Elandon Roberts

Pats linebacker group needs serious improvements

Pats linebacker group needs serious improvements

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 spot that positively needs to be better in 2018. Will the linebacker group get better with players returning from injury or is an influx of talent needed.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

 

HOW THEY PERFORMED

Disappointingly. Early in the season, they ineffectiveness at linebacker and in the secondary led to ex-defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and head coach Bill Belichick opting to slide Donta Hightower back from the edge to a linebacker spot. The group, which had already lost another LB/Edge hybrid in Shea McClellin, enjoyed Hightower’s presence for just five games. Communication improved. Busts ceased. It was the way it was supposed to look. Then Hightower got hurt.  A sprained knee kept him out of two; a torn pec suffered against the Falcons ended his season on October 25. That left the team with just one multifaceted linebacker – Kyle Van Noy. And he played really well. He missed three games with a calf injury but he finished with 58 tackles and he was – by the end of the season – seeming to understand the nuance of the Patriots defense and doing what Jerod Mayo stresses over and over: getting everyone on the same page. Elandon Roberts was a disappointment in his second season. He’s a below-average NFL linebacker whose physical limitations are mitigated somewhat by want-to and motor, but he’s a problem (the 69th ranked linebacker in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus). The Patriots got zero from David Harris. Marquis Flowers is a low-budget box safety/linebacker who’s got good athletic attributes but – after being acquired at the end of training camp – found himself with way more on his plate than belonged there. He had his moments of competency but also got lit up in the Super Bowl. Nicholas Grigsby is a special teams guy.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018

Van Noy, Harris, Roberts, Grigsby, Hightower, McClellin.

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED

The need is dictated in part by the scheme and since the scheme is always hard to pin down and there is a new defensive coordinator taking over (presuming Brian Flores) it becomes that much more difficult. But let’s look at it from above. Hightower’s injury issues aren’t going to diminish. Roberts’ limitations in coverage and his pedestrian ability against the run are what they are. Van Noy is fine to good. The team needs a thumper that’s better than Roberts and younger than Harris, especially after we watched the way the Eagles walk through tacklers in space in the Super Bowl (when the front-seven can build a wall as they did vs. the Titans and Jags, they are fine). They also need to start shopping for a suitable box-safety linebacker to replace Patrick Chung because the robotic and uninstinctive Jordan Richards ain’t cutting it. If Van Noy, Hightower, McClellin and Roberts stay healthy all season, terrific. Good linebacker group. But what are the odds? Slim, right? Other positions are higher needs right now, but this is a top-four need area.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY

The team had interest in Navarro Bowman when he left the Niners but Bowman signed in Oakland. He’s a helluva ‘backer and showed it with the Raiders. A crusher against the run. The Titans’ Avery Williamson is just 6-1, 240 – shorter than New England likes – but he’s 25, smart and productive (92 tackles in 2017 including nine vs. Patriots). Washington’s Zach Brown is also up after one productive season with Washington but he’s probably going to be seeking significant dough. There’s no real need to hire an old lion like Paul Posluszny to come in and be a two-down addition, especially early in free agency. They are useful, no doubt, but wouldn’t be cost effective. Expect them to re-sign Flowers and continue to groom him. There is upside there. The draft seems a wiser place to forage.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT

When Bill Belichick described Patrick Chung as one of the best players in football it was because of the myriad things he can do. He can get down in the box and work against the running game. He can cover slot receivers. He’s a clampdown guy on tight ends. He doesn’t play like he’s 205, he plays like he’s 220. A player like Chung or, even better, Atlanta’s Deion Jones feels like the prototype for the position. Until offenses pivot and start running RPO with 250-pound nimble backs who run through arms at the second level. Given the Patriots are in five and six-defensive back sets so often, the hybrid backers could be the direction they go. So consider Iowa’s Josey Jewell, who’ll be available after Round 1. Or Leighton Vander Esch from Boise State, also a mid-round guy with massive upside. Jewell is a 6-1, 230-pounder. Vander Esch is 6-4, 240. There’s a lot of variation in their games. If the Patriots want to go early, Alabama’s Rashaan Evans is a linebacker-level Chung in terms of being on attack mode.

HOW THE PATRIOTS CAN ADDRESS IT

The best and most productive linebackers the Patriots have had since 2008 were Jerod Mayo and Donta Hightower. Not coincidentally, they were first-round picks. The Patriots need to spend draft capital on smart, disciplined players with great measurables and leadership. Enough with the projects and projections (i.e. Jamie Collins, who was a brilliant player but got jettisoned because he bristled at his role). Those guys are had in the first round. Unfortunately, the tackle position which begged addressing last draft was nickel-and-dimed with the selection of Antonio Garcia in the third round and he spent the year on IR with an illness. Tight end, quarterback and corner also loom as areas that need early addressing. You can’t wait for talent at those positions, you have to go and get it in the draft or target a player in free agency who isn’t a special teamer with upside and smarts. The day is coming when the luxury of Tom Brady hanging 30 every Sunday is gone. Finding a bigger, better Chung (or a smaller, faster Hightower) should be an offseason priority. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?

patriots-afccg-storylines-12018.jpg

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. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE