Friday, May 12, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 4: Belichick "Cooks" Up Enticing Receiving Corps

"A modern day warrior
Mean, mean stride
Today's Tom Sawyer
Mean, mean pride."

When Neil Peart, the world class drummer for the Canadian rock band Rush, penned the lyrics to the band's most recognizable and signature tune Tom Sawyer, New England Patriots head ball coach Bill Belichick was just starting to cut his football teeth as linebackers' coach for the New York Giants under the tutelage of Ray Perkins...

...the same Ray Perkins who, along with Ron Erhardt, devised the concept-based Erhardt-Perkins offense while they were both offensive assistants with the Patriots, a system so complex in it's simplicity that learning the playbook has ruined many competent veteran receivers with it's reliance on versatility.

Perkins' influence on Belichick is evident every time his Patriots take the field, as the mantra for the Erhardt-Perkins offense, "Pass to score, run to win" is pretty much how it's done in New England with their pass-first mentality and their ability to close out games by running out of their four-minute sets - but finding players that "get it" when it comes to the concepts is not an easy task.

The offense requires that every player knows what every other player is supposed to be doing, and relying on their diverse skill sets to give them the ability to line up at any position on the field, be it split wide, in the slot or in the backfield.

For years, Brady has called the play in the huddle - a simple one word designation that tells each player where to line up and what route he is running, breaking the huddle quickly and then using the rest of the play clock to survey the defense, unmask the coverages by sending any number of players in motion and gauging the defenses' reaction, then adjusting the pass catchers to a spot in the formation to take advantage of mismatches.

So, there's a reason why Belichick selects the pass catchers that he does, a reason why Patriots' receivers are no-name, often nomadic creatures who wouldn't make another team's roster because they lack any number of requisite qualities that fans will pay to see - literal jacks-of-all-trades, receivers that are successful in the concept have three things in common:

They are intelligent, both academically and in football vernacular.  They are versatile.  They are dependable.

Not a list of traits looked at with any degree of enthusiasm by the casual fan - or by many coaches, it seems - it is these traits that have fueled the Patriots' offense for close to two decades, ruining the aforementioned tenured veterans and making cult-figures of ambiguous, ill-figured athletes, some of whom had not played at receiver until Belichick got hold of them.
"Tom Sawyer was a collaboration between myself and Pye Dubois.  His original lyrics were kind of a portrait of a modern-day rebel, a free-spirited individualist striding through the world wide-eyed and purposeful.  I added the themes of reconciling the boy and the man in myself, and the difference between what people are and what others perceive them to be." Neil Peart
The gap between what Belichick is and what people perceive him to be has narrowed exponentially with each division title, with each conference championship and with each Super Bowl.  Initially, the man we've come to call "The Dark Master" was perceived to be a curmudgeonly old malcontent who loathed the media and didn't give two shits what anyone thought of him...

...his sole saving grace in the public eye was the obvious affection that he had for the men who played ball for him - and even that took hits every time he released or traded away a player whom the fanbase had decided had lots of gas left in their tank.

He discarded certain hall-of-fame receiver Randy Moss after he ceased to be useful, and dumped slot receiver Wes Welker after openly mocking him with the moniker "Wally Pipp" and giving his job to Julian Edelman.  He took chances on a washed-up Chad Ochocinco and Reggie Wayne, but both crashed and burned at the prospect of having to learn the playbook.

His track record of drafting receivers that could actually function in the system is abysmal, so instead he concentrates on collecting already broken-in talent with varying degrees of success and rides the lightning with them - his track record in that endeavor solid gold despite the failed Ochocinco experiment.

Moss set records and made mockery of secondaries throughout football.  Welker became the prototype for garden gnome-sized slot receivers, holding the fort for Edelman, a former-college quarterback that worked his way into the lineup.  Danny Amendola was signed the day that Welker was shown the door and became one of the most clutch receivers in team history.

Chris Hogan didn't even play college ball at Penn State, instead playing Lacrosse on scholarship then using his final year of eligibility to learn to play the position at tiny Monmouth College, and last season became the Patriots big play game breaker - and in Malcolm Mitchell, all indications are that Belichick may have finally gotten a draft pick right.

Indeed, Mitchell was the highest-drafted receiver on the roster last season - with the exception of late-season rental Michael Floyd - being taken in the fourth round and wowing the fans at Gillette Stadium with his toughness, resilience and electric moves after the catch, and all indications were that Mitchell was ready to break out onto the scene as a sophomore...

...that is until Belichick traded away his first-round draft pick to New Orleans in exchange for Brandin Cooks, a move that will either limit Mitchell's progress by taking snaps from him or make him that much more dangerous as opposing secondaries look to contain the speedy Cooks.

