Patriots

One of a kind: Patriot teammates say Trey Flowers is a rare talent

One of a kind: Patriot teammates say Trey Flowers is a rare talent

FOXBORO -- Trey Flowers looked to the ceiling, laughed a sheepish laugh, and shook his head. He couldn't believe it.

It was bad enough for Flowers that the CBS broadcast team had announced to its national audience that Patriots players had nicknamed him "Technique." But somehow it had been revealed that teammates also occasionally refer to him as "the G.O.A.T.," as in the greatest of all time.

"Aw, man," Flowers said, embarrassed that label made its way back to a reporter. "I just let it roll off and keep working."

RELATED Flowers' ranked high on 2017 "20 Under 25" list

Flowers is a quiet 23-year-old from Huntsville, Alabama who likes to spend extra time in the trainers room, usually with his headphones on, keeping to himself. But what he's accomplished on the field in his second year as a pro has been so impressive that it has invited waves of compliments -- including over-the-top monikers -- from those who watch him on a daily basis.

"We're trying to just have fun with that guy," said corner Logan Ryan. "He's not going to say much about himself so we'll throw some wild nicknames on him and see if he comes out of his shell."

'HE'S THE ONLY ONE I'VE EVER MET LIKE THAT'

Patriots players like to tease Flowers because he's become something of a reluctant teacher's pet. Highlighted in meetings and practices, held up by coaches as the model for how certain plays should be carried out, he was jokingly dubbed "Technique," and occasionally, "the G.O.A.T." 

Jokes aside, the 6-foot-2, 265-pounder's unique skill set and unrelenting effort this season -- his first season as a regular contributor -- have left even veteran teammates in awe.

"He's able to stand-up double teams, split 'em, and still make plays," said 10-year veteran Alan Branch. "I honestly haven't seen too many players with the size he is who can defend the run and the pass on the inside like him. He's the only one I've ever met like that."

Flowers was drafted in the fourth round out of Arkansas in 2015 as an undersized but dogged defensive end. Now, after spending almost the entirety of his rookie season on injured reserve, he's made an eye-opening impact lined up at just about every position on the defensive line, particularly during the second half of the season.

He's set the edge as a defensive end. He's used his strength to hold up at the point of attack in goal-line packages. And his ability to pass-rush from the interior has blown his teammates away.

Using his quickness advantage over heavier-footed centers and guards, as well as 34.25-inch arms that help him create leverage, Flowers led the Patriots in sacks (7.0) and quarterback hits (9) this season. He was also third on the team in quarterback hurries (19), according to Pro Football Focus.

All of his sacks have come since Week 8, and after the Week 9 bye his playing time reflected his value to the Patriots defense. During the second half of the season, Flowers' workload of 40.6 snaps per game was more than that of Chris Long (36.0), Rob Ninkovich (34.1) and Jabaal Sheard (27.3).

"I think he has a really good combination of length and strength and quickness," Long said. "He's able to play like he's 300 pounds, but he's not 300 pounds. It gives him versatility, and he has a really good feel for where people are leaning.

"He's a really smart player. He's one of the smartest players on our defense and one of the best players, if not the best player, on our defense."

Despite his eye-opening numbers and his recent bump in playing time, Flowers did not have the overall snap count (578 total plays) to accumulate some of the statistics that would earn him a Pro Bowl nod or All-Pro consideration. But, on a per-snap basis, he has been remarkably efficient.

For example, he's averaging one quarterback pressure (a sack, hit or hurry) for every 16 snaps played, per PFF. Ndamukong Suh (one pressure every 17 snaps), Leonard Williams (16) and Calais Campbell (15) -- all of whom do the majority of their pass-rushing from the interior -- are in a similar range. 

Flowers isn't the full-time force those players are, yet the point remains: When he's out there, he's a problem.

"I think sometimes it takes stats for people that are just kind of watching to wake up to somebody's abilities," Long said. "Now he's got the production to kind of validate what's easy for guys to see that work with him everyday, which is his really unique skill set, great work ethic and really good production. 

"To be rushing from the inside like that and have those numbers, I mean, look around the league. That's tough to come by."

'I SAID: THIS GUY'S GOT SOME TOOLS'

Flowers played in just one regular-season game as a rookie before going on season-ending IR with a shoulder injury. Until this season, he was mostly known for being the guy who admitted he fell in love with football by watching Adam Sandler's character in the movie Waterboy.

But Flowers' talent was evident to some well before he had an opportunity to contribute in regular-season action. It didn't take much.

In the first quarter of his first preseason game as a pro, Flowers worked off the right edge, slapped down the hands of Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari -- who was recently named a Second-Team All-Pro -- and smothered Aaron Rodgers for a sack.

The play still sticks out to veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich. 

"I think that when you've been around football for many, many years you can just see things that certain guys are able to do," Ninkovich said. "And you can kind of quickly analyze, 'Oh this guy's got some skills that are really going to help him.' . . . 

"The first few days I was around him, I said, 'This guy's got some tools. He's going to be a good player.' On top of that, his work ethic and the way he comes into work everyday, that helps guys that have some skill set to let that continue to grow and get better and better."

Flowers didn't see a great deal of time on the interior in college, but the Patriots saw him rush from the inside in a win over Louisiana State in 2014 when he picked up a sack while lined up over the right guard

Intrigued, at Patriots rookie minicamp last year the coaching staff tried him on the inside and he embraced it. He stayed late at practice. He tried to carry out every instruction he received from defensive line coach Brendan Daly.

"They put me in positions," Flowers said, "where I could get experience with that. Get the feel of the game. Try to understand it and create an arsenal of moves."

After more than a year of sharpening his skills, Flowers has had the opportunity to put his full repertoire of inside moves on display.

Against the Broncos in Week 15, Flowers lined up as a nose tackle on center Matt Paradis. On the snap, Flowers got his hands into Paradis' chest and ripped Paradis forward.

"We call him 'Technique' for a reason," Branch said.

Like a bouncer grabbing the lapels of an unruly patron, Flowers controlled Paradis by the chest plate on his shoulder pads and got PFF's highest-graded center this season on the ground.

"Obviously I can't push everybody around just because of the size difference," Flowers explained, "so you have to use their momentum against them sometimes." 

With some help from linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who crashed down to occupy the right guard, Flowers had a clear lane into quarterback Trevor Siemian for the sack. 

"He's just really good at using his hands, using his arms, using his leverage. All those things work together," Ninkovich said. "If you're a defensive lineman, you gotta have a bunch of things and he's got them.

"He's got great leverage. He knows when to counter and use the opponent's weight to his advantage. He really has a great feel for it. I'm trying to learn from him."

The Patriots were able to run a similar play when they hosted the Ravens the week prior. This time it was Hightower who helped clear a lane for Flowers. 

When Flowers got off of his initial block on the nose, he was able to change direction and gather himself quickly enough to swarm Joe Flacco before the ball came out. 

"We’re able to do a lot of different things with him in there," said Hightower. "He’s kind of a smaller-build guy, but he plays a lot bigger than that. [You saw] that in the first three or four plays in the Miami game."

The Miami game. Flowers may have saved the best performance of his breakout season for last. He didn't record a sack in the regular-season finale, but he had two quarterback hits that led to incompletions, and he posted four stuffed-runs.

One of those stuffs came when he was aligned over left guard Laremy Tunsil, the 13th overall pick in last year's draft.

The Dolphins tried to run a stretch play to the offensive left side of the formation. As Flowers flowed with the line, he saw what was developing in front of him and hurried to put a stop to it. 

With his left hand, he grabbed Tunsil's left shoulder pad and stuck his right cleat in the ground, preventing himself from being ejected from the play as it was designed. Knifing into the backfield, Flowers tackled running back Jay Ajayi for no gain. 

Vision. Strength. Length. Balance. Technique. It was all there.

Practice-squad defensive tackle Darius Kilgo resides at a locker a few stalls down from Flowers in the Patriots locker room. As a member of the Broncos for parts of the last two years before he was claimed by the Patriots in November, Kilgo had the chance to study big-name interior defenders like Malik Jackson (now in Jacksonville) and Derek Wolfe up close.

Even with that background, what Flowers does on film stands out.

"For a guy his size to be able to go in there and do that," Kilgo said, "is unbelievable."

'HE DOESN'T STAY BLOCKED'

Flowers was one of the biggest reasons why the Patriots jumped from 28th in the league in sacks after eight weeks to 16th by season's end. He led the team as it racked up 21 sacks in the second half of the season under the guidance of Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. 

Whatever pass-rush success the Patriots find in the postseason could hinge on the play of their second-year standout on the interior.

"He’s been very productive for us in there," Belichick said, "has caused a lot of pressures, and his penetration in the middle of the pocket a lot of times opens things up for one of the other defensive tackles or defensive ends that wrap around into the space that he has created with that penetration. So it’s not just the plays that he makes, but he creates some for his teammates, too."

Flowers has become a lose-lose proposition for opposing offenses, it seems: Either focus your attention on him and allow others to make plays, or divvy up your resources and watch him embarrass you one-on-one.

Would you rather be the Jets, who allowed a Chris Long strip sack late in the fourth quarter of a Week 12 loss while Flowers was doubled inside? Or would you rather be the Broncos, who allowed left guard Max Garcia and right tackle Donald Stephenson (below) to be abused by Flowers swim moves one-on-one?

Patriots offensive linemen know what it's like. They've been faced with the Flowers conundrum on a daily basis since training camp. 

"When you bring him up, the first word that comes to mind is relentless," said rookie left guard Joe Thuney. "He's always trying to get off the block, always trying to get around you. You have to stay locked in and focused on working together for the whole play when you're blocking him. He represents a pretty unique challenge."

"Trey's one of those guys who just doesn't stay blocked," said right guard Shaq Mason, before happily steering a reporter to center David Andrews, who has the misfortune of being matched up with Flowers more often than anyone else during workouts on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. 

"His movement skills are very good," Andrews explained. "He's got a lot of good pass-rush moves, and he does a good job of working. He doesn't stay blocked. That's the thing, he always works to stay uncovered."

The living embodiment of Bobby Boucher's approach with a technician's polish, national attention was coming one way or another for Flowers. It just so happens that his rise to prominence has come with nicknames that make him squirm. At the very least, he acknowledged, they may be a sign that he's doing the right things at this stage of his young career.

As if his numbers weren't enough.

"I'm intrinsically motivated anyway," he said. "But any time you can get guys to let you know you're doing good, I guess it's pretty cool."

Prototypical Patriots: Daniels, Wynn would build on interior strength

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NBC Sports Boston Photo

Prototypical Patriots: Daniels, Wynn would build on interior strength

The outlook for the Patriots on the interior of their offensive line is good. They have three young players who have played a lot of football together all set to return in 2018: guard Joe Thuney, guard Shaq Mason and center David Andrews. Their depth looks solid as well. Ted Karras has two years in the system under his belt, and Cole Croston -- who has some versatility to play tackle or guard -- enters his second year in the program after spending all of his rookie season protected on the active roster.

So why even look at the incoming class of centers and guards?

ESPN's Mike Reiss reported that the Patriots were interested in drafting an interior offensive lineman -- almost a Logan Mankins clone from a size and athleticism perspective -- at pick No. 72 in last year's draft: Dan Feeney of Indiana. Instead, he was drafted at No. 71 by the Chargers. The Patriots ended up trading out of the pick when Feeney was gone.

Even with three young starters set to return last spring, Bill Belichick and his staff weren't afraid to add depth on the inside. The same has to be assumed once again this year, especially with Mason scheduled to hit free agency after the season.

PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS - Previously in the series:


For this exercise, we'll assume Quenton Nelson is out of New England's reach. He'd be a clear fit at guard, and he's one of the cleanest prospects in the class regardless of position. He should be gone inside the top 10 picks. We also won't include Oregon's Tyrell Crosby, Texas' Connor Williams or Auburn's Braden Smith, who some have projected to make the move inside. We included that trio in our tackles edition, but the Patriots could take any of them with the idea in mind that they should shift to guard. 

PROTOTYPES IN RANGE

JAMES DANIELS, IOWA, 6-3, 306 POUNDS
There may not be a better offensive line fit for New England in this draft. He's big enough, and his athleticism is eye-opening (30.5-inch vertical, 108-inch broad jump). He also happened to play under Kirk Ferentz in college so Daniels' transition to New England's scheme and style of play should be a relatively smooth one. Factor in the play Daniels showed on tape, and the Patriots will be interested. Unfortunately for them, there's a good chance another club is just as interested and willing to spend an early pick on the player widely considered the top center in the draft. Daniels' college teammate Sean Welsh could be a late-round (or undrafted) choice if he's deemed athletic enough. 

ISAIAH WYNN, GEORGIA, 6-3, 313 POUNDS

Wynn's hand size might be an issue since it's a full inch smaller (8 1/2 inches) than what the Patriots have typically sought in their interior line draft picks. But his arm length is 33 1/2 inches, which is more than good enough. And most importantly, his tape his tremendous. To do what he did in the SEC, small hands or not, should get him drafted in the first round. Some even believe he could stick at his last college position (he played guard and, most recently, tackle for the Bulldogs) and stick on the outside at his size. He was that good. 

FRANK RAGNOW, ARKANSAS, 6-5, 312 POUNDS

Former Arkansas coach Brett Bielema has been spotted wearing Patriots gear during the pre-draft process as he's been helping Belichick's staff with their scouting. One player he already knows very well would be Ragnow, who is considered by some to be one of the most underrated players in the draft. He's in the conversation with Daniels and Price as the best center in the class, and Pro Football Focus would argue that he is the best. His three-cone was oddly slow, but otherwise he's a good athlete who's had a lot of experience against top-notch competition in the SEC.

BILLY PRICE, OHIO STATE, 6-4, 305 POUNDS
Another very good center here. Another coaching connection for the Patriots. Price might've had a shot at being the first pivot off the board in this draft, but he injured his pec doing the bench press at this year's combine. If that injury forces him to slide to the Patriots in the second round, he could be deemed a value pick there.



AUSTIN CORBETT, NEVADA, 6-4, 306 POUNDS
Good length, big mitts, very solid athlete. Corbett is one of the best fits for the Patriots on the interior if they want to go in that direction. His 5.15-second 40 and 28-inch vertical will more than meet the mark for the Patriots, as will his 106-inch broad jump. His three-cone time (7.87 seconds) won't blow Belichick away, but it won't be enough to take him off of the board, either. 

WILL HERNANDEZ, UTEP, 6-2, 327 POUNDS
Hernandez is a little undersized, but he's a mauler in an age where linemen are generally more experienced in the pass game than the run game. When it comes to the measurables, his height (an inch shorter than what the Patriots usually like) and his vertical (24 inches) are less than ideal, but he's considered by many experts to be a first-round talent.

WYATT TELLER, VIRGINIA TECH, 6-4, 314 POUNDS

Teller is another fit from an athletic standpoint since his 40 time (5.24 seconds), vertical (29 inches), broad (114 inches) and three-cone (7.45 seconds) were all good. His play dipped in 2017, according to some experts, but if the Patriots believe he's a good option late on Day 2 or early on Day 3, he could be available. 

SCOTT QUESSENBERRY, UCLA, 6-4, 310 POUNDS

Everyone is talking about UCLA tackle Kolton Miller as the draft approaches, but Quessenberry deserves a little pub himself. He checks all the athletic markers the Patriots look for, and he started for almost four full years in a Power 5 conference. His experience, his versatility to play guard or center, and his movement skills could have the Patriots interested on Day 3. 

MASON COLE, MICHIGAN, 6-4, 305 POUNDS

Cole may not be as explosive as some others in this draft class (23.5-inch vertical), but he's coming from a pro style offense where he was a starter for four years at both left tackle and center. He's not the kind of specimen that will be drafted in the top-100, in all likelihood, but he's an interesting Day 3 option. 

ROD TAYLOR, OLE MISS, 6-3, 320 POUNDS

Taylor is on the heavy side compared to interior linemen the Patriots have drafted in the past, but he's an explosive athlete for his size (30.5-inch vertical, 99-inch broad), and he has experience at tackle. If the Patriots feel like Taylor can play multiple spots, or if they feel like he'd be an even better athlete if he loses some weight, they may be intrigued enough to spend a pick on the SEC product late.  

KJ MALONE, LSU, 6-4, 303 POUNDS

No surprise that NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone's son would meet the athletic testing numbers to compete at the next level. He was by no means a dominant tackle for the Tigers, but he could be a late-round interior option for the Patriots if they like his potential. Malone's teammate at LSU, Will Clapp, might be an even better fit given his size (6-5, 314), his position flexibility, and his reputation as a player with very strong intangibles.  Q1

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Gronkowski says 'no' to optional workouts in strange press conference

Gronkowski says 'no' to optional workouts in strange press conference

FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski held a strange press conference on Saturday, which he attended in full Supercross gear. Even for the goofy Patriots tight end, that's a little odd.

But what made it even more head-scratching is that the presser occurred inside Gillette Stadium, about a 15-second walk away from the Patriots weight room, which Gronkowski steered clear of last week during the team's first few voluntary workouts of the offseason. 

Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran described Tom Brady and Gronkowski's absence from the workouts as part of an "open revolt" earlier this week. Gronkowski's presence in the building Saturday didn't have the feel of a peace offering. 

Told that fans would wonder why Gronkowski was able to make it to One Patriot Place for a Supercross event and not for workouts -- workouts which are traditionally extremely well-attended in Foxboro -- he cracked, "Training for this dirt-biking."

Asked if he planned on attending optional workouts that are upcoming, he answered, "No." He then added, "I've got dirt-biking skills to work on."

After avoiding a few questions on the topic of whether or not he would return to the Patriots in 2018, Gronkowski did seem to hint that he planned to play football next season, drawing laughter from a crowd that included Gronkowski's father, one of his brothers and multiple friends, including former Patriots Stevan Ridley and Rob Ninkovich.

How much weight should be put into comments made by Gronkowski during a press conference that was, essentially, one long promotional joke? Debatable. But the fact that he was willing to show up to the place he avoided during the week, then have a good laugh about his future with the team that he's captained the last two seasons? That might not sit very well with those who are looking ahead to the upcoming season and wondering about the All-Pro tight end's plans.

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