Patriots

Flowers' sacks may be down but his impact isn't

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Flowers' sacks may be down but his impact isn't

FOXBORO - Trey Flowers appeared on the fast track to stardom in the second half of last season and right on through the playoffs. He spent about as much time in opposing backfields as the skill position players on those teams. 

Starting Week 8 at Buffalo, the defensive end racked up 9 1/2 sacks in the Patriots final dozen games, including 2 1/2 in the dramatic Super Bowl victory over Atlanta.

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Even with the departure of fellow edge rushers Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long and Rob Ninkovich, Flowers picked up right where he left off starting this season, dropping Alex Smith a pair of times in the opener versus Kansas City. However, since then, the soft-spoken Alabama native has recorded just 1 1/2 sacks and has actually been shut out in that category over the past three games. But don’t for a second think Flowers isn’t producing.

Kyle Van Noy credited Flowers for a couple of important penetrations in the Sunday night showdown with Atlanta and Adam Butler said his first ever NFL sack was a direct result of all the attention devoted to Flowers.

“I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help us win,” said Flowers. “Whatever the coaches ask, whatever the defense calls for, that’s what I’ll do.”

The Pats have asked for Flowers to fill a variety of roles this year up and down the line. Line up over the center? Sure. Head up on the guard? Why not? 3 technique? 5? 7? 9? If there’s a number for it, and a need, Flowers has done it. Maybe that’s been to his detriment and caused the sack shortage, but Flowers wouldn’t be there if he couldn’t handle it.

“Well, Trey's done some things like that for us in the past; not as much as he has this year,” said Bill Belichick. “This year we've had some different situations at the defensive end position at various points in time. Trey has a lot of experience or the most experience of our defensive linemen. He's also athletic and can handle a degree of versatility in our responsibilities. I’m not sure that’s always the best thing for him, but sometimes he’s the best we have at it. He does a good job and works hard at it and does what’s best for the team. One of the things you love about Trey is how committed he is to the team and how willing he is to do whatever it takes, whatever we need him to do and he does a pretty good job of it.”

Obviously, part of Flowers success is because of his physical abilities. At 6-2, 268 pounds, he has long arms, excellent power and short area quickness in addition to a motor that’s always running no matter where he lines up. But there are plenty of players in this league with measurables equal to or better than Flowers. That’s where the work ethic - he’s notorious for working on his craft long after practice and meetings are over - and his football smarts come into play. 

“Obviously I’ve been in the system,” he said. “I’m going on my third year, understanding what the coaches expect, how they want to attack certain quarterbacks, certain offenses. That time spent will help you out going into the game, knowing what they [coaches] want to do.”

Flowers says that maybe you don’t pick up a tendency or a call or a key right away but by continuing to work at it, continuing to study, you can pick up one or two things that may change the way a series goes or even a game. That’s enough for him.

“If I can call something to get us in the right position to make plays or to make a play myself, that’s where that work comes in.”

That extra effort is nothing new. Flowers has been the same guy since he walked into the building following the 2015 draft, where the Pats selected him in the fourth round.

“First and foremost what stands out about Trey is his work ethic and his approach to how he handles himself as a professional and to getting better,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “The classroom is the same. For him, I think it's something that he works extremely hard at and for a guy that can do a couple different things for us, his understanding of what we do, I think it's along the natural progression. There's not that many guys that just come in and right away, on the whole, if you look at everybody, that just play all the snaps immediately. So, he's a guy that falls into that category. Someone that's worked really hard to try to earn himself some play time on the field and has shown the consistency to be out there as much as we can get him out there and put him in those positions.”

Considering the Pats defensive issues, and availability issues up in general for the front seven, Flowers has been a rock. 

He’s played the fourth-most snaps of any player on the defense and has been one of the few to grade out positively week in and week out on Pro Football Focus. So while the sack numbers are down, Flowers remains one of the foundational pieces of a unit that was improving before the bye. 

It's a defense that believes it has all the pieces in place to make a long run into January and February. Freeing up Flowers will help the cause but his willingness to sacrifice himself and his stats for the better of the team should tell you all you need to know about the player and his importance for the 2017-18 Patriots. That makes him a star in the Patriots world and that - for now - is more than enough for Flowers.

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have plenty of bodies but an unknown number of difference-makers: Edge defender. 

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HOW THEY PERFORMED


No position group saw greater change through training camp than Bill Belichick's group of edge players. Rob Ninkovich retired. Kony Ealy was cut. Shea McClellin and Derek Rivers had season-ending injuries. When Harvey Langi was injured in a car accident and Dont'a Hightower suffered a season-ending pectoral injury, the team was dangerously thin on the outside. The Patriots tried to fill in over the course of the season with a series of Band-Aids. Cassius Marsh got the first crack but was eventually sent packing. The Patriots plucked Eric Lee from the Bills practice squad. They signed James Harrison late. By season's end, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise saw more pass-rush work than anyone else. Wise flashed his potential but also experienced some rookie growing pains. Flowers was really, really good in 993 snaps -- more than any Patriots defensive lineman since Ninkovich played 1,040 in 2014 - but he didn't have much in the way of consistent help on the other side. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Hightower, Flowers, Rivers, Wise, Lee, Shea McClellin, Trevor Reilly, Harvey Langi, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis

WHO ISN'T?
Harrison

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


The Patriots have numbers here. But there are questions that need answering. How healthy will Hightower and McClellin be in 2018? And will they be better suited to play off the line or on the edge? What will Rivers look like after tearing his ACL? How will Wise and Langi develop? If everyone's back and they're all ready to play significant roles, is the need really all that dire? In reality, the Patriots could probably use another addition here, maybe a free agent who's a known commodity. The Patriots have plenty of lottery tickets that could hit in 2018, but adding a dependable option to play opposite Flowers would make sense.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


The two top edge defenders in free agency will be Demarcus Lawrence (25 years old) of the Cowboys and Ezekiel Ansah (28) of the Lions. The Patriots would have to be willing to commit serious money to either one. More cost-effective options would be Alex Okafor (who tore his Achilles late last season), Trent Murphy (who might be a good fit in New England's multiple fronts), Adrian Clayborn (capable against both the run and the pass), Connor Barwin (missed just two games in the last seven seasons), Jeremiah Attaochu (former second-rounder who may still have some untapped potential) and 38-year-old Julius Peppers (a potential stop-gap while young Patriots pass-rushers grow into pros). Options there. But because this isn't seen as a particularly strong draft class when it comes to edge players, there will be competition for each.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


NC State's Bradley Chubb is the early favorite to be the first edge defender off the board this spring, but he's not viewed by everyone to be a game-changing pass-rush talent. Pro Football Focus has compared him to Bills 2016 first-rounder Shaq Lawson. Behind him? Question marks abound. Marcus Davenport from Texas-San Antonio was dominant last season...but against seriously inferior competition. LSU's Arden Key may be the most talented pass-rusher available, but he left the team last spring, leading to questions about his commitment to the sport. Boston College's Harold Landry looked like a top-15 pick before last season, but he was slowed by injury in 2017, his production fell, and now so has his draft stock. Maybe the Patriots can find a physically-gifted edge-setter or pass-rusher in the middle rounds -  as they did with Flowers in 2015 - but there doesn't seem to be a ton of certainty at the top of the class here.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Because the Patriots are well-stocked with young players at this spot - Flowers, Rivers, Wise and Langi will all be 25 or younger when the 2018 season begins - snagging a reliable veteran for the rotation might be the best course of action. Would Barwin be willing to jump coasts after a year with the Rams in order to join the Patriots while Belichick's 20-somethings grow as professionals? What about Peppers? Could the Patriots coax him to leave Carolina for a one-year deal? He hasn't missed a game in 10 years, and he's missed just six total in his career. Maybe Belichick and Nick Caserio will be willing to go big here and shell out long-term dough to make sure they have both edges locked down for the foreseeable future. But with other needs to fill, and with myriad options already on the roster, it wouldn't be surprising if the team stood pat. It really all depends on how they view their youngsters. If they believe, there's little use in spending on, say, Lawrence or Ansah. If they don't, then there could be a splash coming. 

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McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

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McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

Devin McCourty said immediately after Super Bowl LII that players knew Malcolm Butler's role had changed. Two weeks later, that story hasn't changed.

After falling to the Eagles, 41-33, and while making his way from his media availability period to the Patriots buses, McCourty said he and his teammates weren't surprised that Butler's workload had been scaled back for the final game of the season. 

His explanation made it difficult to understand, though, why other players were so surprised to see that Butler wasn't a part of the defensive game plan. The corner who started in Butler's place, Eric Rowe, said he didn't know until right before kickoff that he'd be on the field instead of Butler. 

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McCourty reiterated his point when asked about the situation during a recent event to benefit Tackle Sickle Cell, founded by McCourty and his twin brother Jason to help families dealing with sickle cell disease.

"As far as I know, all of that is the furthest thing from the truth," McCourty told NJ Advance Media when asked if Butler's benching was disciplinary in nature. "We all knew he wasn't starting all week. That wasn't a secret to the guys on the team.

"I get why people are fishing. The guy played 98 percent of the plays. I just hate that for him character-wise going into free agency. It's just not true. As far as I know -- and I was there all week -- not one time did anything come up."

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Butler took to social media in the days following the loss to dispel any rumors that he was being punished by Belichick and the rest of the coaching staff. He pointed out that he had not attended any concerts during the week, as had been theorized online, and that he spent his free time with family. 

"It sucked for him," McCourty said. "He put a lot of time and effort in. However it falls, the last thing you want to do is not play a snap. To me, the worst part was to see all that (anonymous) stuff come out after."

McCourty called Butler a "great teammte" and appreciated the way Butler grew as a player during his four years in New England. 

"It's been great to watch him develop," McCourty said of Butler. "To watch him, maybe, be late one day his rookie year, and say, 'Hey Malc, you can't do that.' And then becoming a guy you can count on who is very dependable.

"If he decides it's hard to come back after that, anywhere he goes, the guy is a great football player and probably one of the most competitive people I've been around. With all my guys, we're teammates and friends for life."

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