Running a blazing fast 4.33 in the 40 yard dash, Cooks routinely ran away from coverages operating out of the slot, his short area burst causing instant separation as he took slot corners inside out across the face of the intermediate zone and up the sidelines which draws the attention of the high safety and should leave the other pass catchers on the roster in single coverage.

That's bad news for defensive coordinators on the Patriots' schedule, especially considering that Mitchell and Hogan are no sloths, running 4.45 and 4.47 respectively - we saw what both did last season when left in man coverage, and the fact that they rose to the occasion when their team needed them most in the post-season makes them solid gold in Belichick's system.

No, his mind is not for rent
To any God or government
Always hopeful but discontent
He knows changes aren't permanent

Terminally discontent despite holding another trophy, in trading for Cooks Belichick addressed the most worrisome issue coming out of their championship season, that of not having a speed merchant to force the defense to defend the entire field and allowing defenses built on quickness - such as the Atlanta Falcons - to key down on taking away the short game that has been a staple of Belichick's offenses throughout his tenure.

His Patriots overcame that disadvantage in the Super Bowl, barely, but Belichick can't count on making epic comebacks week-after-week after spotting teams large leads - so he went out and did something about it.

In Cooks, Hogan and Mitchell, the Patriots are suddenly youthful in their receiving corps.  Cooks is 23 and still working on his rookie contract, though Belichick picked up his option for 2018 and making him a multi-millionaire.  Mitchell is in his second season at age 24 and also on his rookie contract, while Hogan is still just 28 and entering his sixth season...

...joining Edelman (30) and Amendola (31) to form perhaps the most dangerously versatile receiving corps in the National Football League.

Now add in the combined talents of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen - both just 27 years old and under contract for multiple seasons - along with the pass catching talent coming out of the backfield in the personages of Super Bowl hero James White (25), Dion Lewis (26), Rex Burkhead (26) and Mike Gillislee (26), and one has to wonder how anyone is going to stop the apparent juggernaut that Belichick has built.

Luckily for opposing defenses, the Patriots are only allowed five skill position players on the field at any one time - but that is going to be hard enough for them to cover and account for...

Today's Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the space he invades
He gets by on you

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 3: Miscast, Underused in Indy, Allen Set To Break Out With New England

National Football League teams using two tight end sets is as old as the game itself, but how they benefit the individual offenses is a matter of overall talent and depth - and since the start of this decade, no team has relied more on - nor gotten more out of - their tight ends than the New England Patriots.

Selected in the second and fourth rounds of the 2010 NFL Draft, respectively, Arizona's Rob Gronkowski and Florida's Aaron Hernandez helped the Patriots and head ball coach Bill Belichick revolutionize how offenses attack defenses - and how defenses defend against them.

So lethal was the Gronkowski-Hernandez pairing that acquiring monstrous and athletic tight ends became en vogue, as it were, for other teams to follow suit and jump on the gravy train while defensive coordinators were still trying to figure out how to stop the dual-tight end look, and acquiring the players to do it.

Ultimately, most teams had to settle for less on both sides of the ball, but even though Gronkowski has missed considerable time with injury and Hernandez ended up in the poke, Belichick never reverted back to a normal pro set, opting instead to keep signing tight ends to complement Gronkowski, as names like Kellen Winslow, Jr., Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells, Matthew Mulligan, Tim Wright and Scott Chandler came and went as possible complements...

...but it wasn't until last season when Belichick traded a low-round draft pick to the Chicago Bears to pick up the disgruntled yet animated Martellus Bennett that the Dark Master finally hit on a deal to bring in a true complementary weapon, though he turned out to be more of a vital cog in the championship machine when Gronkowski went down with a slipped disk at midseason than a mere complementary chess piece.

So, it's not such a huge surprise that the Patriots won Super Bowl 51 without the services of Rob Gronkowski, though it is a scary thought for the rest of the NFL to ponder, particularly given that of the previous two Super Bowls that the Patriots have participated in since Gronkowski was drafted 42nd overall back in 2010, the road traveled was bumpy and full of obstacles...

...losing in 2011 when he was injured to the point that he should have been on the IR, then in 2014 the massively talented workhorse tight end was completely healthy against the Seahawks, though it took a miracle at the end of the game for New England to pull out their fourth championship.

In Super Bowl 46 against the New York Giants, Gronkowski was hobbled with what was initially diagnosed as a high ankle sprain, but what turned out to be partially ruptured ligaments that required surgery to repair, and in Super Bowl 49 he was a difference-maker down the stretch that allowed the Patriots to take a late lead and eventually win the title.

Last February, he was on the IR after back surgery forced him to the sidelines, but this time the Patriots were able to come back and win a fifth title, scoring 31 unanswered points after spotting the Atlanta Falcons a 25 point lead.

The difference, of course, was the presence of Bennett, a depth option that the Patriots haven't had since Hernandez went rogue, as well as a full complement of various-sized and shaped weapons for quarterback Tom Brady to target - depth that Brady has never had to work with before.

In 2011, Brady had only Wes Welker, a rapidly aging Deion Branch and the now deceased Hernandez to fall back on as options to Gronkowski, as names like Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman were not yet viable targets, but were options in 2014.  Last season, Edelman teamed with Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Bennett and running back James White to earn a trophy...

...depth that has gotten even deeper this offseason with the additions of receiver Brandin Cooks and running backs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee - and even though Martysaurus Rex (Bennett) is making cheeseheads in Wisconsin, head ball coach and chief roster builder Bill Belichick brought in tight end Dwayne Allen to level the playing field at the tight end position.

Oh yeah, Gronkowski is back, his surgically repaired back one-hundred percent and ready to dominate both the line of scrimmage and the seam.

By himself, Gronkowski is the ultimate matchup nightmare and accounts for over one-third of the Patriots' total passing yardage when he is active for gameday - but as we saw last season, that's nowhere close to a guarantee, and that's why there has been a concerted effort by Belichick to load up at other "skill" positions, including depth at tight end.

Allen is an enigma, but those types of players tend to show up on the positive side of the malady more often than not in Foxborough.

Built like a linebacker with a timed-40 that puts him in that same classification, Allen's forte is running dig routes across the face of the opposition's second level, where at 6' 3" and 255 pounds, he is an absolute load to bring down.  A different player than Gronkowski, Allen is more of a "Move" tight end, meaning that, simply, Brady can move him around in the formation to set protections and take advantage of potential mismatches.

Of course, Gronkowski is so talented that he can be used in the same manner, only with his size and speed, he is a much more dangerous target and is in a class all by himself.

Allen is also an athlete with a unique skill set, however, and should be a perfect fit in the Patriots' offense.  Flexible and explosive, Allen can pop off of the line and into the pattern without having to align in the slot, and is a polished route runner - something that Brady will enjoy about having him in the formation right off the bat...

...and also because he is a reliable safety valve over the middle who can't be intimidated by smaller coverage 'backers or strong safeties, and will drag said defenders like death chains until someone gets underfoot.

In other words, he will likely become the team's go-to chain mover, and chances are very high that he will be far more successful in coordinator Josh McDaniels' offense than he was with the Indianapolis Colts', who dealt him to New England for a fourth round draft pick, simply due to the fact that his skill set is a better fit with the players around him.

Gronkowski is going to take folks up the seam and to the sidelines on "out" and "post" routes, running back James White will own the flat on "buttonhook" and "wheel" routes, receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will drive slot corners crazy with "return" and "jerk" routes and Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell will take corners on deep posts, occasionally sitting down in intermediate zones just to take advantage of zone coverages... chances are that those digs that Allen is so good at are going to be wide open, especially since he is so adept at shielding the defender from the ball with his wide body - and if they are not, then someone else is going to be open somewhere.

The formula is simple: dictate to the defense how they are going to defend, then use their alignment against them.

For example, if New England went full-spread, it would normally force the defense into a dime look (six defensive backs), but with two talented and dangerous tight ends on the field in the spread, either those extra defensive backs are safeties with enough bulk to handle tight ends, or the defense would have to scale back into a nickel and counter Allen with a like-sized athlete.

We already know how futile and dangerous that concept is when guarding Gronkowski - when Brady sees him isolated on a linebacker or in single coverage of any kind, he starts drooling and changes the play to take advantage of the mismatch - and the same should hold true for Allen, who has enough ability to destroy second-level zones on technique alone...

...and has shown the capacity to move the chains as a check down, possession-type receiver with extraordinary hands and playing speed faster than his timed-40 would suggest.

Other than Gronkowski and Allen, the depth is mostly questionable, though there is talent in the group. Belichick signed veteran Rob Housler, traded for James O'Shaughnessey and brought in undrafted free agent Jacob Hollister to compete with incumbents Michael Williams and Matt Lengel for a third tight end spot, if there is to be one.

Housler is a pass catcher only, while Williams and Lengel offer little more than massive inline blocking. O'Shaughnessey is the favorite to carve out a role with the team, given the fact that he has developed behind Travis Kelse in Kansas City and came out of Illinois State as a highly rated "move" tight end that has become a decent blocker and has enough vertical speed to challenge the seam.

The draft day deal that brought O'Shaughnessey to New England is exciting in that he was considered a second-round prospect coming out of college that fell all the way to the fifth round, presumably due to the fact that he hadn't faced any real big college challenges and his development as a complete player probably wasn't going to happen as quickly as most teams would like, given the "win now" nature of the NFL.

