Patriots

Prototypical Patriots: Sure-tackling safeties from Florida, Michigan look like fits

Prototypical Patriots: Sure-tackling safeties from Florida, Michigan look like fits

The Patriots have one of the deepest and most experienced safety groups in the NFL, but would it come as a shock if Bill Belichick decided to dip into that position at this year's draft?  

Because of the combination of speed and tackling ability often found in players at that position, safeties on the Patriots frequently have held important roles both defensively and in the kicking game. Take last season for example when Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung were key members of the league's top scoring defense but made significant contributions on special teams as well. Nate Ebner, a reserve safety, is one of the team's top players in the kicking game and garnered All-Pro consideration last year.

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That kind of versatility is invaluable in New England and has warranted heavy investment at the position in the past.

Between 2012 and 2015, Belichick drafted four safeties (including two second-rounders and a third-rounder), he moved Devin McCourty from corner to safety, and he re-signed Patrick Chung to become the team's Swiss Army knife box safety.

That in-the-box spot could be of particular interest for the Patriots before the draft as Chung (signed through 2018) will start the 2017 campaign at 30 years old, while Jordan Richards (18 defensive snaps last season) has served almost exclusively as a fourth-down player.

Chung highlighted the importance of the role he plays -- a hybrid safety-linebacker role that has become increasingly popular around the league -- during a recent back-and-forth with members of the media. 

"The game is changing, obviously," he said. "Guys are getting more athletic. Just the more versatile you are, man, I'm trying to tell you, it helps. It helps a lot." 

The following is a group of safeties in this year's draft class who fit the profile of what the Patriots often like in safeties who line up near the line of scrimmage: versatile, tough, aggressive tacklers, who have the athleticism to cover tight ends and backs in the passing game.

This is the second installment of a 12-part pre-draft series in which we do our best to identify Prototypical Patriots. You can find the linebackers we highlighted here.

Jabrill Peppers, Michigan, 5-foot-11, 213 pounds: Few players had a more wide-ranging set of on-the-field experiences in college. He saw time at linebacker, safety, running back and as a returner while at Ann Arbor, and his combine performance indicates he's one of the best athletes in the class -- his 4.46-second 40-yard dash, 35.5-inch vertical, 128-inch broad jump were all top-10 among safeties in Indy. Critics have harped on his deficiencies in coverage -- he had just one pick for the Wolverines -- but he's still expected to go in the first or second round.

Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut, 6-foot-4, 224 pounds: In terms of his size, Melifonwu is a giant compared to what the Patriots typically use at this spot -- Chung, for example, was 5-11, 212 pounds coming out of college -- but his athletic traits seemingly would allow him to do whatever the Patriots ask. He ran a 4.4-second 40, jumped 44 inches in the vertical and 141 inches in the broad, and his length would make him an ideal matchup on tight ends. As will likely be the case with Peppers, if the Patriots want UConn's top prospect, they'll have to trade up into the first or second round. 

Justin Evans, Texas A&M, 6-feet, 199 pounds: The 4.57 40-yard dash Evans submitted at his pro day is just on the cusp of what the Patriots typically tolerate, but his 41.5-inch vertical and 129-inch broad jump are hints that he will be an explosive athlete at the next level. He missed 38 tackles in his last two seasons, per Pro Football Focus, which may be a red flag for a team like the Patriots that puts so much value on sure tackling, but perhaps with good coaching his aggressive style and quick-twitch reactions can be harnessed to make him a more dependable player in that regard.

Marcus Maye, Florida, 6-feet, 210 pounds: One of the best fits for the Patriots at this spot, Maye isn't the best athlete of the group, but he checks just about every mark that Patriots safeties have in the recent past with a 4.5-second 40, a 33.5-inch vertical, a 118-inch broad jump and a 7.1-second three-cone drill. Touted as the leader of his team's talent-laden secondary and one of the draft's best tacklers -- only missed one tackle last season, per PFF -- Maye seems ideally suited for work underneath in the Patriots secondary. That he's been invited to the draft in Philly (he passed) would indicate that he's thought of as a first or second-rounder and would require the Patriots trading up to take him. 

Josh Jones, NC State, 6-foot-1, 220 pounds: Another big-hitter whose technique could use some polishing, Jones is an intriguing fit because of his combination of size, speed and explosiveness. His 4.41-second 40, 37.5-inch vertical, 132-inch broad jump and 20 bench-press reps at 225 pounds were among the best any safety posted at the combine. He played all over the field for the Wolfpack, lining up as a post safety, in the slot and at linebacker at times. Against Miami he showed he had the ability to stick with one of the draft's top tight ends, David Njoku, in coverage. 

Delano Hill, Michigan, 6-foot-1, 216 pounds: If Maye is off the board early, Hill may be a solid later-round option if the Patriots want to go down the box-safety route. An eager run-defender, Hill was PFF's fifth-most efficient tackler at the position (only four total missed tackles), and he excelled in the slot. Though he's thought to be lacking somewhat as an athlete, some of his combine numbers would suggest otherwise. He clocked a 4.47-second 40 and a 6.97 three-cone drill. 

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

FOXBORO -- Stay low. Drive off the tight end's inside shoulder. And whatever you do, keep your feet. You don't want to be falling into kicker and picking up a penalty. 

Those were the kinds of things that were bouncing around somewhere in Cassius Marsh's subconscious as he lined up to try to block Falcons kicker Matt Bryant's field-goal attempt from 37 yards away at the end of the first quarter. Swimming past his blocker off the snap, Marsh got both arms extended and into the path of Bryant's kick, knocking it down and giving his team a boost. 

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"Guys work hard on that every week," Bill Belichick said after his team's 23-7 win. "Cassius has gotten some opportunities in practice. It’s hard to block Steve [Gostkowski]. Steve gets good height on the ball, gets the ball off quickly. I think this one with not quite as much height maybe as Steve's ball, or at least what Steve's balls were in practice, Cassius got a hand on it. 

"It was a big play for us because, again, we worked so hard on that and that’s everybody across the board. That’s all 11 guys, not just the guy that blocks it. The other guys have to do their job and if they block Cassius and take him away then that gives somebody else an opportunity so we never know how that’s going to go. We just want everybody to come hard and do their job right and wherever the opening is it is. That was a big play for us . . . 

"You can see the whole team – we were all excited. Sideline, players, guys on the field. That was a big moment for us. Our special teams units work very hard. They take a lot of pride in their job. The return teams, the coverage teams, the field goal and the field goal block team. It’s good to see that hard work pay off in a big play like that."

It was a big enough play that it earned Marsh a high-five from his coach. Marsh laughed about his reception on the sideline, remembering that the last time he got that kind of recognition from Belichick it came after a Week 4 sack.

"That's pretty much it that I can remember," Marsh said, beaming. "He only really smiles in situations like that so you've gotta cherish those moments."

The Patriots recovered at their own 26-yard line and embarked on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to get them on the scoreboard.

"With the defense playing as well as they were, to be able to preserve the shutout at the time was big," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "Those are huge momentum plays when you're able to block a kick. It's not a traditional play that happens every game. Huge play. A UCLA guy stepping up, who would've thought? 

"You gotta tip your hat to those guys because they coach that, they work that and sometimes it seems like, 'Man, why do we continue to do this?' But it paid off for us tonight. You tip your cap to not only Cash but the rest of the guys on that unit." 

While Marsh's block was the highlight, it was a strong night overall for New England's special teams units. Every Falcons drive started inside their own 30-yard line, and Gostkowski had kicks returned to the 12, 19 and 18 before they were stopped.

Slater called it the most complementary game the Patriots played all season. Offense, defense, special teams. They all worked together to make Sunday perhaps their most dominating performance of the year. 

"That's the effort that we've been looking for and striving for all year," Slater said. "I think that's a good starting point for us. Lot of football left. Nine games left so we're going to have to continue to do it and be consistent week in and week out."

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Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

As safety Duron Harmon emerged from the showers following the Patriots 23-7 win over the Falcons, he noticed a crowd gathered by his locker. As one of the captains of the team - and a man nicknamed by teammates as “The Voice” because of his ability to articulate the right words at the right time, the affable safety is a must listen postgame. But for a change, Harmon knew the mass gathering of media wasn’t there for him - at least not yet. We were there for Malcolm Butler, who had just played his best game of the season.

“You all want to talk to Malcolm?” Harmon sang. “I’d want to talk to Malcolm too.”

Devin McCourty got in on the act as well with some good-natured chirping in Butler’s direction. Both safeties were energized by the victory but also, it seemed, by the performance of a player they’ve come to rely on in games just like this. 

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“Awww man, Malcolm. . . Malcolm was great for us,” said Harmon later. “We need that.”

It's hard not to draw the parallel between Butler having his best performance of the season a week after making two of the biggest plays in the game against the Jets. He did all this while the man who indirectly caused so much of the 28-year old’s troubles - Stephon Gilmore - hasn’t been able to play because of a concussion. Meanwhile, an undrafted player in his 6th year, Johnson Bademosi, has emerged opposite Butler to play very sound football.

“Communication,” said Butler of the team’s defensive improvements. “Just playing smarter and better. That’s all.”

Butler himself didn’t want to spend much time analyzing his own performance. That’s usually not his thing. And it wasn’t as if that performance was perfect. Far from it. But Butler’s energy was evident right from the jump. He stuck his nose in there on running plays to his side, including a terrific submarine tackle of Tevin Coleman in the opening quarter. Butler also got his fair share of Julio Jones over the course of the night. Even though he surrendered that late touchdown to the Falcons wideout, he showed not only a willingness to play the big dog, but to go right at him. That is - after all - a Butler trademark. 

“Just competing,” said Butler. “Great player; you just got to compete.”

It’s not just competing, but it’s playing with confidence, something Butler said was an issue for him in the aftermath of his snap reduction in New Orleans. But now? That seems long gone and hard to find.

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