The New England Patriots lost their top two cornerbacks over the offseason and replaced them with an improved pass rush.
It appears Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is boosting his front seven in hopes it will get after the opposing quarterback quicker, allowing his secondary less time to cover receivers. It remains to be seen if this approach will work, but it makes sense on paper.
The Patriots already have two solid starting defensive ends in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and they took a step in the right direction by signing Jabaal Sheard in free agency as a third edge rusher — a role in past years they showed little interest in deploying.
The Patriots also triple-dipped at edge defender in the 2015 NFL Draft by selecting Oklahoma’s Geneo Grissom 97th overall, Arkansas’ Trey Flowers 101st overall and Alabama’s Xzavier Dickson 253rd overall.
Those players are added to an already deep edge-defender depth chart that includes Zach Moore, Michael Buchanan, Jake Bequette, Rufus Johnson and Eric Martin. The Patriots also have 2014 first-round draft pick Dominique Easley, who played defensive tackle in college, but lined up at defensive end frequently in his rookie season.
It’s a crowded group and obviously not all of those players will make the 53-man roster. Grissom and Flowers could make an impact in 2015, however.
Grissom split his time in 2014 between rushing the passer and dropping back into coverage as an outside linebacker, and he spent 2013 playing out of position as a 3-4 defensive end. It’s unclear what his role will be with the Patriots, whether it’s as a backup linebacker, defensive end or interior rusher, but Grissom never really had the opportunity to pin his ears back and rush the passer on an every-snap basis with the Sooners, and Belichick raved about his potential after Day 2 of the draft.
Flowers was far more productive in college, which means he could be more pro-ready — although some made the same mistake in thinking Bequette would play more than Jones after the 2012 NFL Draft.
Flowers is known as a stout run defender, but his pass-rushing skills were evident with the Razorbacks, as well. He led draft-eligible FBS defenders with 61 total pressures last season and finished second in Pro Football Focus’ pass-rush productivity metric. He was second in pass-rush productivity on third down and posted the second best pass-rush grade against power-5 competition.
He also ranked fourth in Pro Football Focus’ run-stop percentage and graded out as their top run defender.
These extra pass rushers could allow Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to be more creative on third down. Belichick mentioned Grissom and Flowers have experience rushing the quarterback from defensive tackle, so we could see the Patriots trot out a NASCAR package, which would feature four defensive ends on the line of scrimmage.
The increase in young pass rushers should help Jones and Ninkovich take off some much needed snaps for rest. Ninkovich has played 2,154 regular season snaps over the past two years, plus an additional 324 in the postseason.
Fans have complained all offseason the Patriots didn’t replaced Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the secondary, but perhaps the team’s pass defense won’t take a step back, after all.
Thumbnail photo via Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports Images
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