is in serious jeopardy, especially given the two undrafted free agents that Belichick signed immediately after the draft.

Richmond's David Jones is a Harmon clone with sideline-to-sideline lateral agility and speed and the ballhawking skills that would make him a fine centerfielder, but has durability concerns and a left forearm that has been the bane of his football existence - this combined with the fact that Harmon was just re-signed, it makes sense that Jones find his way to the practice squad, or even to the PUP where he could allow his forearm to adequately heal while being coached up on the Big Nickel...

...while Minnesota's Damarius Travis is ready to contribute immediately.  At 6' 1" and 212 pounds, Travis is a pure box safety that can handle tight ends across the formation and in tight quarters and is a violent striker in run support.  Where he gets into trouble, as does Chung, is when a tight end takes him up the seam in single coverage - which really isn't an issue with Harmon stalking the blue line.

That leaves only the special teams players that populate the rest of the secondary depth charts, as safeties Nate Ebner and Brandon King and slot corner Jonathan Jones are ace standouts.  Ebner has been a fixture for five seasons and King for two, as the speedster from Auburn also doubles as an emergency "Dime" safety in prevent formations.

Jones also played at Auburn and is a speed merchant like King, but has tremendous ball skills and plays much bigger than his 5' 9" stature would suggest, and has the inside track for the fifth corner spot.

All told, the Patriots may just have the best secondary in the National Football League - surely the most diversely talented - and as we've witnessed for the past couple of seasons, that should be enough.

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