Patriots

Prototypical Patriots: Powerful defensive tackles from the SEC abound

Prototypical Patriots: Powerful defensive tackles from the SEC abound

For over a year now, Jerod Mayo has taken to our Quick Slants set and told anyone who will listen that the Patriots don't really play a 3-4 or a 4-3 anymore.

PHIL PERRY'S PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS DRAFT PREVIEW

The best way to describe what they do with their front-seven is as a "2-5," Mayo says, meaning the team has five athletic pieces -- interchangeable pieces, at times -- surrounding a pair of beefy space-eaters. 

Last season it was Alan Branch and Malcom Brown who saw the majority of the time in the middle, with rookie Vincent Valentine working his way into the rotation at times. In 2015, Akiem Hicks was in the tackle equation as was Sealver Siliga. In 2014, Vince Wilfork was critical mass on the interior.

What do they all have in common? All are at least 320 pounds, and Brown and Valentine -- New England's two most recent draft picks at the position -- are listed at that exact number. All have the capability to anchor down, two-gap, and funnel plays to their teammates behind them. 

The Patriots have dipped into the pool of lighter penetrating tackles in the past, with 2014 first-rounder Dominique Easley being the most obvious example. But Easley, for a variety of reasons, is now playing elsewhere. Same goes for last year's training-camp darling Anthony Johnson. 

With defensive ends on last year's roster who could rush from the interior like Trey Flowers and Jabaal Sheard, the need for the smaller, penetrating tackles seemed superfluous. Flowers was a revelation inside, turning himself into one of the most productive interior rushers in the league during the second half of last season. 

Who knows? Maybe because some of the depth at defensive end has thinned this offseason the Patriots will be back in the market for a pass-rushing tackle to help lighten the load. Or maybe free-agent addition Lawrence Guy (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) is that guy.

In general, though, when looking for interior defensive linemen who can make an impact on first and second down the motto for the Patriots seems to be "the bigger, the better."

There are plenty of big bodies in this year's draft class to choose from, and below are a handful who seem like the fits for what Bill Belichick wants in New England.

This is the fifth installment of a 12-part pre-draft series where we're looking into Prototypical Patriots at a variety of positions. To catch up on our first few cracks at this, head here for boundary cornershere for slot cornershere for linebackers, and here for safeties.

Dalvin Tomlinson, Alabama, 6-foot-3, 310 pounds: One of several Nick Saban pupils who will make their way to the NFL at the end of the month, Tomlinson is one of the best run defenders in the class and showed an improved ability to get to the quarterback last season. His long arms (33.5 inches) help him hold his ground on the interior and play bigger than his size. He doesn't reach the 320-pound threshold mentioned above, but his playing strength should allow him to hold up against double-teams at the next level. If the Patriots don't make their first pick until the third round at No. 72 overall, Tomlinson may still be there for them. 

Jaleel Johnson, Iowa, 6-foot-3, 316 pounds: Explosive off the line of scrimmage and in possession of a motor that never stops running, Johnson embarrassed interior offensive linemen for coach on his way to quarterbacks. He had eight sacks and 27 quarterback hurries last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Though he looks too eager to get up the field at times, he may be able to be coached into a more versatile three-down player who can two-gap on first and second downs and then tear up the field in passing situations. Brown learned to temper his instincts to get into opposing backfields on a snap-to-snap basis during his rookie season, and maybe Johnson, who played under Belichick's friend Kirk Ferentz, could do the same.

DJ Jones, Ole Miss, 6-foot-1, 319 pounds: Speaking of Brown -- the No. 32 overall pick in 2015 -- here's a player whose physical profile matches extremely closely to his. Brown entered the draft at 6-foot-2, 319 pounds with arms the same length as Jones' (32.5 inches) and hands a quarter-inch smaller than Jones' (10.25 inches). Their testing numbers are scary similar. Here's what Jones did at the combine (with Brown's combine numbers in parentheses): 5.04-second 40 (5.05), 25 bench reps (26), 28.5-inch vertical (29.5), 108-inch broad jump (98), 7.73-second three-cone (7.84), 4.65 20-yard shuttle (4.59). Jones' 40-yard dash, vertical and broad jump were better than those Vince Wilfork (6-foot-1, 323 pounds, 32.5-inch arms) posted at the combine in 2004, while Wilfork had a better three-cone, 20-yard shuttle and bench. Jones is projected to be a later-round selection because he wasn't as productive as perhaps he should have been (two sacks, three tackles for loss last season), but his combination of size and athleticism could make him an intriguing fit for the Patriots interior on Day 2 or 3. 

Josh Augusta, Missouri, 6-foot-4, 347 pounds: While speaking about Branch last season, Belichick famously said, "Guys that weigh 350 pounds and are athletic and long like he is, I mean they don’t grow on trees. They’re hard to find." Augusta wasn't even considered a starter during his last season at Missouri, but his unique size and quick feet (he was used as a fullback at times by the Tigers) might make him worthy of a selection late on draft weekend. He weighed closer to 400 pounds last fall, but according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he was diagnosed with a thyroid issue in January but has shed weight since, which helped him post a 5.12-second 40 time (which some had clocked as a sub-5.0 time), a 28.5-inch vertical, a 108-inch broad jump and a 7.9-second three-cone at his pro day. Though he only played about 50 percent of his team's snaps the last two seasons, guys like him don't grow on trees. Branch, 32, signed a two-year extension this offseason.

Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, USC, 6-foot-1, 331 pounds: As strong and difficult to move as any defensive tackle in this draft class, whichever team takes him will have to be OK with the fact that they'll get very little from him as a pass-rusher. But as a two-gapping tackle on first and second-down? Someone with good balance who can easily shed single-blocks and make plays on running backs looking for daylight? You could do much worse than Tu'ikolovatu late. 

Josh Tupou, Colorado, 6-foot-3, 353 pounds: Another lane-clogger on the interior, Tupou had solid production last season (45 tackles, four tackles for loss) and he's shown he has the size and strength to be able to anchor against linemen at the next level. Athletically he's limited, but for a sixth or seventh-round selection, picking up a first and second-down specialist with his size might have some appeal. After being charged with assault following a fight at a house party, Tupou sat out the 2015 season.

Jarron Jones, Notre Dame, 6-foot-6, 316 pounds: Jones has great length (35.5-inch arms) and could play a variety of positions along the defensive line, but according to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, "scouts consider him unmotivated and question his football character." If you don't enjoy football and aren't prepared for the grind in New England, you won't last long -- and you might not even be on the Patriots' board. If he's misunderstood, that's something Irish coach Brian Kelly could explain to Belichick. Washington's Elijah Qualls (6-foot-1, 313) is another defensive tackle prospect with enticing physical ability who is thought be a boom-or-bust player, per Zierlein.

Former Patriot Mike Vrabel named head coach of the Tennessee Titans

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Former Patriot Mike Vrabel named head coach of the Tennessee Titans

The Titans job was rumored to be the first pick of Josh McDaniels, but as details have come to light, that is not the case.

The Tennessee Titans have agreed to hire former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel as their Head Coach tonight.

The team publicly announced the hire tonight across all of their social media platforms.

Vrabel won the Super Bowl with the Patriots three times in the early years of the New England dynasty. 

Despite having limited experience as a coach, he has attracted much attention in this past offseason for openings across the NFL. He has just one season's experience as a coordinator. 

Vrabel steps in to fill the role of Mike Mularkey, who was fired just one night after many believed he was receiving an extension. Despite the rumor of the extension, Mularkey and the Titans agreed to part ways just one day later.

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Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?

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Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?

FOXBORO -- We've hit on Tom Brady's hand. Over and over. And over again. We've also dissected just how good this Jaguars defense really is, and how Rob Gronkowski might be able to exploit it

But what about the games within the game? What about the so-called bit players who could make a significant impact in the AFC Championship Game? 

It seems to happen every year in the biggest games. No one predicted James White would put together an MVP-level performance in Super Bowl LI. No one saw Malcolm Butler coming - least of all Russell Wilson - in Super Bowl XLIX. And who would have guessed that Marquis Flowers, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise would've had key roles in helping the Patriots dominate the Divisional Round against the Titans?

Let's try to get out ahead of those storylines before the Jaguars and Patriots meet at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Here are five of our under-the-radar keys to the game: 

1) James Develin's incorporation into the game plan could seemingly pop up out of nowhere like a neck roll.
But if you've been following along this week, you know that it would be a good idea for the Patriots try to throw out of formations that employ their fullback. If Josh McDaniels figures out a way to keep Jacksonville's base defense on the field, that should give Brady all kinds of room to throw. That means getting Develin onto the field with Dion Lewis. It could also mean having Dwayne Allen (or Jacob Hollister) on the field with Rob Gronkowski. Two-back sets and two-tight end sets should have the same effect: The Jaguars will respond by leaving an extra linebacker and an extra defensive tackle on the field. (In all likelihood, run-stuffing linebacker Paul Posluszny would remain, as would defensive tackle Marcel Dareus. In sub situations, those players are more likely to come off, bringing nickel corner Aaron Colvin and pass-rusher Dante Fowler on.) That bigger stop-the-run grouping makes the Jaguars slower. When they're slower, they're less-equipped to defend the pass. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars allowed a quarterback rating of 99 and an average of 9.6 yards per attempt against offensive groupings with two backs, two tight ends, or both. Against three-receiver sets, they're much more effective, allowing a rating of 73 and an average-yards-per-attempt of just 4.9. One issue with Develin's usage could be - wait for it - Brady's hand. If it's clear Brady can't take snaps from under center, then the Patriots will either simply have to huddle up with Develin in the mix and align in some sort of spread look when they break, which they've done in the past. Or they could concede the threat of running behind Develin is non-existent if Brady can't get under center, and then you may simply see more two-tight end looks. Using tempo with this bigger personnel could also be wise. If the Patriots get defenders on the field they want to throw against, they could prevent the Jags from subbing by hurrying to the line of scrimmage. 

2) Joe Thuney's ability to handle power rushes on the interior could determine how smoothly the Patriots offense runs.
The Jaguars front is their biggest threat to Tom Brady. Jacksonville's coverage players are talented, but there should be windows to throw. If Brady doesn't have time to find the windows because of a dogged pass-rush, though, it won't matter. Thuney could be the key. Why? Calais Campbell, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, has seen 58 percent of his pass-rushing snaps come from the defensive right, according to Pro Football Focus. If that continues, he'll see his fair share of Nate Solder and -- in sub situations when he kicks inside -- Thuney on the offensive left. Along with the vastly underrated Yannick Ngakoue (12 sacks and a league-high six forced fumbles, but he's not a Pro Bowler or All-Pro), who rushes off the defensive right 77.5 percent of the time, Campbell helps form as imposing a duo as Thuney and Solder have faced all season. Campbell is the real-life response to the blue beings in James Cameron's "Avatar." He's 6-foot-8, with 36-inch arms, and if he can extend on Thuney, that's a one-on-one matchup that doesn't favor the Patriots. Thuney, who carries around a green notebook full of secrets to help him on game days, has been solid of late. He hasn't allowed a sack or a quarterback hit in his last three games, but he'll have to put together one of his cleanest performances of the season to keep Brady upright Sunday.  

3) Johnson Bademosi will have big shoes to fill in the kicking game. 
When Jonathan Jones suffered a season-ending injury against the Titans, that should thrust Bademosi - who was a healthy scratch last week -- back into the mix as a kick-coverage player and reserve corner for the Patriots. The Jaguars have a talented return man in Jaydon Mickens, and as a gunner, it could be on Bademosi's shoulders to make sure that the Patriots don't allow Mickens to make a game-changing play. With the focus on Matthew Slater, that should leave Bademosi with some one-on-one matchups to win on the outside. Why, you ask, is this important? The Jaguars are not a threat to consistently string together scoring drives offensively, so -- aside from scoring defensively, which they've been known to do -- they may need to exploit a breakdown in the kicking game in order to have a shot. "Mickens," Bill Belichick told Patriots.com this week, "as a returner, very explosive player...He's very, very explosive in the open field...They're a very explosive special teams unit."

4) For the second consecutive week, Marquis Flowers could play an important role in the defensive game plan.
His two best games with the Patriots have come against mobile quarterbacks, and Blake Bortles -- though not as athletic as Tyrod Taylor or Marcus Mariota -- would qualify. The Jaguars quarterback has recorded 123 yards rushing on 15 carries (an average of 8.2 yards per run) in two playoff games this season, and against the Bills in the Wild-Card Round, he actually ran for more yards (88) than he picked up through the air (87). Flowers has shown a knack for being able to mirror passers as he spies them from the second level, and it would come as no surprise if he was asked to do so again this weekend. The Patriots are a man coverage team. If you've watched closely, you've noticed they've played less true Cover-2 this season than they have in some others, partly because their corners are better-suited for man-to-man assignments than covering zones. By deploying Flowers (or Kyle Van Noy or someone else) as a spy, that allows Patriots defensive backs to play man-to-man on the back end. Without a spy, that would typically require more true zone in the secondary so that defensive backs could have their eyes in the backfield and spot when a quarterback takes off. If Flowers is tapped to spy again this weekend, he allows his teammates in coverage to play their game: Lock-down man-to-man.

5) Let's stick with the Patriots linebackers for this final key.
Discipline at the second level will be of vital importance against the Jaguars. Matt Patricia's unit should have little trouble stopping the run. It's a numbers game in the box, and if the Patriots commit enough resources to stoning Leonard Fournette, they should have success. Especially with the way Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, Ricky Jean Francois and Trey Flowers have been playing of late. But the Jaguars are adept at using an opponent's aggressiveness against them. Whichever Patriots are at the linebacker level -- whether it's Elandon Roberts, Van Noy or Patrick Chung -- will have to be sure they read their keys and remain patient. Leaving Bortles wide-open throwing lanes is one of the few ways the Jaguars will be able to create chunk plays on Sunday, and if the Patriots are too eager to step up and fill lanes against the run, they could open themselves up to be stunned by the 23rd-rated quarterback in the NFL this season. The Jaguars passed on three of their first four plays from scrimmage against the Steelers in the Divisional Round. They picked up 53 yards on those three throws due in large part to Bortles' use of play-action. 

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