Patriots

Long skill set accentuated in Philly, now has a shot at ring No. 2

Long skill set accentuated in Philly, now has a shot at ring No. 2

FOXBORO -- Chris Long handled his responsibilities without a peep. It might not have been the best way to use his skill set, in his eyes, but it was what Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia wanted him to do. So, he did it. And in Super Bowl LI he drew a fourth-quarter holding penalty that helped him earn his first Super Bowl ring.

Last season in New England, Long was asked to play more on the inside despite being more accustomed to aligning wide. He often played as a five-technique with the Patriots, which means he was asked to play head-up on opposing offensive tackles. And because the Patriots typically ask their linemen to two-gap and focus on stopping the run, Long wasn't able to pin his ears back in quite the same way he did in St. Louis.

"At the end of the day, I wanted to get back to playing football the way I played for a long time," Long said at a press conference after joining the Eagles last offseason. "It was a blessing to be a part of the Patriots last year, but I wanted to be in a situation where I can prove myself all over again."

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He added: "We played a lot of nine technique, seven technique [with the Rams]. It was definitely closer to what we do here. I fit in well. For me, the No. 1 thing going into free agency was to find a good football fit. Schematically, this is a fit for my skill set."

Now, with a full season in Philly under his belt, it's hard to argue with the choice Long made. Playing in the Eagles rotation on the defensive line, Long finished the year with five sacks, four forced fumbles, 18 quarterback hits and 38 hurries, per Pro Football Focus. 

Even Belichick, who could've used some edge help this season, didn't blame Long for choosing Philadelphia as a free agent. 

"Yeah, I think his defensive role is similar to what it was when was with the Rams," Belichick said. "Chris has a lot of good skills, but his overall skill set and experience is probably more in -- it definitely is more in the system that he’s in than it was in our system, which is closer to the system that he played in with the Rams.

"He did a great job for us. Look, there was no better teammate or guy that tried to embrace the program than Chris, but in the end, he probably has a better fit there for his skills and for this point in his career than maybe we had for him. I understand that. He probably made a good decision. He probably did."

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Unfortunately for Belichick, now he has to prepare for Long, who is coming off an impressive performance against the Vikings with two quarterback hits and five hurries. That Long makes up the deepest defensive line group the Patriots will see this season, makes the challenge all the more difficult. 

Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Timmy Jernigan, Derek Barnett, Beau Allen and Brandon Graham will rotate in and out, providing the Patriots a steady dose disruptive players with relatively fresh legs. Even if only four are on the field at any one time, their front-four is more of an octet.

"Yeah, it’s a lot more than four," Belichick said. "I wish it was just four. Yeah, it’s about eight, nine. It’s a very disruptive group. They’re hard to run against, hard to throw against. Again, they’re well coached, very instinctive. Screens and plays like that that you think will take the edge off the pass rush don’t look as good. When you run them they don’t look as good as what you think they’re going to look like . . .

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"A lot of times they blow those plays up, too. They do a good job. They’ve got a lot of good players. They have good inside rushers. They have good outside rushers."

And even though that wasn't exactly Long's full-time role in New England, Belichick is fully aware that his former five-technique is among the latter. 

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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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With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

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 the position group that received more attention than any other during Super Bowl 52: Cornerback. 

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HOW THEY PERFORMED


No single position group experienced as many dips, climbs and dives as Patriots corners did during their rollercoaster season. In September alone, the communication was a mess, Malcolm Butler got benched, Stephon Gilmore got benched, and Eric Rowe suffered a serious groin injury that allowed Gilmore to quickly get his job back. Second-year special teams standout Jonathan Jones might've been the team's best cover man at that juncture. Then, as soon as Gilmore started to find his footing, he was diagnosed with a concussion. The group started to put it together in the second half with solid performances against the Raiders in Mexico City and the Bills in Buffalo. Gilmore was particularly strong as the season wore on, showing the man-to-man cover skills and the knack for getting his hands on footballs that made him one of the highest-paid players at his position last offseason. But in the end, in the Super Bowl, with Butler benched again, the group (outside of Gilmore, who played well against Philly) had too many letdowns in what was arguably the team's worst defensive performance of the season.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Gilmore, Rowe, Jones, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz

WHO ISN'T?
Butler, Johnson Bademosi

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?

The Patriots played Rowe in prominent roles in each of the past two Super Bowls and he seems to be first in line to take over No. 2 duties with Butler certainly headed on to a new chapter in his career. Jonathan Jones showed in spurts that he could be an effective slot corner, but he suffered a season-ending injury in the Divisional Round and it's unclear what the Patriots will be expecting from him in 2018. Cyrus Jones is coming off of a torn ACL, and even before his injury, it looked like he may have a hard time cracking the regular rotation. This is one position -  like tackle  - that the Patriots don't want to be left thin. If we had to rank it, the need for another capable body would probably come in at about a 7 out of 10. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There are a handful of relatively big names who will be on the market come March, including Butler. Trumaine Johnson of the Rams figures to be at the top of the class. Vontae Davis of the Colts is 29 and often injured, but in a corner-needy league, he shouldn't have much trouble finding a team. EJ Gains of the Bills could leverage his inside-out versatility to come away with a deal worth almost $10 million per year. Aaron Colvin of the Jaguars, Patrick Robinson of the Eagles, Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams and Leonard Johnson of the Bills give teams in need of slot help some options. Kyle Fuller of the Bears and Morris Claiborne of the Jets are two former first-rounders who've had up-and-down careers but showed last season they have still value on the outside. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?

It feels like the best athletes at the high school and college levels are getting smarter. Or their coaches are. Once again, there's a deep group of athletes peppering the incoming draft class at corner, which is, of course, one of the highest-paying positions in football. (Why so many top-tier athletes are still playing running back, on the other hand, is beyond me.) Alabama's hybrid star in the secondary Minkah Fitzpatrick will be long gone by the time the Patriots pick. Same goes for Ohio State's undersized burner Denzel Ward and Iowa's ball-hawking 6-foot-1 cover man Josh Jackson, in all likelihood. At the bottom of the first round, though, players like Auburn's Carlton Davis (who has drawn comparisons to Richard Sherman because of his length and ball skills) and Colorado's Isaiah Oliver (a one-time Pac-12 decathlete with a 6-foot-1 frame) could be available. Would the Patriots want to invest a first-round pick at that spot? If they feel like they have good depth at the position already on the roster but want to take a flier on a mid-round selection, they could hope Louisville's Jaire Alexander (who dealt with injuries in 2017 that will probably hurt his draft stock) lasts into the third round. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


One name that's sort of intriguing on the free-agency market is Davis'. You've heard tales similar players ending up in New England before. He's spent the majority of his career without much of a shot at a title - though his Colts made the AFC Championship Game in the 2014 season. He should be low-cost. He had season-ending groin surgery last year, was released in November and went unclaimed. He'll be 30 before the start of next season, but he may be worth a roll of the dice to help a relatively young Patriots secondary. If he doesn't pan out, no harm done. Hard to envision Belichick and Nick Caserio investing big money into this position with Gilmore on the roster, but maybe they'll deem one of the free-agent slot options worth a shot if he's cost-effective. Otherwise, the Patriots may try to take advantage of a draft that seems - at least right now - as if it's deeper at corner than it is at some other spots on the defensive side of the ball, like on the edge.

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