Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Edge defenders
Living on the edge
By Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry
This is the fifth in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots by Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry as we head into the offseason. Today's position: Edge defenders
Jabaal Sheard, 26, (signed through 2016)
Chandler Jones, 25, (2016)
Rob Ninkovich, 32, (2016)
Trey Flowers, 22, (2018)
Rufus Johnson, 25, (2015)
Interesting decisions loom for a group of edge defenders that were very productive in 2015. Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich combined for 26.5 sacks with Jones racking up 12.5. All three are up at the end of next season and the Patriots will have to approach each player differently while also weighing how decisions to re-sign or untether will impact the group’s production and the Patriots cash outlay to their defense as a whole. Start with Jones, who’s 25. He’s an upper-tier player at the position and his work compares favorably to that of the Saints’ Cam Jordan who last year signed a five-year, $55M extension. His end-of-season weirdness that wound up with him being admitted to the hospital does more than raise an eyebrow and is cause for concern going forward but it doesn’t make him radioactive. It’s cause for pause, though. As is his production which seems to fade in and out. If he wants top-of-market money and Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Malcolm Butler do as well, somebody’s going to get left out in that mix. Then there’s Sheard. He was probably the most consistently outstanding of the three edge guys even though a high ankle sprain compromised his season. After languishing in Cleveland and then joining the Patriots, does he feel at home and comfortable and willing to re-sign for a length of time or will he want to test the market? Ninkovich is 32. He’s still durable, smart and productive and should stay that way for – guessing here – another three seasons. But the Patriots put a lot of wear on his tires the past four years when he played as much as any defender in the NFL. Flowers basically had a redshirt season after injuring his shoulder during the preseason and being placed on after appearing in just one regular-season game. A fourth-rounder from Arkansas, how he performs in 2016 will help dictate which direction the Patriots go with the other guys. The same goes for Rufus Johnson and the versatile Geneo Grissom, who we talked about with the interior defensive linemen but can probably play on the edge enough as well to enter into roster conversations at end. So – as with many other spots on the defense – the Patriots are in really good position thanks to recent drafting and signings, but business looms.
The Patriots have set themselves up nicely here. After the safety position, which we covered last week, this may be the team's deepest group. With Ninkovich, Jones, Sheard, Grissom (who can also play on the interior), Flowers and Johnson, there is a nice melange of leadership, proven experience, players in their primes and players promise who could eventually work their way up the depth chart. In the short-term there's little that needs to be adjusted. What's more interesting is how they'll set themselves up for the next handful of years. It's something they could do as early as this offseason. Grissom and Flowers are under contract through 2018, and it remains to be seen just how much they improve from Year 1 to Year 2. Grissom may be one of the best athletes on the team when you take into account his size and speed. He became a significant special teams contributor as a rookie because he was a matchup problem in the kicking game. Flowers looked like the more polished of the two rookie linemen in training camp, but he ran into injury issues that forced him to be shut down after participating in just one regular-season game. How they use their offseason could go a long way in how this position group looks down the line. If they pan out, drafting both players in 2015 could prove a shrewd move by Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio since, at the moment, the Patriots could be without any (or all) of their top-three edge guys after next season when they're scheduled to become free agents. Jones has received the majority of media attention of late due to his sack totals -- 36 in four seasons; career-high 12.5 last season -- and his pedigree as a first-round pick in 2012. He has been vital to what the Patriots do defensively, but there's an argument to be made that Sheard should be the first end extended. Per PFF's pass-rush productivity statistic -- which takes into account sacks, hits and hurries as well as the number of passing snaps a defensive player sees -- Sheard was actually the top 4-3 end in the league. Sheard doesn't have the length that Jones has. And he has just 31 career sacks with the advantage of a full season's worth of games over Jones. Sheard, on average, has been used less frequently than Jones, but he's been a little more durable, missing just six games in his five-year career while Jones has missed nine in four years. He should be the more cost-effective option, and after one season in the Patriots system, it's clear he's a good fit who could potentially improve upon his performance if given a bigger role as one of the team's top two ends. Last year he was used more as a No. 3 option (566 total snaps), helping to spell both Ninkovich (905) and Jones (880). Locking up Sheard early could also provide the Patriots with a bit of insurance should Jones make it to free agency, where he'll find big-money offers if he can put together a strong fifth season.