Trey 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. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

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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Christmas comes early for Marquis Flowers, sack-happy Patriots

Christmas comes early for Marquis Flowers, sack-happy Patriots

FOXBORO -- Marquis Flowers thought he was gypped. Back in Week 12, he was in the Dolphins backfield with Trey Flowers, converging on quarterback Matt Moore for a sack. Yet when the official stats came down, the fourth-year linebacker was still sitting on a nice round zero for his career. Trey was the one who got full credit.

Four weeks later, Marquis filled that column and then some by recording 2.5 sacks to lead the Patriots defense as it stifled Tyrod Taylor and the Bills in a 37-16 victory.

PATRIOTS 37, BILLS 16

"They kind of played me when Miami was here and me and Trey sacked [Moore]," Flowers said with a smile. "I'm not going to let them live that down. That was really the first one. But I'm just happy we got the play."

Any time the Patriots have played Taylor, part of their plan has been to keep him in the pocket. He's more dangerous outside than in, the thinking has gone. But on Sunday, Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia added a layer of protection against Taylor's running ability by mirroring him with an athletic defender at the second level.

With Kyle Van Noy out for the third consecutive week, Marquis Flowers -- primarily a special teamer since arriving to the Patriots in a trade with the Bengals just before the start of the season -- was the choice to spy. 

Flowers' first sack came on a fourth-and-two play near the Patriots goal line when Taylor was chased from the pocket thanks to a tackle-end stunt run by the Flowers boys. Trey was freed up by Marquis' rush, and the pressure up the middle chased Taylor from the pocket. Marquis finally tracked down Taylor for the sack near the Patriots bench, which created a turnover on downs.

On his second sack, Flowers looked more like a true spy. Behind the Patriots front, he waited for Taylor to make his move late in the second quarter. As Taylor felt pressure from Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise on the edges, he broke for it, but Flowers was there to get him by his ankles. 

On his third, which he split with Wise, Marquis Flowers spied Taylor again. 

"That was one of the game plans," Trey Flowers said. "Just have somebody if [Taylor] does get out, being able to run him down, cut him off, and don't let him do too much damage. We had guys on the inside that were aggressive pushing him out, pushing the pocket on him. Once he got back there and was looking at the rush, then we could get off and make a play."

Belichick often talks about the complementary defense, and what the Patriots did against the Bills -- rushing Taylor and keeping the Buffalo offense out of the end zone for the entirety of the afternoon -- was a prime example. If players like Malcom Brown (one sack, one hurry) and Lawrence Guy (one hit, three hurries) could get a push up the middle, that would collapse the pocket. A collapsing pocket would help aggressive-yet-disciplined edge rushers because Taylor would become more of a stationary target. And if Taylor did somehow find a way to break free, someone like Marquis Flowers was waiting for him.

"Coaches trust in me," Marquis Flowers said. "When the coaches trust in you, obviously there's something you can do. Here they don't put you in position if they don't think you can do it. Coaches believe in me. Teammates trust in me, believe in me. So I believe. I want to help them. It's about trust and it's about going out there and executing what the coaches needed done."

Flowers played a career-high 55 snaps against the Bills, and according to Pro Football Focus, the athletic 6-foot-3, 250-pounder led the team with five total pressures. 

"We had a lot of fast players on the field to chase Taylor," Belichick said after the game. "I thought they did a pretty good job of containing him. He’s a hard guy to handle. So is McCoy, but I thought some of our faster players, our overall team speed at times, was good enough to keep them from getting too far away from us."

The Patriots had 10 different players who created some kind of pressure, including safeties Patrick Chung (one hit) and Devin McCourty (one hurry) and corner Malcolm Butler (strip sack). Per PFF, Taylor was pressured on  a whopping 22 of his 46 dropbacks. 

"If one guy missed, we had another guy coming, just surrounding him as much as possible when he did try to escape the pocket," McCourty said. "So, that was just great because it was a total team effort. It wasn’t like we had one guy to spy on him or something all game to stop him. It was just a group of guys just making sure."

"This week our goal was to close the pocket down. Crush the pocket. Keep him in the pocket," said Wise, who was in on a pair of sacks and noted that speed-to-power rushes were a critical component of the plan. 

"That was kind of our mindset going into the game. Then it started to unravel with the sacks. First sack, second sack, third sack, and it kind of got contagious . . . Everyone [said], 'This is working.' The sacks started coming and he started panicking."

And for Marquis Flowers, who waited longer than he thought he might for sack No. 1, that meant Christmas came a little early. 

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Patriots will be without Kyle Van Noy for showdown against Steelers

patriots_kyle_van_noy_111917.jpg

Patriots will be without Kyle Van Noy for showdown against Steelers

The Patriots' defense won't be at full strength Sunday as linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who's been battling a calf injury for weeks, is ruled out against the Steelers:

And NBC Sports Boston's Mike Giardi wonders if it could have been avoided:

And what will it mean this afternoon? Giardi has an idea:

There is some good injury news for the Patriots, however:

As for the Steelers, they're getting nothing but good news: