Key to the Patriots' secondary may lie in Chung's versatility

Key to the Patriots' secondary may lie in Chung's versatility

Quick: Name the most important player in the Patriots secondary for Sunday’s game. Let me guess: You went with Malcolm Butler. He is the Pats' top guy. 

Or maybe you’re thinking one of the two “bigger” corners, Eric Rowe or Logan Ryan, both of whom will likely see plenty of snaps against Julio Jones.

Then there’s Devin McCourty. He’s always a good choice. The man is an All-Pro. But I’m here to tell you that while all those guys certainly matter, the right answer is Pat Chung. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Chung is one of the worst cover safeties in the league. He hasn’t come close to matching the season he had a year ago, when I made the argument that he was a Pro Bowl performer. Still, for the Pats to have success matching this diverse Falcons offense, Chung will need to rediscover that form, a form that he’s flashed but hasn’t consistently found in 2016-17.

“We ask Pat to do a lot of different things, like we do with all of our players,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “It’s not easy, but Pat will do whatever is asked of him and do it well.”

Chung has usually found himself matched up with tight ends this season and the occasional slot receiver. But against Atlanta, if the Pats decide to go man-to-man, or devote the necessary attention to the two-headed running back monster that is DeVonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Chung’s rare combination of skills would seem to be the best match. It’s either that or rely on the coverage skills of the linebackers, none who’ve proven to be effective in that role.

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” said Chung when I asked him about his plethora of responsibilities. “I don’t know really know how to say I’m so versatile. I don’t really know. I got blessed with the body I guess so I can do a lot of things. But I work hard man. Bill [Belichick] trusts me to put me in a lot of different roles and I take that as a privilege and I go out there and show them what I can do.”

Dont’a Hightower will often find himself lined up at the same depth as Chung, despite being several inches taller and, more importantly, 50 pounds heavier. Hightower’s respect for Chung is evident.

“Chung is a linebacker in a safety’s body,” Hightower said. “I get what you say, that he’s versatile. He’s aggressive. He’s something you don’t see, a lot of guys his size in the box, taking on pulling guards, whatever it is.”

Hightower continued, “He knows a lot of the blocking schemes, he knows a lot - he has great football sense. He definitely helps us do a lot of things in the back end and in the front. He covers some of the best, if not the best tight ends in the league, or he’s on a slot receiver and he does such a good job with all of it.”

Logan Ryan shares that Hightower’s admiration for Chung.

“He’s not going to like it, but he reminds of the kid from New Jersey at Michigan, Jabrill Peppers,” he said. “I tell Pat that you’re doing the same thing he is at the NFL level. Safety. Some linebacker stuff. Some coverage stuff. He catches punts. He’s such a good athlete. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for that. He won’t speak to it too much. That’s the person he is, but I’m happy to play with him. Pat makes my job easier.”

Ryan is right. Chung has never been one who enjoys talking about himself. But when told of the reverence others have for him, he smiled brightly, then elaborated more on what he has to will his body through to play this hybrid role.

“Absolutely. Absolutely,” he said. “It can be a small receiver or it can be a 300 pounder. I never know what’s going to happen on any play so it is what it is, you gotta do what you gotta do. You have a job. You have to do it.”

Chung has to dial it up one more time before giving a tired body at least a couple weeks rest before he starts the process of building himself up for another season. One would think that task will be a little easier if the Pats win a second Super Bowl in three seasons, and Chung will play an important role in that.

Reports: Patriots among NFL teams taking a look at Manziel

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Reports: Patriots among NFL teams taking a look at Manziel

Johnny Manziel said 10 days ago, "I'd go to New England in a heartbeat," when asked about the Patriots as a potential landing spot.

That seemed like wishful thinking at the time, but they're taking a look at him...along with 12 other NFL teams, according to ESPN's Eric Williams. 

Tom Brady's current backup Brian Hoyer is, like Manziel, an ex-Cleveland Browns quarterback. Manziel would again be competing with Hoyer for the Pats' No. 2 job should New England take a chance on "Johnny Football", the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M, who's been out of football the past two years because of substance abuse and emotional problems.

FOX Sports' Bruce Feldman had it at 12 teams watching Manziel work out at the University of San Diego and said the Patriots gave Manziel a weigh-in.


Patriots re-sign offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle

Patriots re-sign offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle

The Patriots have agreed to re-sign offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle, his agent Scott Casterline confirmed on Twitter.  Waddle hit unrestricted free agency when the new league year began and made a visit to the Cowboys earlier this week. In the end, though, he chose to return to the team that claimed him off of waivers at the end of the 2015 season.

Waddle, who turns 27 in July, appeared in 12 games last season for the Patriots. He was the first right tackle the Patriots turned to when Marcus Cannon suffered an ankle injury mid-season against the Chargers. He ended up playing 51 snaps against the likes of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram without allowing a sack. He then started the next three games against the Broncos, Raiders and Dolphins and held star rushers Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Cameron Wake -- all of whom rush primarily off of the offensive right -- without a sack. 

Injuries forced Waddle (380 snaps on the season) to split the right tackle position with Cameron Fleming (543 snaps), but he was the primary backup when healthy. Waddle started the Divisional Round playoff game against the Titans but suffered a knee injury and was removed for Fleming. 

Both Fleming and Waddle visited the Cowboys this week, and the fact that Waddle has re-signed with the Patriots may impact Fleming's decision moving forward. 

The Patriots went to great lengths to build tackle depth last season, and adding Waddle to the roster helps them retain some of that depth after losing their left tackle, Nate Solder, to the Giants via free agency. Waddle could be an option on the left side, but the vast majority of his work since entering the league as an undrafted rookie in 2013 has been on the right side. 

The Patriots now have Fleming, Marcus Cannon, Cole Croston, Tony Garcia and Andrew Jelks on their depth chart at tackle. Croston, Garcia and Jelks are all headed into their second years as pros. Croston remained on the 53-man roster all season -- an indication that the Patriots liked him enough not to expose him to the waiver system -- but did not see meaningful snaps. Garcia and Jelks both missed the entirety of the 2017 season on reserve lists. 

Once the Patriots lost Solder to the Giants, it seemed to be of paramount importance that the Patriots re-sign either Waddle or Fleming. Behind Cannon, there were simply too many question marks not to have one return. The Patriots could opt to draft a tackle, but this is considered an average year at that position in that there are few ready-made NFL players and several developmental types.

Before the Super Bowl last season, I asked offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia how the team was able to manage offensively with backups at right tackle for much of the season. 

"It's not like [Fleming and Waddle are] not good players," Scarnecchia said. "They are good players. Their skill set seemed to fit that position pretty well. They have the traits that we covet. And they're both really smart guys, very willing learners, and they're both driven to be good and they want to play good. And I think all those things have manifested themselves when they've been out there playing. And we've been very, very pleased with what they've done for us this year, essentially splitting that position."

Asked about the aspects of the game the Patriots worked on with both Waddle and Fleming last year, Scarnecchia said, "For us it transcends everything. Obviously run-blocking and pass-blocking. They're both good at those things. Are they great at those things? No. But they've been able to steadily improve over the last two years to the point where we put them out there and no one's worried. And it's been that way the whole season after Marcus got hurt. Yeah they've done a nice job for us."