The reactions from fans in Cleveland and New England to the Barkevious Mingo trade were polar opposite.
Based on the response from Browns fans, one would think the Patriots just traded for the defensive equivalent of Johnny Manziel — and we suppose one can’t completely blame them. Mingo, the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, started just 16 games in three seasons with the Browns. He was banged up, notched just seven sacks and was wildly inconsistent.
Based on Twitter mentions from Patriots fans, one would have thought the team acquired the second coming of Willie McGinest. And who knows? It might have. McGinest, at one point of his career, wasn’t considered worth his billing as the fourth overall pick in the 1994 draft.
Where does the reality lie? Probably somewhere in the middle. Mingo has been a disappointment, but he also was a useful player for the Browns in 2014, when Pro Football Focus gave him an 81 overall grade.
And quite frankly, Mingo’s past production might not matter with the Patriots. This move is more about Mingo’s potential and skill set as a hybrid defender at defensive end and outside linebacker.
The LSU product is a 6-foot-4, 240-pound defender who can run a 4.58-second 40-yard dash and post a 6.84-second three-cone, 37-inch vertical leap and 10-foot, 8-inch broad jump. He can rush the passer and drop back into coverage, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick quite obviously is looking for those “elephant” defenders, similar to what McGinest could bring to a defense in the 1990s and 2000s.
The Patriots’ base defense can’t quite be categorized as a 3-4, a 4-3 or a nickel. They have pass rushers who can drop back into coverage, safeties who can play linebacker, linebackers who can cover tight ends and defensive ends who can pass rush from inside. The defense best can be categorized as a 5-2, as ESPN’s Mike Reiss noted Thursday, based on comments made by former Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo on CSNNE’s “Quick Slants.”
“When you really think about it, there are only two defensive linemen on the field,” Mayo said last month. “Everyone else is pretty much a hybrid out there. So everyone is out there, able to communicate, able to change the play. (Rob) Ninkovich started that.”
Mingo could add an extra layer of versatility and depth to the Patriots’ defense. Mingo, Ninkovich and Shea McClellin have experience rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins typically drop back into coverage, but both are among the NFL’s top pass-rushing linebackers. Second-year pro Geneo Grissom has been used all over the field, dropping back into coverage, rushing from the edge and inside. Trey Flowers and Jabaal Sheard can rush from end or tackle, and Chris Long mostly will rush from the outside, but he has experience, albeit limited, rushing from inside and dropping into coverage.
What this creates is confusion for the opposing quarterback.
The Patriots were able to use this deception in 2014, when they acquired Akeem Ayers via trade. Ayers and Ninkovich picked off two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks because those signal-callers didn’t know what the Patriots were sending at them.
On the play below, the Patriots rushed defensive tackles Chris Jones and Casey Walker, linebacker Collins and edge defender Ayers. Ninkovich dropped back from the edge, and Hightower dropped back from the middle. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning didn’t expect Ninkovich and threw directly at him for an interception.
On this play against the San Diego Chargers, the Patriots rushed defensive tackles Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga and linebackers Collins and Jonathan Casillas. Ninkovich and Ayers both dropped back from the edge, and Ayers picked off Philip Rivers.
The Patriots had fewer hybrid edge defenders last season, but Chandler Jones nearly picked off Dallas Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden using a similar scheme, as you can see below.
Sheard and Chandler Jones dropped back while Collins, Mayo, Ninkovich and the nose tackle rushed. Jones should have picked off Weeden.
It worked again on a sack by Hightower in the same game against the Cowboys.
Hightower, Collins, Siliga and defensive tackle Alan Branch rushed the quarterback while Ninkovich and Chandler Jones dropped back. The offensive line is caught off guard, so Siliga and Branch were double-teamed while Hightower merely had to beat running back Darren McFadden for the sack, which he did with ease.
This use of hybrid defenders lessens the need for blitzes. It allows Hightower and Collins to rush the quarterback without taking a defender out of coverage.
The Patriots haven’t had this many hybrid edge defenders in recent years, which only should increase the amount of creative defensive sets used by coordinator Matt Patricia. Talent, which Mingo might or might not possess, doesn’t matter as much when a team is able to catch the opposing offense off guard.
Players such as Mingo and McClellin, both former first-round picks, aren’t exactly easy to find. They’re big enough to rush the passer and athletic enough to drop into coverage without looking awkward — as Chandler Jones did at times. The Patriots sent a fifth-round pick to the Browns for that elusive upside, not for past production.
Thumbnail photo via Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images