So Belichick did what Belichick does, let Andy Reid indoctrinate him to the pro game while he learned behind Kelse for a couple of seasons, picking him up for what amounted to peanuts against the cap and in draft capital, and now has the opportunity to field a broken-in youngster with a ton of upside - which is essentially an insurance policy in case it turns out that Allen continues underachieving as he did in Indianapolis...

...though much of that was due to the way the Colts used him - or should we say underused him - in their spread attack, then eventually replacing him with combination tight end Jack Doyle, who fit more in Chuck Pagano's offense due to his ability to work well on the move, frequently moving in motion before the snap to gain explosion coming out of his initial cut.

Allen is essentially what the Patriots need in a move tight end, and O'Shaughnessey adds a layer of depth that gives the Patriots - surprise! - the deepest corps of tight ends in the NFL.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 2: Clutch White Leads Stable Of Young Greyhounds in Patriots' Backfield

When push came to shove in the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots turned to the man they call "Sweet Feet".

James White has spent his entire football career sharing the backfield with runners who were considered more explosive and dynamic in their skill sets and, indeed, many that he's shared backfields with since high school have found their way to rosters around the National Football League...
White mobbed by teammates after scoring the Super Bowl winner

...splitting time with Giovanni Bernard at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida - where his creative writing teacher pinned his nickname on him - then with names like John Clay, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon in his four seasons at the University of Wisconsin, taking a back seat to all three, but still able to distinguish himself.

In 2010, he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year after putting up a stat line of 1052 yards on just 156 carries, a mammoth 6.7 yards per carry, and finding paydirt 14 times.  With Ball ahead of him in his Sophomore and Junior seasons, his touches went down precipitously, though he was still able to maintain an average of over six yards per carry...

...and then enjoyed his finest season as a Senior, logging 1444 yards on 215 carries and putting himself on the radar for selection in the NFL draft.

Fighting the notion that Wisconsin running backs' numbers and talent were inflated due to the exceptional quality of the Badgers run blocking scheme - and the subsequent busts of high draft picks Ron Dayne, Clay and Ball through the recent past did nothing but encourage the notion - it was clear that New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick saw White as a passing back, a Shane Vereen-like talent, breaking the mold of big-bodied Badgers bell cows.

So sharing the backfield with other talented runners was nothing new to White, as he found himself competing for touches with seasoned NFL veterans in LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis - and it took injuries to both during the 2015 season for White to get his shot to show what he could do for the Patriots, the momentum from the stretch run spilling over into the 2016 season, when White subtly emerged as a legitimate weapon.

There's that word.  Subtle.  It may be the best way to describe White's running style, as when used as an adjective, the word is defined as "being so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyze or describe" - which certainly pertains to his elusiveness, utilizing a toe drag that would make a hockey player envious and a stutter step that leaves linebackers grasping at air.

He doesn't have pronounced video game moves, so he's not thought of as an explosive runner, and he doesn't possess blazing speed, so he's not what one might consider a home run threat - what he is, is dependable and consistent, and he gets what the Patriots' offense is all about.

White very quietly had the best season for a passing back in Belichick's nearly two decades long tenure as master of the franchise, surpassing Vereen and the great Kevin Faulk for catches in a season with 60 and averaging nearly 10 yards per catch - but he was rarely used in the running game for the third consecutive year, averaging 4.3 yards on 40 carries.

And he had no carries at all in the divisional round of the playoffs against Houston and just one inconsequential touch in the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh as Blount and Lewis shouldered the load on the ground for New England - but when Belichick called his name in the Super Bowl, White delivered perhaps the most epic performance in the history of the game.

Eight of his touches went for first downs, three went for touchdowns and one went for a crucial two-point conversion, meaning that 12 of his twenty touches either moved the chains or caused numbers to change on the scoreboard - and most of that happening at just about the time that quarterback Tom Brady caught on fire.

White is the latest example of what Belichick describes as the kind of "Smart, tough, dependable" player that he's come to count on the most when the chips are down.

"In critical situations, you can count on those players to perform under pressure.  You can count on those players to execute what you want to execute as a team." Belichick said recently at a coaching clinic at Ohio State University. "The tougher the game, the more critical the game, the more important the situation, the more I want the tough, smart, dependable player in the game, in the eye of the storm."

The Patriots are stacked to the ceiling with those types of players - Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Marcus Cannon, Duron Harmon and Dont'a Hightower are other examples of this phenomenon - and all come through in the clutch, and when Brady and Belichick need a play, there is no hesitation whatsoever in calling any of their numbers...

...and, indeed, they all came up big on the biggest of stages in February, but it was White who had the ball in his hands when it came time to put the ball in the end zone, and with Edelman, Chris Hogan and Cannon crashing down to deliver key blocks to isolate White in the right flat, where he powered through a couple of arm tackles to score the winning points in Super Bowl 51.

Why White in that situation when Blount had handled that situation all season and scored an NFL-high 18 touchdowns on typically short-yardage dive plays?  Because having a dual threat in the backfield at that moment caused the Falcons to have to account for White in both the run and passing game, while having the one-dimensional power back in Blount would have allowed Atlanta to play in a heavy goal line package.

Brady spread out the defense and once the ball was snapped, the Patriots formed a wall of humanity that shielded off eight defenders once Edelman and Hogan crashed down the line, so it was up to White to find a seam, make a cut and end the game.

This offseason, Belichick opted to find more runners that could bring the same package no matter the down and distance, and let Blount hit free agency where has yet to find work - signing up former Cincinnati Bengal Rex Burkhead off the market and making an offer in restricted free agency to Buffalo Bills backup Mike Gillislee...

...which, when added to White and the fragile-yet-electric Lewis, gives New England four runners that are equally adept at curling out into the pattern as they are taking the hand off, forcing the opposition into constant nickel and dime situations that naturally open up the seam for the tight ends and also lightens the run defense and trumps the explosiveness of the pass rush.

So with four multi-tool greyhounds in the running back stable, the Patriots' offense is going to be even less predictable than they have been in the recent past, and they lose nothing in the passing game by hauling out the "Pony" formation - that is, having two backs on the field - as all are able to split wide, or into the slot, or simply stay at Brady's side for a shotgun hand off or to pick up the blitz, another requirement of Belichick backs.

The Patriots have loaded up at every single position on the field, and have so much talent across the board that the only problem that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has is finding enough touches to keep everyone happy - but at least they know that when the chips are down and the situation is most critical, they can count on James White to come through.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Art Of Football - Part 1: Brady's Super Bowl Performance Showed He's Far From Finished

Tom Brady is filthy.

Not just your standard-brand, slip and fall in the mud filthy - no, Tom Brady is rolling around in the pen with the swine, hanging out in the shadows of an alley, no-you-cannot-go-out-with-my-daughter filthy - and if anyone thinks that he's not, all those people have to do is watch the last six minutes of regulation and overtime of Super Bowl 51...
Brady's perfect throw to Amendola

...and if anyone doubts that Brady still has the tools to play at a high level, all one has to do is watch the throws the man made in overtime to rip the hearts out of the collective Falcons' defense.

Entering his eighteenth season, Brady can still make all of the throws required of an NFL quarterback - and not just make the throws, but to fire them into a tight window like a boss and also take a little bit off of a throw to drop it into a bucket over the coverage.  The most amazing thing is, however, that he can do both at the same time.

Absolutely filthy.

In overtime of Super Bowl 51, and after throwing nearly sixty passes to that point in overcoming a twenty-five point deficit, Brady made two of the sickest throws a football fan will ever see.

After completing a short toss to running back James White, Brady dropped back on a second and four from his own 31 yard line, initially looking up the seam to freeze the single high safety in his tracks then looked to Danny Amendola running an intermediate out pattern to the strong side...

...throwing a dart with just enough tough on it to keep Falcons' cornerback Brian Poole from making a play on the ball, but with just enough velocity to put the ball right on Amendola's hands on the right hashmark, gaining fourteen yards and setting up the Patriots just shy of midfield.

The very next play, Brady went to the weakside, patiently waiting for wide receiver Chris Hogan to sell a fly pattern up the left sideline to Atlanta corner Jalen Collins, then firing a missile five yards behind Hogan, who planted his lead foot and broke back towards the ball, which found Hogan's midsection just a split-second before Collins could get his hand in to break it up.

On both plays, the cornerbacks had perfect, tight coverage, and on both plays Brady pit the ball into a window so tight that to miss by a a fraction of an inch in any direction could have spelled disaster.

Even his next throw to Julian Edelman was on a line that you could have hung your clothes on, hitting the receiver right in traffic to set up a chain of events that included a pass interference call on Falcons' linebacker De'Vondre Campbell on the goal line and White's subsequent game winning strong-side sweep.

Those were not the kinds of throws made by a quarterback on his last legs, like Broncos' quarterback Peyton's wounded ducks in Super Bowl 50, where he was fortunate to be supported by a defense that forced four turnovers, two of them inside the Carolina Panthers red zone, and scored a touchdown themselves on a fumble recovery in the end zone.

The 17 points supplied, essentially and literally, by the Broncos' defense in that game turned out to be plenty to mask Manning's ineptitude and send him into retirement a winner - but Brady wasn't facing a middling offense that was easily intimdated and who couldn't hold onto the football.  The Atlanta Falcons gave the Patriots defense all they could handle, yet could only score 21 points against them...

...though they did supply the turning point in the game with a Dont'a Hightower strip sack of Atlanta's Matt Ryan that gave Brady a short field to turn a blowout into a one-score game, setting the stage for Brady's epic display of clutch passing.

Many in the media doubted Brady when he said last season that he could play well into his forties, but no one on either sideline in the Super Bowl had doubts about his abilities, even after he suffered through what may have been the worst first half of football that he had played all season - except maybe from Falcons' receiver Mohamed Sanu, who was captured commenting on the sidelines to fellow pass catcher Taylor Gabriel that the Patriots hadn't seen anything like what they were facing.

"It's Tom Brady, though." Gabriel replied matter-of-factly.

Sanu thought for a moment then replied, "I know, I'm never comfortable.  We're about to put 40 up on their ass."

Well, forty points would have won the game for sure, but instead the Patriots put up 31 unanswered points on Atlanta in the space of about twenty minutes, and ripped the Lombardi Trophy out of their hands like a street thug would a gold watch off an unsuspecting tourist.

So, Brady is going to be around for a little while longer, which means different things to different people.  For the rest of teams in the NFL and their fans, it means that the Patriots will remain the team to beat for the foreseeable future.  For Patriots' fans it means that the chance for a another trophy or two is not just a possibility, but a probability...

...but for backup Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady's continued excellence presents him with a bit of a quandary.

Garoppolo is heading into the final year of his rookie contract, and is set to hit the open market in free agency after the 2017 season, ready to cash in on what will be sure to be one of the more lucrative deals ever handed out to a seasoned clipboard holder - so many were questioning why the Patriots haven't been inclined to deal Garoppolo this offseason to try and get value out of him now instead of letting him walk for nothing next offseason.

The answer to that lies in the history of professional football, and it appears that New England is ready to franchise tag the Eastern Illinois product if they can't come to some sort of agreement with him to compel him to wait for his opportunity in Foxborough, because judging from their actions leading up to and including the draft, the Patriots don't want to deal Garoppolo, no matter the price.

And why should they?  In Garoppolo, they have a ready-made heir to Tom Brady already under contract, and while Brady is firm in his resolve to play well into his 40's, all it will take is one significant injury - and without a quarterback to fall back on, the Patriots' championship aspirations take a momentous hit - and history is replete with examples.

For instance, when Trent Green went down in the 1999 preseason, what would the Rams have done without Kurt Warner?  How about in 1971 when Roger Staubach replaced an ineffective Craig Morton in Dallas? How about Jim Plunkett for Dan Pastorini in 1980?  Jeff Hostettler for Phil Simms in 1990? Trent Dilfer for Tony Banks in 2000?  All of those teams went on to win championships with their backups.

Of course, how can Patriots' fans forget a guy named Tom Brady coming off the bench in 2001 to lead the Patriots to their first title?

But if you want a more recent example of what can happen if a team doesn't plan properly for injury, all one has to do is to look at what happened to the Oakland Raiders last season, when Derek Carr went down in week 16 with a broken fibula and all they had to fall back on was Matt McGloin and Connor Cook, who combined for two touchdowns and four interceptions as Oakland lost their regular season finale... the same time losing the AFC West and a chance at homefield advantage, then went to Houston as a wild card and got thumped by a Texans team that had Brock Osweiller at quarterback.  If the Raiders had actually employed a decent backup - McGloin had been a career clipboard holder and Cook was a rookie - they might have had the advantage over every other AFC team, including New England.

As has been said numerous times, Jimmy Garoppolo may be the best backup in the NFL, and it is obvious that his value to the forward thinking Patriots as an insurance policy against an aging Brady is worth more than a couple of draft picks or future considerations.

The Patriots have no holes in their lineup to speak of, and their depth is better than just about anyone else's in the league, barring perhaps at defensive end and at offensive guard, and now that the draft is over, the options that the Patriots have in replacing incumbent talent with a college kid are narrow indeed, no matter the position.

In the end, the Patriots are loaded - as loaded as any franchise in any city in recent memory - a literal juggernaut with the greatest quarterback who ever played the game, playing at a level and with a confidence that has never been witnessed before.

That in itself is enough to generate awe from every one of their opponents, but when you include the ridiculous talent that head ball coach Bill Belichick has assembled around Brady, it becomes downright frightening - even if Garoppolo is forced into the lineup.

Needless to say, the New England Patriots are set at quarterback.

Next: Part 2, previewing the Patriots running backs

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... 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...

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Rivers, Wise In Mold Of Prototypical Patriots' Edge Defenders

A rich man's Jabaal Sheard.

That's how's resident draft expert Mike Mayock referred to the New England Patriots' top draft pick, Youngstown State's Derek Rivers in the moments immediately following him being selected at number 83 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.

What did he mean by that?  Well, when the opposite is invoked, the Webster's Online Dictionary defines a someone as being a poor man's version of someone else as being "cheaper than, simpler than or inferior to." that person - so we can only assume that Mayock believes that Rivers has the potential to be superior to what Sheard brought to the lineup.
Arkansas' Deatrich Wise

His words, not ours - and it's really an unfair comparison, for both.

