Patriots

Giardi: The experts say these guys are underrated, but not underappreciated

Giardi: The experts say these guys are underrated, but not underappreciated

Covering the NFL for almost 20 years allows you to make relationships with a bunch of people. So I thought I'd tap into some of those people for a series of topics we've been kicking around.

OTHER TOPICS

The panel consists of one former Pats player still in the game, two scouts of AFC teams, one front-office member in the AFC, and one NFC scout. They all requested anonymity for obvious reasons (as the player said, "Hey, I might want to end up back there!"). I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I had talking to these guys.

Today's topic: Who is the most underrated Patriot?

Scout 1: "Duron Harmon. Curious draft pick at the time and I didn’t think all that much of him his first year in the league, but he’s really developed into a Steady Eddie type. Very few mistakes, good range backing up the off corner or playing center field, and he appears to be a calming presence. I figured he’d be as good as gone once he got to free agency. Getting him back was a nice feather in the Pats cap. Not a re-signing that blows you away, but he’s one of your own guys worth keeping.”

Scout 2: "Our team wouldn’t go near Alan Branch, but I campaigned for him. That dude is unblockable. Not in a JJ Watt or Aaron Donald kind of way, but he’s just such a massive human, you hardly ever see someone get into his chest plate and drive him backwards. There’s so much value in that. He’s also surprisingly good moving laterally. I know some people might laugh at that, but he’s got efficient feet."

Scout 3: Worst game I saw Tom Brady play over the last couple years was that AFC Championship game in Denver (2015-16 season). He was under siege the entire day. The Pats win that game if Nate Solder was healthy and playing. No one ever talks about him as an elite left tackle but I’d put him on the short list of the next best guys after [Trent] Williams, [Joe] Thomas, David [Bakhtiari] and [Jason] Peters. Solder’s just good at everything. Kick and slide, excellent hand placement, good punch. Like anybody, he’ll occasionally be a waist bender and get beaten by a counter move, but you rarely see him get overpowered and it seems like he’s quick to correct. I know it took him a half [to get going] in the Super Bowl, but again, he kept at it and got another ring."

Former Patriot/current player: "Give me James [White] all day, every day. You want to talk about a player who has come a long way over the last couple years. I know you talk to [Jerod] Mayo. When he said we all thought he sucked, he wasn’t lying. You wondered how [White] did what he did in the Big 10. But 28 works at it, all the time. Practice field. Weight room. Film room. He’d have been my Super Bowl MVP if they gave me a vote -- don’t tell Tom [Brady]."

Current NFL exec: "I’m not sure you’ll find too many guards in this league that are as athletic as Shaq Mason. I thought he had a Pro Bowl-type season last year. I can only imagine what he’ll look like this year, with another season in the league and under [offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and coach Bill Belichick]. He’ll always have some limitations as a pass blocker because of his height and arm length, but with better technique he can mask some of that. I think he’s as good a run blocker as there is at that position and I expect he’ll be a big part of that offensive line for a long time. [Logan] Mankins was the gold standard for Bill, but when all is said and done, it could be this kid."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

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QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

3:00 Why has Bill Belichick been so surprisingly positive of his team’s performance in tight wins?

6:30 Phil Perry breaks down what grades he gave the Patriots on his report card following the win over the Jets

15:00 Reaction to the Austin-Seferian Jenkins overturned touchdown, and what changes need to be made in the NFL replay system. 

23:00 Why was Patriots offensive line much more effective against Jets?

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

25:00 Patriots-Falcons preview, how did Falcons blow a 17 point lead to the Dolphins?

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.