Bill Belichick once said “there’s no first team” during training camp, and that’s true for OTAs, too.
Every roster spot and starting role is up for grabs on the New England Patriots, and as training camp nears, NESN.com will review the team’s biggest battles.
Barring disaster, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will start at right defensive end and left defensive end, respectively. On third down, Jones likely will slide over to defensive tackle, where he excelled last year, leaving his slot on the edge open. The two likely candidates to take that role are 2013 seventh-round draft pick Michael Buchanan and veteran free-agent pickup Will Smith.
Buchanan held the third-down role for the Patriots through Week 7 in 2013. Unfortunately, Buchanan, at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds and in better shape than 99 percent of the rest of the world’s human beings, didn’t appear to be strong enough to get past opposing offensive tackles on a regular basis, despite having the agility to run around them. When the Patriots signed Andre Carter in late October, Buchanan was resigned to the bench for most of the rest of the season. He totaled two sacks, three quarterback hits and 11 hurries for 16 total pressures over 10 games.
Smith missed all of the 2013 season with a torn ACL suffered during the New Orleans Saints’ third preseason game. Even before the knee injury, Smith appeared to be slowing down in 2012, his ninth NFL season, recording six sacks, seven QB hits and 23 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
Buchanan’s biggest problem last season was that he found himself too far behind the quarterback far too often.
That method worked (at times) early in the season, when Buchanan would get so far behind the QB that the left tackle would think his job was done, and if the quarterback held onto the ball for too long, Buchanan could wind back around and get the sack.
Buchanan’s first career sack came in Week 2 against the New York Jets with 7:03 left in the second quarter. He showed tremendous effort, first being chipped by fullback Tommy Bohanon, then getting past left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and finally leveling quarterback Geno Smith when the signal-caller couldn’t get rid of the ball quick enough.
Buchanan had a similar play in Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons. Buchanan finessed past left tackle Lamar Holmes, who appeared to give up on the play once he had shaken off Buchanan, and quarterback Matt Ryan had pump faked. Buchanan was able to get Ryan once the QB tucked the ball, however.
Of course, this method failed more than it succeeded for Buchanan, who got overpowered time and time again early in the season. Buchanan finally was benched after the Patriots’ Week 7 loss to the Jets, after he kept getting pushed behind Smith and even pancaked to the ground.
There’s hope for Buchanan, however. He already looks bulked up from an offseason of lifting, and he did show signs that he could get under offensive linemen, get them off balance and overpower them.
Smith approaches the position much differently than Buchanan, engaging his offensive lineman on almost every play, and relying on his strength first. If a bull rush won’t get the job done, he’ll use a swim or a spin to try to get through.
Smith hammered Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassell in Week 3 of the 2012 season after swimming past left tackle Branden Albert.
Unfortunately, there also are times when Smith simply engages his offensive lineman and gets nowhere but sent backwards. Smith relies on strength and technique, but it’s obvious that he’s not quite as quick as he once was. His mobility might take another hit, coming off of a torn ACL.
Smith had six sacks in 2012, but many of those came when he either was unblocked or on plays similar to Buchanan’s two sacks, where the quarterback held onto the ball too long thanks to quality coverage.
Smith’s best sack came with 1:24 left in the second quarter of the Saints’ Week 15 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was lined up at three-technique defensive tackle, engaged tackle Donald Penn, caught him off balance, shrugged him off and annihilated quarterback Josh Freeman.
Buchanan — if he can add some strength — might be the better option on third down as a pure pass rusher. Smith already is stronger, and if Jones or Ninkovich got injured, Smith would be the better backup option on first and second down, since he proved to be a solid run defender two seasons ago. Smith also could mix in as a rotational option while Buchanan plays in nickel packages if the Patriots choose to keep both players and activate them on Sundays.
Screenshots via NFL Game Rewind