FOXBORO -- Throughout training camp, the Patriots have altered the the personnel in their defensive front seven. The changes have come from week to week, practice to practice, and sometimes snap to snap.
How the team has used its end-of-the-line players has been particularly interesting.
This is the first season in which coach Bill Belichick and his staff have had Jabaal Sheard at their disposal, and the former Browns thumper has flashed as one of the team's most consistent defenders in the preseason. Whether Sheard has been rushing the passer or setting the edge against the run, he has proven to be an explosive athlete who understands his role in the defense.
The Patriots already had two accomplished and dependable defensive ends -- Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones -- going into this offseason, but Sheard's acquisition as a free agent back in March suddenly allowed the team's front seven group to be much more malleable.
Not only will Sheard be used to spell Ninkovich and Jones, who in recent years have rarely left the field when healthy. He'll also be used to complement them.
Belichick explained on Tuesday how using all three players have similar, but not identical, skill sets.
"They’re all a little bit the same – the position they play at the end of the line – but then they’re all a little bit different because they can do other things besides that," Belichick said. "That gives them added value. It also gives our defense a little bit more versatility, whether that is moving to inside positions or whether it’s moving to off-the-line or outside positions."
All three players have been used as outside linebackers this preseason, being asked to cover receiving options in the passing game at times. But that's not the extent of their versatility.
Throughout his career, Jones has been used as an interior pass-rusher in certain situations. Meanwhile Rob Ninkovich has seen time as an off-the-line linebacker. Belichick was sure to highlight Ninkovich's ability to long-snap as well. (The 10-year veteran served as the team's snapper during a regular-season game in Green Bay last season.)
"It’s great to be good at one thing," Belichick said. "It’s also great to have flexibility and versatility from those players who can help us in other areas. It’s hard to play three guys on the end of the line when you only have two ends of the line, so finding something for that third guy where you have potential to have all three of them on the field at the same time or more -- which I’d say there have been cases where we’ve had multiple defensive-end types, if you will, doing different things -- then that can create some flexibility and I think change the look for the offense a little bit, too, with the type of athletes that those guys are."
Indeed, in certain moments, the Patriots have run out packages with defensive lines that solely consist of defensive-end types. For example, Jones, Ninkovich, Sheard and fourth-round rookie Trey Flowers were grouped together at one point during training camp, giving the defense a lighter front featuring players with the ability to penetrate.
For a defense that will shift often depending on the situation and the day's game plan, having players like Sheard, Ninkovich and Jones gives Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia a potpourri of options in the front seven.
"We try to build our repertoire with them – try to build a wide base so we can use them in different ways, so they can have more value to the team but also give our team some more flexibility," Belichick said. "That’s been a good position for us. [Mike] Vrabel was in that category, certainly. Rob has fallen into that category, [Willie] McGinest. Guys who have played that spot have been able to do, in some cases, quite a few things for us, and that’s been helpful."