If there is a comparison to be made for Rivers, it would be with former-Patriot Jamie Collins, who played both with his hand in the dirt and from a standing position in college, then went straight to being a strong-side linebacker in the pros, his athleticism showing up all along the formation.

They have similar builds, similar burst off the edge and both display the swing-them-down type of tackling technique when they reach the ball carrier.  They both set a hard edge and have relentless motors - but there are differences, of course.  For example, Rivers hasn't yet developed a feel for when to disengage from his mirror to uncover his outside shoulder to the sweep or screen...

...meaning that he strings plays out to the sidelines so that supporting safeties or linebackers can make the play.  He also isn't as stout against the run as Collins, but he has shown the ability to stunt inside and beat tackles and guards with his quickness and burst much like Collins did.

While Rivers is long and lean and built like a stand up, strong-side linebacker, the Patriots' fourth round pick, Arkansas' Deatrich Wise, is more along the line of what Belichick has sought in defensive ends of late - that being powerful, five-technique ends that can two gap on the edge of a three man front.

Wise has uncommon strength to set a solid edge with long arms and a power punch that regularly rag-dolled offensive tackles in the SEC, so many teams discovered early on in contests that a sixth offensive lineman or a tight end needed to be employed to chip Wise coming off the line before he could get his huge hands up into the tackle's pads.  If left to his own devices, Wise has the ability to put his mirror on skates and shove him right back into the pocket.

Though he generated power from both sides, he seems to be better off of the right edge as he seems to move better laterally to his left to stunt into holes created by the nose tackle's double team - and most running plays appeared to run to the opposite side of where he is lined up, as the edge is tough to get to for backs with Wise shoving the tackle three or four yards deep in the backfield.

At 6' 5" and 280, Wise fits the mold of defensive ends coming out of the Razorbacks' program, and follows in the footsteps of fellow Arkansas alum Trey Flowers in the power department.  Neither are what one would consider quick twitch, relying mainly on strength to reset the line of scrimmage in the opponent's backfield, getting the quarterback off his mark.

And that's really what the Patriots have so far as defensive linemen.

The depth chart at defensive end suggests a 3-4 or a 3-3-6 defensive alignment, with Kony Ealy and Rivers being identically sized (6' 4", 270) athletes who rush the passer better than playing in run support, so both could be considered stand up options on passing downs, Identically sized (6' 2", 320) Malcolm Brown and Vincent Valentine as two-gap run stuffers at nose tackle and four five-technique ends of varying size and skill levels... the powerful and up-and-coming Flowers (6' 2", 265)along with greybeard Alan Branch (6' 6", 350), free agent pick up Lawrence Guy (6' 4", 305) and the rookie Wise, all pushing the ageless wonder Rob Ninkovich to strong-side linebacker where he will face competition for his roster spot for the first time since coming to the Patriots in 2009.

Belichick likes running his unique Big Nickel alignment with three man fronts, but he needed more out of his pass rush than he got last season, despite the late-season spark it received from Flowers - which is why he let Sheard go in free agency and sent a second round draft pick to Carolina for Ealy, the trade off being that Ealy is a more athletic and natural pass rusher.

And with New England sporting the best secondary in the league and a linebacking corps that features the best blitzing linebacker in the NFL in the versatile Dont'a Hightower as well as top-round draft picks in Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin, it will be tough for opposing offense to figure out where the pass rush is coming from and what coverages are assigned to whom.

Add that all up, and Belichick's draft - both the picks he actually used as well as the picks he shipped off to other teams for top talent - borders on genius once again.

Monday, May 1, 2017

With Garcia, McDermott, Patriots Improve Tackle Depth In Draft

After waiting some twenty-seven and a half hours to find out who the New England Patriots were going to select with their first pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the anticipation turned to aggravation when Patriots' defacto general manager Bill Belichick decided to make all of us wait another hour to find out what was on his evil mind.

Turns out, it was what we expected all along.

In our final mock draft, as well as throughout the entire draft process, our thinking revolved around the notion of linemen, more linemen and still more linemen - and Belichick didn't disappoint, taking two defensive ends and two offensive tackles, effectively plugging the two "weaknesses" on the Patriots' roster, thinking towards 2018 along the offensive line and choosing rotational depth on the defensive edges.

Because, that's all the Patriots really needed.  They weren't desperate to fill a starting position as twenty-one of twenty-two starters from the Super Bowl are back as incumbents - only cornerback Logan Ryan is gone and he's been ably replaced by free agent Stephon Gilmore - so the focus in the offseason has been to acquire depth while preparing for next offseason, when some key starters will become unrestricted free agents.

