Bengals have placed Belichickian emphasis on tight end, even if it hasn't worked as well

Bengals have placed Belichickian emphasis on tight end, even if it hasn't worked as well

Bill Belichick’s obsession with tight ends goes beyond his propensity to wax poetic about Mark Bavaro. He loves utilizing them and he wants great ones on his roster. That’s why he’s focused so much on the position in the draft, free agency and the trade market over the years. On Sunday, he’ll face a team that seems to like them just as much. 

From 2002 through 2010, the longest the Patriots went without spending a pick in the first three rounds on a tight end was three years, and they followed that by taking Rob Gronkowski (second-round) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth) in the same draft. They made all of those tight end selections despite the fact that, of the five tight ends they took in Day 1 (using the Old Testament definition here) in a nine-year span — Daniel Graham, Benjamin Watson, David Thomas, Gronkowski, Hernandez — the only one to completely burn out was Hernandez, and that’s a different story altogether.

Even Thomas, who had the smallest on-field impact of the entire group, spent three seasons with the Pats, but Belichick’s tendency to keep throwing high picks at the position (and sign established free agents Alge Crumpler, Chris Baker and Scott Chandler while also trading for Martellus Bennett) has shown that he doesn’t consider himself set at tight end until he has the best group. 

Obviously, Belichick’s strategy has worked. Though Graham and Watson posted somewhat modest receiving numbers overall in New England, they were both utilized heavily and were part of Super Bowl winning teams. Gronkowski is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer and is already arguably the greatest to ever play the position. 

If there’s another team that’s valued the tight end position the way the Patriots have, it’s the Bengals. Cincinnati won’t have Tyler Eifert on the field when the teams meet Sunday at Gillette Stadium, but the former Notre Dame tight end was a big part of a Belichickian run the Bengals made on tight ends in the draft in recent years. 

In the last six drafts, no other team has focused on tight ends early the way the Bengals have. Since 2010, only three tight ends have been drafted in the first round, and two of them were taken by the Bengals: Jermaine Gresham (21st overall in 2010) and Eifert (21st overall in 2013). Cincinnati also took Tyler Kroft in the third round in 2015, making them the only team since 2010 to spend three picks in the first three rounds on tight ends. 

Cincinnati’s investments haven’t paid off the way Belichick’s did. The Bengals would obviously like to have the Gresham pick back given that the second tight end taken in that draft was Gronkowski, but Gresham was a two-time Pro Bowl selection in his five-year stay in Cincinnati before leaving for Arizona as a free agent.

After suffering a season-ending injury in Week 1 of the 2014 season, Eifert proved last season that he’s a stud in the red zone when healthy. His 13 touchdown grabs were tops among NFL tight ends, even though his 615 receiving yards placed 12th. 

The “when healthy” part has remained a major issue for Eifert, however, as he has suffered injuries throughout his career and has not played a game this season. His most recent ailment is a back issue that was suffered last week. In his place, 2015 fifth-rounder C.J. Uzomah has inherited his targets (16 receptions for 187 yards and no touchdowns), while Kroft has caught six passes for 64 yards with no touchdowns. 

It helps that the Bengals have one of the best outside receivers on the planet in A.J. Green, but Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis probably used those picks hoping they would cultivate the kind of success at tight end that the Patriots have for years. 

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.