Belichick: Valentine could handle a bigger workload if asked

Belichick: Valentine could handle a bigger workload if asked

FOXBORO -- Patriots rookie defensive tackle Vincent Valentine played in 18 snaps during last week's win over the 49ers, almost half the number of snaps given to fellow defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown -- both of whom saw 35. But in the playing time he received, Valentine made an impact. 

On back-to-back plays at the end of the first half, he recorded a run stuff for no gain as he worked his way down the line of scrimamge, got off of his block, and wrapped up running back Carlos Hyde. On the very next play, he showed good burst to work a game with Branch and get to quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He flushed Kaepernick from the pocket, eventually leading to a strip sack by defensive end Rob Ninkovich.

Valentine, who also had a tackle for a loss in the game, earned some praise from coach Bill Belichick on Friday morning when Belichick was asked if Valentine's latest performance was his best as a pro.

"I thought he did a good job," Belichick said. "He, I'd say, has good plays every week. And there are plays he could play better on in the games that he's played. He's definitely, I'd say, an improving player. It's headed in the right direction. He's certainly had some positive plays, I'd say pretty much in every game. Might've been a couple more last week, but it's trending the right way."

The 6-foot-3, 320-pound third-round pick out of Nebraska missed three games earlier this season with a back injury, and in the games he's played he's seen time in 27 percent of New England's defensive snaps. The team may need more from Valentine in the near future depending on how Branch's appeal of a four-game suspension turns out. 

Branch has been the teams most consistent interior defensive lineman this season and is on pace to play in 675 snaps, which would be second-most in his career after the 691 he saw in 2011 for the Seahawks. If he misses time, Valentine would be the next man up with fellow rookie Woodrow Hamilton potentially seeing some work as well.

Belichick said that if Valentine was called upon for more -- his season-high for snaps this season is 23, while Branch's is 59 -- he feels as though the rookie would be able to handle more from a conditioning standpoint. 

"I don't think that's an issue," Belichick said.

In fact, Belichick said he's appreciated how all of his team's big-bodied athletes have handled their conditioning this season -- particularly the rookies, for whom it can sometimes be difficult as they adjust to the demand of life as a professional. 

"I think, really, all our players are in good condition this year," Belichick said. "I think Moses has done a good job. Guys like Branch have played more snaps than he's ever played. Malcom played a lot of snaps. Vincent. Our offensive line, those guys have played a lot of snaps. I'm talking about the bigger guys now.

"I think our conditioning has been good. We've had a lot of guys play in those positions, and a lot of those guys have played a lot of football, a lot of snaps. I haven't gotten the sense . . . Last week was a good test defensively because of the tempo of the game and so forth. It didn't feel like that was an issue.

"I think overall the team's trained hard. They trained hard in the offseason. Worked hard in training camp. Again, we've been relatively healthy so we've been able to stay out there a lot of times. A lot of times the conditioning declines a little bit when the player misses three, four, five weeks then comes back. He's back, but he's maybe not in the same condition he would be if he hadn't missed that amount of time.

"I'd say all those guys are doing a good job. But, look, it's always a little more of a chalennege for the rookies. Overall this group, we haven't had any issues with any of them. Especially on the weight end of it. [Joe] Thuney, [Ted] Karras, Valentine, Hamilton. None of those guys have had weight issues at all."

Don't pigeonhole me: How will Adrian Clayborn fit into the Patriots defense?

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Don't pigeonhole me: How will Adrian Clayborn fit into the Patriots defense?

Looking for a two-word answer from Bill Belichick during a press conference? Ask him how a new addition to the roster might fit into the Patriots scheme. 

"We'll see," is Belichick's typical reply in those situations. 


We point that out here because it's hard to know exactly what any new player's role will be with the Patriots, particularly for an edge player like Adrian Clayborn. That spot in Belichick's defense can take on a variety of roles, from pass-rusher, to edge-setter, to coverage player. 

But we can take an educated guess as to how Clayborn will fit in the Patriots defense, based on what we know. That's what the Patriots did when they signed him. They saw certain skills. They saw Clayborn perform in certain situations. They made their projection. 

There's always the chance Clayborn asserts himself in a way that wasn't expected. Or maybe the way he fits with his new teammates will open his coaches' eyes in ways they weren't anticipating. But at this point, as is the case with every new addition, they're hypothesizing. So we will too. 

AGAINST THE PASS: Clayborn was, for the vast majority of his snaps, a pass-rusher for the Falcons last year. He played 631 snaps for the Falcons, which was 53.4 of their defensive snaps. Of those 631 plays, Clayborn rushed the quarterback 477 times, per Pro Football Focus (76 percent of his workload). And of those pass-rush snaps, only one came from the left side. (Clayborn was born with Erb's palsy, which means his right arm has some limitations compared to his left, which impacts the side of the field he aligns on. He played 91 percent of his snaps from the right side in 2016.)  Clayborn played over 80 percent of the snaps during each of his first three seasons in the league as a member of the Bucs so he's been a three-down player before. But recent history would suggest the 6-foot-2, 280-pounder is now more of a sub option.

Here's how Clayborn responded during a conference call on Wednesday when asked if he could chip in on first and second down for the Patriots. "I believe that’s what people have pigeon-holed me in as a third-down player, but I know I can play first, second, third down if need be," he said. "That was my role in Atlanta because that’s what they asked me to do, but I mean, I can play all three downs if you ask me."

AGAINST THE RUN: According to Pro Football Focus, Clayborn has been a negatively-graded player against the run during each of his seven seasons in the NFL. Last year he checked in as PFF's 78th-ranked run defender among edge players, which was far below the ranking Trey Flowers received (19th) but ahead of Deatrich Wise (85th) and Eric Lee (96th). During each of his last three seasons with the Falcons, he has seen his snap-counts break down similarly: about 75 percent of his work came against the pass, about 25 percent came against the run. He can defend the run. He's capable of it. He just hasn't been asked to consistently hold up on the edge on a down-in-down-out basis during the most recent phase of his career. 

THE FIT: Based on his history in Atlanta, it would make sense if the Patriots asked Clayborn to come off of the right edge in passing situations in 2018. That's where his recent experience has been. Keeping him away from the left side not only makes the most of where he's strongest, but it also keeps him from finding himself in coverage. As Belichick has explained in the past, the left end spot (Rob Ninkovich's old spot), going against right-handed quarterbacks, is typically asked to do more in coverage. The right edge has been Flowers' area in the recent past -- he played almost 65 percent of his passing-rush snaps last season off the right, per PFF -- but if the Patriots are fully-healthy up front, Flowers could kick inside to do his rushing. An ideal sub package for the Patriots, it could be argued, would have Clayborn on the right edge, Flowers and either Wise or Adam Butler on the interior, and Derek Rivers or Dont'a Hightower on the left edge. Rivers saw some work off the left side before suffering an injury in last year's training camp. Early last season, Hightower saw time on the left edge. 


Clayborn will have an opportunity to show he can do more than rush off the right side. He said on Wednesday that the Patriots have discussed multiple roles for him. (Perhaps he could rush from the interior, though he's not as long as Flowers or Wise, whose arms make them good matchups for stouter guards and tackles.) Wherever those opportunities come, Clayborn knows he'll have to make the most of them if he doesn't want to be pigeonholed. The deal for two years and $10 million he just signed in New England doesn't guarantee him myriad responsibilities.

"Whatever I can prove I can do,” he said. "I know I can rush the passer. I know I can set edge in the run. I mean, there’s a couple of different positions that they believe I can play, so it’s up to me to prove I can play them."


Ex-Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois signing with Lions

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Ex-Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois signing with Lions

Former Patriots defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois is signing with the Lions, according to Jordan Schultz of Yahoo Sports.

The 31-year-old had six tackles in six games for the Patriots in 2017. He'll reunite with ex-Patriots defensive coordinator and now Lions head coach Matt Patricia in Detroit.