One of those starters, left tackle Nate Solder, is going to command top dollar on the open market - we're talking eight figures - and that could be a bit rich for the Patriots to absorb for a guy that carries around the injury history and personal baggage that Solder does, hence the selection of two tackles in the draft, both in need of some development under the watchful eye of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia...

...the most intriguing of which is Troy University's Antonio Garcia, a slight but athletic bookend who has all of the physical tools to take on the blind side.

At 6' 6" and weight that varies between 280 - 300 pounds, Garcia sports the physique and nimble feet of a basketball power forward, a position he played in high school, but was never considered functionally strong enough by professional football scouts to be able to compete with the speed-to-power defensive ends he would face at the NFL level - that is until he put on a leverage clinic at the Senior Bowl.

The Atlanta native, who mentioned that he always dreamed of protecting Patriot quarterback Tom Brady's blindside, did not allow a sack in over 900 snaps last season as a senior at Troy, and allowed just three sacks in his college career, and recorded over 100 pancake blocks in the running game.  He had a particularly good game against eventual FCS National Champion Clemson, keeping his quarterback clean and registering six pancakes in a narrow loss to the Tigers.

The learning curve with Garcia isn't quite as deep as one would find for a small school tackle, as he consistently demonstrated an ability to adjust to his opponents as each game wore on, anchoring effectively against bull rushers, and slide-stepping with speed rushers to guide them up and around the pocket.  He also possesses a snapping cut block to level bigger defenders in the run game and pulls into the interior to engage gap penetrators.

What sets him apart from most tackles in this class is, as draft experts noted after he was selected, is that he is "nasty through the whistle" - a street fighter who genuinely loves to mix things up in close quarters - and consistently finds a way to get his man blocked, regardless of angle.

Had he played for a major college - Senior Bowl scout Phil Savage observed after a week of practices that "You could have put a Michigan or Ohio State helmet on Garcia and wouldn't have thought twice about his talent level" - he may have been a first or second round selection, but his level of competition held him to the third, where the Patriots traded up to take him 85th overall.

The knock on Garcia is that he struggles to maintain anchor weight, which a professional strength and conditioning staff should help to even out, but regardless of his weight, Garcia will make the roster as a swing tackle to begin with, as he should be more than capable of filling in as needed, and should be more than ready to take over the blind side in 2018, giving the Patriots leverage in contract negotiations with Solder.

Depth wasn't necessarily an issue on the offensive line, though the release of Tre' Jackson leaves only Ted Karras and Chris Barker as depth guards of any experience - but Belichick has had a couple of interior linemen in for visits leading up to the draft, and one or more of them should find the 90 man roster heading into minicamps.

Where Scarnecchia's magic works best is when he gets hold of a natural athlete with decent mobility, and Garcia fits that bill, and then some - but a bit of a more challenging project to be undertaken is with the Patriots sixth-round selection, UCLA's Conor McDermott.

A beanpole at 6' 8" and 307 pounds, McDermott surfaced on the national athletic scene as a McDonald's High School All American and "Mr. Basketball" in Division II-AA in Tennessee before deciding that his future was in football, but then he spent two years on the bench at UCLA before ascending to the starting lineup midway through his junior season...

...then started every game in 2016, both years earning Sports Illustrated's second team All American status, and also showing up on initial draft boards as a potential second-round pick in the 2017 draft, falling to the Patriots in round six due to what scouts perceived as a lack of functional core strength.

But if one watches the game he had against Texas A&M's Myles Garrett, he displayed plenty of base strength to withstand the eventual number one overall pick in the draft's bull rush, allowing one sack on an inside stunt.  Garrett did have him on skates a couple of times, but he did that to everyone - he wasn't the top pick in the draft for nothing.

But what does come to the forefront as a weakness in McDermott's game is his change of direction skills and lack of feel for inside stunts - which is odd for a man that played basketball at such a high level and has natural feet for the kick slide in pass protection - and it showed later in the game against Garrett as he translated speed to power, allowing McDermott to move up to the arch then disengaging and ripping inside McDermott's right shoulder for an easy sack.

It should also be noted that many teams resorted to loading up the blitz coming off the blind side in an attempt to confuse the protection, exposing McDermott's lack of feel for the direction of pressure. Generally, when tackles are identified with that particular deficiency, they are thought to be a candidate for moving to the interior in the pros, but McDermott's height and upright posture in absorbing rushers makes a move to guard next to impossible.

A move to right tackle is a possibility, however, as McDermott is a natural drive blocker in the running game and has the step slide to fit into a zone blocking scheme.  He has a good pull ratio and can climb the ladder to the second level, though the Patriots general like their tight ends to handle that job.

McDermott will take some coaching, and will need to spend time with Garcia with the team's strength and conditioning coaches, but has a future in the NFL is he can become more instinctive of leverage and angles and adds some sand in his pants to help him anchor against bull rushers.