Friday, July 29, 2016

Reloading The Musket, Part 8 - Cyrus "The Virus" Jones Completes Elite Patriots' Secondary

His nickname might be Clamp Clampington now, but once opposing receivers get a load of rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones, they are going to call him something far more foreboding.

Say hello to Cyrus the Virus.

Far from being the murderous thug portrayed in the cliche'-filled film Con Air, Jones is loved by teammates, loathed by receivers and is the maker of highly circumspect signal callers. Typical of New England Patriots' cornerbacks in that he has less than ideal measurables - giving up several inches to today's taller receivers - Jones makes up for that with excellent technique, ball skills and run support.

All of the Patriots defensive backs are competitive, but none of them except Jones could be considered downright antagonistic. Known for his aggression against receivers on the field and his combative tweets on social media, Jones has actually toned down his reaction to adversity and has been able to mask his on-field emotions to a degree...

...which is fortunate, because growing up even missing a tackle was cause for Jones to become inconsolable. "Some people on the outside couldn't understand. 'Why is he crying? Why does he want the ball all the time?" said his father, Cyrus Sr. "Hopefully now, they can see why."

The coaches at Alabama saw why, as did opposing quarterbacks and receivers and so, apparently, did Patriots' head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick who used top draft capital on Jones, bringing him in to join the likes of Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty, Pat Chung and Duron Harmon in New England's secondary... already top-ranked secondary according the folks at Pro Football Focus, who slotted them at number three in the entire National Football League, with the caveat that all they were missing was an effective nickle corner, then stating, "They hope to have improved the position with the selection of Cyrus Jones..."

A former wide receiver who transitioned to the cornerback role in college, Jones has exceptional ball skills and impeccable timing, plus has the field vision to become the Patriots' primary punt returner as proven by his four returns for touchdowns for the Crimson Tide last season, his only college season with that responsibility - meaning that his potential is virtually untapped.

The really scary thing for opposing offensive coordinators is that the Patriots have achieved such a lofty status despite having one of the youngest starting secondaries in the NFL at just over 25 years of age on average - the elder statesmen being Chung and McCourty, both at just 28 years old - and with a full stable of young greyhounds learning the ropes behind them, the future is just as bright as the present, if not more so.

The trio of safeties on the back end comprise the best Big Nickle squad in the game.  Harmon patrolling the the deep zone with the range of a speedy centerfielder allows McCourty - a former first round selection as a cornerback - and Chung to reduce down into the five-yard buffer off the line of scrimmage to act as a nickle corner and a weakside linebacker, respectively, McCourty helping out on outside receivers while Chung focuses on the running back.

Combined with the bulk of the front four taking on interior double teams and setting a hard edge on the outside, this alignment allows for the strong side linebacker to mirror the tight end and for the middle linebacker to read and react to the ball - the result of which provided the Patriots with a top ten defense last season - and it's only going to get better.

Because of the success of the alignment, Belichick will likely keep six safeties on the roster for a second consecutive season, limiting the roster spots for the true cornerbacks.

McCourty, Chung and Harmon are givens, as is second-year strong safety Jordan Richards, who is an insurance policy against any free agency defections next offseason, but the depth behind these four is a matter of some conjecture, as the last two slots traditionally go to special teams' mavens.

Last season, those went to Olympic Rugby player Nate Ebner and former Auburn "star" linebacker Brandon King, both of whom more than made a case for continuation in those roles in 2016, which is bad news for the fringe players vying for a spot on the 53 - the one exception could be rookie Kamu Grugier-Hill, who played weakside linebacker in college, but has the speed and athleticism to make the team as a Chung-like Big Nickle...

...though he could likely count against the linebacker depth chart.  Regardless, the limitations on the roster spots could again leave the team with just four corners - and with Butler, Ryan and Jones locks to make the roster, that leaves just one spot open amid a glut of potential candidates.

The smart money would be on either Justin Coleman or Darryl Roberts, both second year players with off-the-charts intangibles.

Roberts broke a bone in his wrist and landed on the Patriots' IR last preseason which, in retrospect, allowed the team to keep him around rather than expose him to waivers at the end of camp - a sure cut who needed a year of technique work and refinement, not to mention getting his skinny butt into the weight room, and the team took advantage of all of that once his injury healed.

The Marshall product has elite speed (4.38), loose hips to charge direction on a dime and rocket launchers in his legs to get to high balls, but he also had bad habits that needed to be corrected, such as mugging receivers well into their pattern, drawing laundry from the referees.

As a result of injuries to Roberts and others, the rookie Coleman got plenty of opportunity to display his wares as a nickle corner, logging five passes defended and 21 tackles in his ten games with New England in 2015 - this despite less-than-prototypical speed.  What set the Tennessee product apart from his contemporaries was his quickness underneath, something he displayed in abundance at the scouting combine...

...notching top grades in the twenty and sixty yard shuttles as well as the three cone drill.  Coleman bounced around early in the season between Minnesota, Seattle and Foxborough, but eventually settled in with the Patriots and held up well.

In many ways, Jones is a compendium of those two second year players: He doesn't carry Roberts' fast wheels, but does display a penchant for punking receivers, and he didn't blow up the pre-draft process like Coleman did, instead displaying incredibly normal athleticism - but when he punks the receiver, he does so within the five-yard mugging zone that corners are allowed to have contact with them.

This is his main attribute.  His ability to fight in the legal zone and intimidate pass catchers with his aggressive posture, excellent play strength and nasty attitude are key, but the fact that he transitioned from wide receiver at Alabama to the other side of the ball in his sophomore season gives him a unique insight into the head of a pass catcher, making it easy for him to get under their skin.

His game is intimidation, and once he gets under a receiver's skin there is no cure for him - there is no antibiotic to inject them with, no salve to calm their savage rash, not even a magical elixer to treat the symptoms.  Receivers are just going to have to let Cyrus the Virus run his course and just hope that the next time they meet, they can wash their hands of him.

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...

Saturday, July 16, 2016

"Jimmy Clipboard" No Longer: Brady's Decision Elevates Garoppolo To Opening Day Starter

"For the milk drinkers, the thought is that Garoppolo will be used as more of a game manager, not unlike what Matt Cassell experienced initially in 2008 when Brady tore his ACL - only this time Brady will be coming back, so we may not see a true body of work from him.  But the whiskey crowd wants to see the young fire-pisser jump in feet first from the very first possession, staking a claim as a legitimate professional quarterback.

The latter scenario seems to be the one gaining steam, as a decent performance by Garoppolo nets the coaching staff and Patriots' fans a little more solace in moving on from Brady in a few years - either that or it gives defacto General Manager Bill Belichick a solid gold trade chip moving into Jimmy's contract season - either way, Garoppolo is auditioning for something, which is a win in Belichick's book, and hopefully four wins on the scoreboard." - Foxborough Free Press, May 3, 2016

Think what you want about New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady's decision to give up on his last bastion of justice and accept a four game suspension imposed by the NFL for his alleged role in the so-called "Deflategate" saga - and there are many opinions - but there are just as many angles to consider...

...not the least of which that Brady's comfort level in leaving his offense in the hands of Jimmy Garoppolo, which has to be pretty high or that may have been a factor in accepting the suspension or not - or it could be precisely the opposite, where Brady chose to accept the suspension and serve the first four games so as not to potentially miss any important games down the stretch.

Either way, it doesn't matter.  Garoppolo is turning in his clipboard for a green dot.

Garoppolo is set to become only the third quarterback to start a football game for the Patriots since Brady took over the offense early in the 2001 season, with Matt Cassel being the only other - a stat that promotes a rather amazing streak of endurance and consistency on the part of Brady.  But as mentioned in the article cited above, this is a significant crossroads for Garoppolo.

This isn't just some hold-the-fort-until-Brady-returns job, the fate of at least one franchise is on the line, and probably a few more, as quarterback-hungry teams will be watching Garoppolo very closely.

The Patriots are at a crossroads as well, drafting North Carolina State quarterback Jacoby Brissett using third round draft capital, which is nothing to sneeze at considering New England had been stripped of a first round selection in this past April's NFL Draft, meaning that he is all but assured a spot on the Patriots'53 man roster - which presents an interesting scenario.

Should Garoppolo play up to his enormous potential, there are sure to be General Managers and head coaches around the league that would see him as worth giving up high draft capital to the Patriots to secure his services, probably dollars better spent than using said draft pick to take a top college prospect whose transition from college to the NFL is hardly a given.

Garoppolo is in his third season, is only 24 years old and has a skill set that enables him to be successful in just about any offensive philosophy.

Coming out of Eastern Illinois, Garoppolo was just a blip on the draft radar, most prognostication sites rating him as no better than a fifth-round pick - that is, until Garoppolo got to the post-season all star games, where he lit up opposing pass defenses with his compact, effortless-looking release and absolute rocket for an arm throwing into the intermediate zone.

"Garoppolo can find receivers and fire the ball on target faster than you can say his name. Lighting release and frozen rope medium distance sideline passes are reminiscent of Dan Marino's lasers. This despite concerns about his size, short arms and small hands." - Frank Cooney, 

He shot up the big boards and was mentioned in the same breath as other top quarterbacks in the class, and came into the 2014 draft being pegged as the Texans' franchise signal caller with the first pick of the second round.  Unfortunately for them, they passed on him at that point with the feeling that he would make it to the top of the third round, but Belichick pounced on him at the bottom of the second round, and Houston was forced to Plan B, Pitt's Tom Savage.

In retrospect, and even before Garoppolo takes the field on opening night, the move by the Dark Master was as shrewed as any Belichick has made in any draft, as he has either his franchise quarterback of the future under contract, or has a a stock certificate on the most prized commodity in football.

Maybe Belichick saw this coming in regard to the stupid and wrong Deflategate saga, or he really didn't want to have to rely on Ryan Mallet as his backup, or he simply just thought Garoppolo could be the successor to Brady - or maybe even a combination of all of the above - but whatever the motivation, Belichick is now in the same position with Garoppolo as he was with Drew Bledsoe after the 2001 season... Beldsoe to Buffalo for their 2003 first-round draft pick - and while Garoppolo isn't nearly as polished or experienced as the first overall pick in 1993, there is sure to be a general manager out there who would be willing to part with a second rounder, perhaps even a first rounder - and it wouldn't necessarily be during the next offseason.

Brady is due back from suspension in week 5, barely a month before the NFL trade deadline of November 3rd - a key occurrence as injuries could dictate a market for Garoppolo - or even Brissett - as it would be to the Patriots' advantage to shed a backup to Brady to create a roster spot somewhere else.

Of course, this is speculative.  It could very well be that Belichick carries three quarterbacks as his team is absolutely loaded at just about every level, with no real or perceived needs.  So with speculation being what it is - a guessing game full of hypotheticals and what-ifs - there is little doubt that all three signal callers on the camp roster possess a skill set friendly with the Erhardt-Perkins offense that Belichick prefers...

...but now that teams actually will have to game plan for Garoppolo - which means a concerted focus on taking away what he does best - how would a defense attack him?

As mentioned, Garoppolo's delivery is compact - a three-quarters delivery in which there is little-to-no windup - and when the ball leaves his hand, it comes out at just above his eye-level, and given that Garoppolo stands only 6' 3", the smart money is on teams understanding the Patriots' passing lanes and maintaining gap integrity.

It's not a sexy game plan and it lends itself  to giving a little too much respect to a guy who has thrown less than three dozen passes in his career, but to blitz him is to bring his mobility into play and it also leaves one of his monstrous tight ends in single coverage up the seam - and to take him too lightly and play shell coverage, he has the ability to pick the secondary apart with quick hitters.

The math of all of this is that teams will have to play Garoppolo straight-up, and afford him a level of respect unheard of for a third-year clipboard holder - partially because of the freakish nightmare of pass catchers that he will have to throw to, but also because his technique in progression is so sound that he wastes very little motion, and the ball comes out hot with just the snap of his wrist.

"From his pocket mobility to his accuracy to his mental makeup, he has a lot of qualities you look for as someone you can develop at the next level. A lot of young quarterbacks leave their feet behind when they check to their next progression. But not Garoppolo. By keeping his feet tied to his eyes, he's always in position, ready to pull the trigger." - ESPN analyst Todd McShay

What McShay means by keeping is feet tied to his eyes is that Garoppolo's feet move in unison with his line of sight, and the way he holds the ball high on his pads, he's cocked and ready to fire at all times.

Where this is particularly effective is on the quick-rhythm routes conceptually designed to target both the Patriots' lightning-quick garden gnome receivers in the underneath zones and their aforementioned monstrous tight ends in the intermediate zone and deep up the seam - and even more so when Garoppolo is improvising outside the pocket...

As the audio mentions, Garoppolo's accuracy is pretty amazing, his footwork is extraordinary and he has a thick lower half that aids him in escaping the clutches of ill-intended defensive linemen and which also contributes to his accuracy - and all of this is on full display at about the fifty second mark of this video.

The laser that he throws for a touchdown after escaping the clutches of the Saints' pass rush should serve as a warning to defensive coordinators to preach pocket containment and gap integrity, because that ball got to wide receiver Chris Harper in a hurry, Garoppolo using his forward momentum and natural wrist-snap to put the ball right where it needed to be, right when it need to be there.

All of this being said, one would think that this could turn into another Bledsoe-Brady circumstance if Garoppolo lights the league on fire through four games, but all one has to do is to fast forward the video to the end sequence, a flat-footed overthrow that resulted in a long interception to understand that there will be no quarterback controversy... Brady is a far more accomplished passer and is the greatest to ever play this game.

No, there are only two conclusions that will come out of Garoppolo's four-game audition - to be retained as the future of the franchise or be dealt to the highest bidder, and if Jimmy Clipboard ascends and plays light's out, then it will Belichick's task to determine which option is best for the team - both long term and short.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Reloading The Musket, Part 6 - Eclectic Patriots' Defense Much More Than The Sum Of It's Parts

Sheard (triple-teamed on right) and Brown (90) set the tone against the run and provide an effective pass rush

The Top 100 players in the NFL have been revealed - all, that is, except for the top 10 - and unless one of New England's excellent linebackers are in that final group, no Patriots' defenders have been included on the list.

That really shouldn't surprise anyone, as the Patriots' defense has had more than it's share of detractors since the start of the current decade - six seasons featuring the now-familiar bend-but-don't break approach, where the defense gives up a ton of yards between the twenties, but not much more than that...

...ranking in the bottom-third of the league in yardage allowed, yet ranking in the top-third in points allowed.  It's not sexy - in fact, it can be downright frustrating to watch at times - but it has been effective.

But for the past two seasons, the trend has been shifting from bend-but-don't-break to a more dominating approach. For example, in the 2014 Championship season, the Patriots' defense came in 13th in yardage allowed and eighth in points allowed, and followed that up last season by finishing in the top 10 in both categories - ninth in yardage and tenth in points allowed, only the second time in franchise history that the defense ranked better in yardage allowed than in points allowed.

That trend is certainly looking up for 2016, despite the fact that no Patriots' defender made the list of the 100 best football players in the league - a glaring omission that will likely add an additional twinge of motivation to a group of eleven that already had a chip on their collective shoulder.

But then again maybe not, as the unit is used to working in obscurity, taking a distant back seat to the potent offense led by future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and his considerable weaponry - which is odd, since most of the top draft capital spent by head ball coach and defacto General Manager Bill Belichick recently resides on the defensive side of the ball.

2010 top round pick Devin McCourty leads a starting defensive lineup that sports no less than eight players drafted on the first or second day of the NFL Draft, with linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive tackle Malcom Brown joining the unit as first round selections in 2012 and 2015, respectively...

...while Brown's fellow defensive tackle Alan Branch was a second round selection of the Cardinals in 2007, with safety Pat Chung and freak linebacker Jamie Collins both Patriots' top picks as second round selections, Chung in 2009 and Collins in 2013.  2015 Free agent pickup steal Jabaal Sheard was a second rounder with Cleveland 2011 and cornerback Logan Ryan rounds out the list as a third rounder in 2013.

That's eight of New England's defensive starters that were selected with top draft capital as opposed to just three of the Patriots' offensive starters (Solder, 1st round in 2001; Vollmer, second round 2009 and Rob Gronkowski, second round 2010), so one would think from the disparity that New England would have twice as many players on the list from the defense as they do their offense.

Ah, but talk of such things such are for the split milk crowd, as is the collective anxiety generated when one thinks of the contract situation for the defense heading into the 2016 season.

Granted, the players most likely feel slighted, but those feeling are nothing that a new rich contract wouldn't cure, and the players who deserve to feel the most slighted - linebackers Hightower and Collins - are due for very big pay raises, indeed.

But first there is the matter of a football season, which for the aforementioned pair of linebackers is a contract year, along with such stalwarts as Sheard, fellow defensive end Rob Ninkovich and centerfielder Duron Harmon, and newbies playing on one-year deals in defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and rush end Chris Long.

That's a lot of talent hitting free agency after the season, but there are two things about the circumstance that should give Patriots' fans a little cleaner air to breathe:  First, contract years usually equate to best efforts, and with that many auditioning for big contracts combined with a deep talent structure in place, we will likely see the best defense that Belichick has had in a decade or more...

...and secondly, as things stand now, the Patriots will have a whopping $63.5 million in cap space to play around with at the start of the league year in March, which could conceivably get everyone signed, and also get a new deal for up-and-coming cornerback Malcolm Butler as well.

So the focus going into the 2016 season should be all on the field of battle for a defense that should easily be one of the top units in the entire National Football League.


The New England Patriots are so eclectic in their players' individual skill sets that there is no way to properly hang a label on them.

Look on any football website and it will tell you that the Patriots run a 4-3, but the truth is that with as many hybrid players the defense possesses, they could easily slip into a 3-4 or morph into any number of exotic formations.  That said, the reason for the Patriots' defensive successes last season was their ability to play primarily out of a 4-2-5 Big Nickle.

Those of you who follow my blog know from long experience that the Big Nickle is a defensive formation that follows the tenets of a traditional nickle defense - with four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs - but with a twist: Instead of bringing in a third cornerback, the Patriots bring in a third safety, who drops into the box and acts as a weakside linebacker, providing coverage on running backs and heft in run support.

The Patriots are able to do this because they have a true centerfielder in Harmon, who is one of the best sideline to sideline blue liners in the game, and because they have the outstanding linebacker duo in Hightower and Collins.  The Big Nickle is on them as the linebackers play the run, cover tight ends and rush the passer while Harmon patrols the deep end as the last line of defense...

...leaving McCourty to assist in coverages on wide receivers and supplement Pro Bowl corner Malcolm Butler and fourth-year man Ryan, while Chung drops down and becomes the primary playmaker. Add into that the pass rushing skill and edge-setting ability of Sheard and Ninkovich on the wings and the run stuffing prowess of Brown and Knighton on the interior, and the Patriots have a seriously stout defense.

There are not many teams who can set up the Big Nickle quite like Belichick has, as he stock-piles safeties that fit his prototype and, even more important, there are not many teams that can match up well offensively with the alignment, something that became more and more evident last season down the stretch, as the defense carried the handicapped offense.

How effective was the alignment?  Well, for the entire season, the Patriots' defense allowed just three - THREE - 300 yard passing games, and held ten of their opponents to 250 passing yards or less - while on the ground they allowed less than 100 rushing yards in ten of their sixteen contests - but they saved their best performance for last, holding the eventual World Champion Denver Broncos to 244 total yards in an epic display of skill and strength.

That, unfortunately, wasn't enough as the offense constantly put the defense in poor field position and could only muster 18 points against what was the league's top-rated defense of 2015, and still could have won the game had any one of a number of poor decisions and poor executions had turned out differently.

But as Belichick is fond of saying, If "if's" and "but's" were candy and nuts, everyday would be Christmas - meaning excuses be damned.  The Patriots came within a whisker of going to their seventh Super Bowl of the Belichick era, riding a defense down the stretch that was one of the best in the game.

There is no reason to believe that this year's edition can't expand upon that success, and in the remaining parts to this series, we will examine all three levels of the defense in detail, giving special credence to both the diversity of the talent and the resultant Big Nickle alignment...

Friday, July 1, 2016

Relaoding The Musket, Part 5 - Embarrassment Of Riches Adorn Patriots' Offensive Line. Really.

Mason (69) should have a roster spot all sewn up, but the same can not be said for Cannon (61)
It's called having too much of a good thing, and the New England Patriots have that all over their roster.

Think about it: On defense, they have what has to be the best safety depth in the league, a pair of linebackers that are sure to be in the top 30 of the NFL's 100 best players, and a defensive line that has too few spots for a plethora of outstanding run-stuffers, edge setters and pass rushers...

...while on offense they have the greatest quarterback who ever lived, backed up by the most game-ready sophomore in the league, a set of tight ends that are so good that they dictate what receivers are kept on the roster to complement them (not to mention , and a collection of running backs that fit the philosophy perfectly - and an offensive line absolutely stocked to the brim with talent.

