Patriots Mailbag: Versatile Front Seven Gives Defense Countless Options

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The New England Patriots successfully avoided the dog days of training camp by scheduling joint sessions in the last two weeks of practice open to fans and the media.

Training camp typically gets a bit monotonous and repetitive at this point, but the Chicago Bears came to town and spiced things up by ramping up the intensity. The summer returns  to normal next week, when the Patriots prepare for their third preseason game and the start of the 2016 season.

Let’s get into this week’s mailbag.

@DougKyed how do you envision the Patriots using their front 7 with so many pieces and depth that can play different positions?
— @RKSilenc3r
I expect pretty much ever-changing looks. There’s a ton of depth, talent and versatility along the front seven, and the Patriots can show countless different alignments.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick even hinted at how he’ll use some of the players. He said the team views Jabaal Sheard and Trey Flowers as defenders who can rush from the edge or inside and Rob Ninkovich and Shea McClellin as players who can line up at defensive end or off-the-line linebacker. Belichick said Chris Long is somewhere in the middle. Long can stand up on the edge or play inside if necessary, but his best role is rushing the passer from defensive end.

The Patriots will primarily use Geneo Grissom, like Long, on the edge, but he has the athleticism to play linebacker and has experience playing inside at Oklahoma.

The Patriots’ top five defensive tackles — Malcom Brown, Terrance Knighton, Alan Branch, Markus Kuhn and Vincent Valentine — can all play nose tackle, three-technique defensive tackle and five-technique defensive end though none are particularly dangerous as pass rushers.

Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins both can play inside or outside linebacker in a 4-3 or 3-4. Belichick has hinted rookie Kamu Grugier-Hill could take some snaps on third down in passing situations, and New England has used Patrick Chung as a pseudo-linebacker in the past.

If the Patriots elect to run their base defense with a three-man front, they can either go heavy with three defensive tackles on the line, or they could deploy two defensive tackles on the line and either Sheard or Flowers at five-tech end. Ninkovich, Sheard, Long and McClellin can play outside linebacker in a 3-4.

If the Patriots deploy a four-man front, they could use Sheard and either Ninkovich, Flowers or Long at defensive end with either Ninkovich or McClellin at strong-side linebacker next to Hightower (middle) and Collins (weak side). The Patriots also could run a hybrid nickel/base set with Chung playing linebacker and Duron Harmon in as a third safety.

In nickel, the Patriots have perhaps even more options. They can play with one, two or zero defensive tackles, depending on the down and distance. On first and second down, they could use two defensive tackles up front with two defensive ends and two linebackers. On third down, they could use one defensive tackle, plus either Flowers or Sheard at the other tackle spot and two more pass rushers on the edge. On third and long, they could go with a NASCAR front and have four defensive ends on the line. Sheard and Flowers can play on the inside, allowing Nink, Long or McClellin to rush off the edge.

It will be fun and fascinating to watch how the Patriots divvy up snaps on their front seven. Hightower, Collins and Sheard likely will receive a lion’s share of snaps, but the rest of their front-seven defenders could rotate, helping keep everyone healthy and fresh.

@DougKyed How dumbed down will the offense be for Garoppolo and how will that affect the rookies when Brady returns
— @GronkCanDance
I don’t think the Patriots will dumb down the offense much at or all. Garoppolo has been in the system for two years, so he better know the offensive playbook well.

I could see slight changes to the offense to suit Garoppolo’s strengths, but the concepts will be the same. I don’t believe the system under Garoppolo will affect the rookies.

@DougKyed How are you staying cool in this heat? I hear people would rather be in Cairo than in Foxboro right now.
— @PP_Rich_Hill
Good question, Rich. It has been extremely hot this week in Foxboro. I devised a system last year where I fill a cup or bottle with ice and rest it on my leg during practice. It’s a pretty handy internal cooling system.

@DougKyed anyone on PUP you believe won’t be ready by week 1?
— @ChaseDawg2
I’m beginning to wonder about Dion Lewis. We haven’t seen him for nearly three weeks.

I still think he begins practicing before the season begins Sept. 11, but the longer he’s away from the practice field and on PUP, the more I wonder if the Patriots would consider sitting him for six weeks to start the season by keeping him on PUP.

Their lack of talent at running back makes that a risky proposition.

I think Danny Amendola and Sebastian Vollmer will start the season on the active roster, but it would make a lot of sense for Tre’ Jackson to start on PUP.

@DougKyed Should we be worried about all the balls Gronk has been dropping?
— @KazerTazer
No, I don’t think so. I think it’s just Rob Gronkowski knocking the rust off. The pec injury he suffered over the offseason might have limited his catching reps. I believe he’ll be fine for the start of the season.

@DougKyed What’s the story on Sheard other than “I don’t know”?
— @PlanetWalter
I’m not sure? He appeared to get banged up during Thursday’s preseason game, but he didn’t leave the sideline. It looked like a lower leg injury. I don’t expect him to suit up against Chicago this Thursday.

@DougKyed Am I too late for the mailbag? This is a question for the mailbag, btw
— @bwompbwomp

Sorry, man. Too late.

@DougKyed who would you say has the most Grit on the team?
— @DJMC25
Great question. The easy answer is Julian Edelman. He’s a seventh-round pick, undersized, attended a junior college, had to switch positions and ran a fantastic three-cone drill — by far the grittiest of the pre-draft measureables. Edelman lost some grit points when he started getting fancy haircuts and appearing in commercials, though.

I’d elect DeAndre Carter and James Develin, too.

Carter also ran a great three-cone time, is undersized, went undrafted, began his career on a practice squad and attended an FCS school. Those are really solid credentials. He’s from San Jose, Calif., however, which isn’t very gritty. California might be one of the least gritty states in the nation. He also studied communications at Sacramento State, and as someone who also studied communications in college, I can attest that’s not a very gritty major.

Develin attended an FCS school, switched from defense to offense in the NFL, went undrafted and plays the grittiest of positions: fullback. Attending an Ivy League school seriously drags down his grit score, but it’s boosted back up by the fact that he also played for teams like the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz and the Florida Tuskers before landing with the Patriots. I’d also argue Brown is the grittiest of the Ivys. His hometown, Boyertown, Penn., is right next to Woodchoppertown, too. Anyone who lives five miles from Woodchoppertown is gritty as hell.

Sorry Julian, Develin’s the grittiest. And DeAndre’s second grittiest.

@DougKyed possible teams that are in need of a qb and that’d trade for Garoppolo? Likeliness that he’d sign w pats again?
— @QuyenLLe
I could envision the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers needing quarterbacks next season. I don’t believe the Patriots would trade a quarterback in their own division, so the Browns and Bears are perhaps the likeliest destinations for Garoppolo.

That’s assuming the Patriots can or would be willing to trade Garoppolo, whose performance would have to fall somewhere between fantastic and average for the team to move him next offseason.

If Garoppolo plays lights out and looks like a potential Top 10 quarterback, they’d be kind of crazy to move him, right?

Garoppolo might not want to re-sign with the Patriots if Brady is still dominant at the end of the 2017 season, but the Patriots could franchise him, like they did with Matt Cassel in 2009, to either trade or buy another year with him.

That’s getting way ahead of ourselves, though. Let’s see how he does in 2016 first.

@DougKyed Does Stork’s surly attitude hurt him with the coaches?
— @MrQuindazzi
ESPN’s Mike Reiss covered this Tuesday, but I’ll throw in my 2 cents: I think it should. Stork has shown an inability to contain his emotions in practice and in both playoff games last season. He threw punches against the Kansas City Chiefs and wasn’t penalized or fined, and then head-butted an opponent in the AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos, drawing a 15-yard penalty in the first quarter that resulted in a three-and-out.

@DougKyed How are you?
— @mattstdream
I’m doing well. I’m a little bummed training camp is wrapping up, because being able to watch practice is fun, but I’m excited for the 2016 season.

@DougKyed if you were forced to cover another nfl team, which team would it be?
— @Tmoose415
Los Angeles Rams or the San Diego Chargers. I like the weather out there in non-gritty California.

@DougKyed what do you think about Finn Balor introducing his “Demon King” at RAW instead of saving it for Summerslam?
— @AirLarsen
Didn’t love it. The Demon has always been saved for special events. I would have rather seen them tease it. I feel like I should be more excited for SummerSlam, but I’m not.

Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images

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