That is a far cry from what we witnessed during the second half of last season, and that we heard from the media and other casual fans, but last season was an aberration in that injury - to the line and to many skill position players - dictated what the line was: a collection of matadors who simply stepped aside and let quarterback Tom Brady deal with the onslaught of pass rushers.

Which is bullshit, of course, but fans can be excused for seeking a scapegoat after the huge egg the Patriots' offense laid in the final two months of last season, misguided as it is.

Because it's not like the Patriots' offensive linemen suddenly sucked after years of stout protection - and truth be told, they really weren't that bad, given the circumstances.  There is no hiding the fact that the struggles of the offense were directly attributed to the struggles along the line, but the aforementioned circumstances put the injury-decimated line in the no-win position of being no more than a levee attempting to hold back a tsunami.

Six playoff teams gave up more sacks and quarterback hits than New England's offensive line did in the regular season, including two conference championship game participants and the eventual Super Bowl champions - and in the post season, all three of the Patriots' fellow conference championship participants gave up more sacks, but none of them allowed their quarterback to be hit more than Brady was.

Perhaps that was because no one threw the ball more than Brady, as he dropped back an insane 49 times per game in the playoffs, a full 19 more than both Super Bowl participants.  When put in that context, the Patriots offensive line was actually the best team at protecting their quarterback.

Where they fell short is in the running game, running the ball just 31 times in their two playoff games while calling 98 passing plays, a balance disparity of 76% to 24% in favor of the passing game - and if one were to eliminate Brady's rushing attempts, they would discover that the running backs to handoffs from Brady just 22 times.

Arizona was in the same boat, so to speak, losing in the NFC Championship to Carolina and abandoning their running game when they fell behind by 17 points in the first quarter while Carolina enjoyed balance on a epic scale, and the Broncos were almost perfectly balanced in their narrow win over New England, who simply had run out of players for Brady to hand off to.

What does this have to do with the offensive line?

When the Patriots lost LeGarrette Blount to a season-ending hip injury in week 14 against Houston, they lost much more than just a player - they lost the ability to create balance, and when a team becomes one-dimensional in the manner that New England did, it affects the offensive line more than any other unit on the offense.

Think about it.  When a team doesn't have a very good passing game and are forced to run the football, the defense can load up the box against the run and leave their corners one-on-one with the receivers, rendering the running game inert.  By contrast, if a team doesn't have a running game to speak of and are forced to the air, the defense can pin their ears back and come after the quarterback, overwhelming the offensive line with sheer numbers.

That is exactly what happened to the Patriots' offensive line last season.

Their troubles began in the preseason when starting center Bryan Stork suffered a concussion which eventually landed him on the team's injured reserve list, with a designation to return, leaving the job to Ryan Wendell - but when undrafted rookie David Andrews beat out Wendell for the job, New England found themselves starting the season with all three interior line positions manned with rookies.

Career backup Josh Kline was added to the mix, spelling left guard Shaq Mason and right guard Tre Jackson and for the first three games, things seemed to be on the up-and-up for New England, as Andrews was drawing raves for his technique, Mason for his athleticism and Jackson for his sheer size and toughness - and when combined with veteran bookends in identically-sized tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, the Patriots looked to have one of the more intriguing young lines in the NFL...

...but that all changed in a week 5 matchup with the Cowboys in Dallas, as New England lost blindside mauler Solder and his backup, young LaAdrian Waddle, in consecutive series - Waddle suffered a shoulder injury and would return in a few weeks, but Solder was shelved for the season with a torn bicep.

Vollmer moved from the strong side to take over on the left and swing tackle Marcus Cannon filled in on the right, but the following week in Indianapolis started a turnstile of revolving linemen - Cannon started at left tackle against the Colts and Vollmer went back to his accustomed right tackle, but Cannon lasted only one quarter, forcing the Patriots to bring in their third line grinder in Cam Fleming...

And so it went, as New England ended up starting 13 different offensive line combinations and never finding that cohesive bond due to minor injuries among the interior linemen, Solder's injury and Stork's absence until he could come off the IR in November.

The issue, of course, was with the swing tackle depth, as neither Cannon nor Fleming were consistently effective.  In fact, things got so bad that upon Stork's return, the team started him at right tackle against the Giants in Week 10, rather than go with what they knew wasn't going to work against New York's elite pass rush.

Now, according to my math, New England did exactly nothing to rectify the issue with tackle depth, leaving the team's fate in the hands of Cannon, Fleming and Waddle - but while that will cause shivers down every Patriots' fan's spine, it has to be remembered that all of them suffered from the imbalance in the play calling which by the time the season ended was being dictated solely by however many pseudo-healthy bodies they could put on the field.

Waddle has untapped potential as a blindside protector, having played on the left at pass happy Texas Tech, and holding his own against the best the Big 12 had to offer as far as pass rushers are concerned, including future All Pro Von Miller - the same Von Miller who shamelessly abused Cannon and Fleming in the AFC Title game and who did the same to Carolina in the Super Bowl to garner MVP honors.

But that doesn't mean there isn't hope for the edges in the event of injury, as the aforementioned elite tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and former Chicago Bear Martellus Bennett will rarely - if ever - come off the field because of their skill not only as pass catchers, but also as devastating run blockers.

Gronkowski has always been a factor in the running game, but so was Michael Hoomanawanui, who was dealt to New Orleans at the end of September, upgrading the Saints' edge blocking by a significant margin while leaving New England with a gimpy Williams and little else opposite Gronkowski.

In return, New England shored up the interior of their defensive line with three-tech Akiem Hicks and, in truth, he was a main cog that allowed the Patriots' defense to carry the team through the difficult last two months - but maybe they wouldn't have had to rely on the defense as much had they kept Hoomanawanui...

...but that is a double-edged sword, and pointless to even argue, especially since the position is now well-stocked with H-back types and monstrously complete tight ends, so the tackle depth isn't as critical since there are so many folks able and willing to lend a hand if the onus falls to one of the depth options already on the roster.

One of those options was thought to be third-round pick North Carolina State rookie Joe Thuney, but on second glance Thuney is sort of an enigma.  He has the length to play on the outside, but has short arms and panics a bit with speed rushers and has a tendency to latch on if he thinks he's going to be beaten on the corner, and tends to lean on them if they try inside technique.

So, many are expecting Thuney to compete for a spot on the interior, where he can slide-step to mirror three techs and his short arms and tendency to lean won't cause as much of a balance issue.  In that respect, Thuney is a project, but with upside and a great teacher in line coach Dante Scarnecchia, he should be a depth fixture all over the line, particularly on the inside

Besides, on the inside is where the embarrassment of riches lie as well as the resultant too much of a good thing.

Andrews proved that he could handle the pivot while Stork recovered on the IR, and offered a technically sound pass anchor, though he is undersized with a light lower body.  He doesn't offer and position flexibility, however, which limits his roster potential as Stork and newcomers Jonathan Cooper and Joe Thuney all excel at multiple positions, including center.

Of course, Stork's health is a concern, so the center position is volatile spot.  If Stork can stay healthy, he's the best option at the pivot, but will head ball coach Bill Belichick keep a pure center on the roster to back up Stork, or will Andrews find himself on the waiver wire come September?  One thing is for sure, with his body of work as a rookie, he won't clear waivers.

Both guard spots are wide open for camp competition, and Belichick has to hope that newcomer Jonathan Cooper rises above his incumbents and realizes his enormous potential.

Drafted seventh overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2013, the oft-injured Cooper came into the league lauded as an excellent pass blocker and works better from the left guard spot, which enables him to use his elite foot quickness and outstanding power to pull to the strong side and to stonewall bull rushing tackles...

...which is primarily what incumbent left guard Shaq Mason excels at as the class of 2015's best drive blocker, edging out the huge right guard Tre Jackson for that title.  Both struggled as rookies in pass protection, however, which lends credence to Belichick's insistence that Cooper be part of the compensation package in the deal that sent defensive end Chandler Jones to Arizona.

Kline is serviceable, if undersized, as a rotational guard, but his time in New England may be about to expire as Cooper, Mason and Jackson are the top three guards on the roster and Thuney is a virtual roster lock as a third-round draft pick.

Traditionally, Belichick has kept ten offensive linemen on his 53-man roster, and when you consider those four, plus four tackles and two centers, it leave nothing but the waiver wire for everyone else - that is, unless sixth-round pick Ted Karras puts his impressive lineage on display and steals one of the guard spots....

...but Karras seems destined for the practice squad, while Kline, either Marcus Cannon or Cam Fleming, Chris Barker and Keavon Milton attempt to latch on elsewhere.

That's what happens when you have too much of a good thing...