Patriots

Patriots-Chargers an opportunity to end Adrian Clayborn's game-day exile?

Patriots-Chargers an opportunity to end Adrian Clayborn's game-day exile?

FOXBORO -- When I caught up with Adrian Clayborn in the Patriots locker room just before players took off for a three-day break during their bye week, he was in good spirits. He was looking forward to being able to show what he can do when the playoffs rolled around.

It's not that often you get to the postseason, he said.

"Well," he corrected himself, remembering where he was. "It is for these guys."

Clayborn isn't exactly hitting the Divisional Round with much momentum. Quite the opposite. He was a healthy scratch each of the final two weeks of the regular season.

Why?

He shrugged when I asked him if there was anything, in particular, he'd been told he needed to do in order to wind up in uniform on game days. Those final two games of the regular season are the only two he missed in 2018.

Whether he didn't know or wasn't willing to share the reasons for why he didn't play, his production provides us with a relatively clear explanation. He's recorded one tackle in his past five games. He does not have a sack in that span, though according to Pro Football Focus he has eight quarterback hurries and two quarterback hits.

The Patriots gave Clayborn a two-year deal worth $10 million with $5.5M guaranteed in the offseason. He has 2.5 sacks this year, which is fifth on the team, one half-sack ahead of John Simon, who was signed in late September. He's made 11 tackles.

Put the tackle number aside for a moment because Clayborn's role in New England isn't as a first or second-down edge-setter. He's a sub rusher. He's supposed to get after the quarterback.

But as a pass-rusher, at times it's seemed as though Clayborn has not been able to leave his days in Atlanta behind him. The Falcons aren't a two-gap scheme like the Patriots. Rushers there are encouraged to get up the field with speed. With the Patriots, those types of pass-rush reps can get you benched, as they open up running lanes for quarterbacks to extend plays or worse.

Just before the Patriots beat the Packers in Week 9, I spoke with defensive line coach Brendan Daly about Clayborn's progress adapting to a new scheme.

"Of all the guys we've had come in over the years from other places, that transition is always difficult. It's never easy," Daly said. "Particularly for veteran guys that have been at other places. For whatever reason it may be. It's never easy.

"I would say he's done as good a job as anybody we've had in making that transition. He is a high-character guy. He's willing to do whatever it is he's asked to do. He jumps in. He asks great questions. He's been a lot of fun to have."

When it came to getting up the field -- even behind the QB at times, a cardinal sin in the Patriots defense -- Daly said he felt as though Clayborn was improving.

"There's definitely been progress there with him," Daly explained. "Defensive linemen, inherently, they don't want any line of scrimmage communication. They want to be able to put their hand down on the ground, pin their ears back and come off the ball as fast as they possibly can and run around the edge to get to the quarterback. That's what they want to do. 

"It's great when it works out. That's good. Great. There's a little more to playing the position than that. Some teams have a philosophy of that's how they play. Not that that's right or wrong. It's different. I'd say he's done a very good job of working through that."

That Packers game ended up being Clayborn's best of the season, arguably. The Patriots employed their "crush rush" style of pass rush to keep Aaron Rodgers in the pocket, and it worked. Even on the few occasions when Rodgers got outside, Clayborn was among those hustling after him and limiting the QB's time to throw. Clayborn finished with a sack and three hurries. 

Since then, he's been relatively silent. Clayborn played just nine snaps the following week when the Titans played with a lead and weren't in many obvious passing situations. And his two quarterback hits from that point on have come over the course of 87 snaps. 

In terms of overall quarterback pressures, Clayborn is still second on the team behind only Trey Flowers, per Pro Football Focus. And against the Chargers this weekend, the Patriots could use an aggressive rusher, particularly since Philip Rivers is not a real threat to break the pocket and churn out yardage with his legs. 

But Clayborn will have to earn his game-day reps after ceding work to defensive ends Derek Rivers (one sack, two hurries in 16 snaps in Week 17) and Ufomba Kamalu (two hurries in 21 snaps in Weeks 16 and 17). Helping those players get playing time over Clayborn is the fact that both have the ability to contribute in the kicking game, whereas Clayborn has not been a special teams option. 

There is some recent precedent here when it comes to the Patriots sitting one of their more highly-paid defensive ends for back-to-back weeks. 

Back in 2016, Jabaal Sheard was benched early in Week 10, playing only 16 snaps after seeing 56 the week prior. In Week 11, he was a healthy scratch, and the Patriots didn't bring him on their trip to San Francisco.

When Sheard returned he didn't reclaim the role he'd had at times previously, never cracking 40 snaps in a game. But he did have a role. He played 23 of 49 snaps in that season's Super Bowl and played well. Sheard wasn't brought back in free agency the following offseason, but since signing with the Colts, he's been one of Indy's most consistent front-seven defenders. 

The Sheard-to-Clayborn comparison isn't perfect because Clayborn's role is a niche one while Sheard was trusted in a wider number of situations by Bill Belichick and the Patriots staff. Plus, Sheard's benching came mid-season, giving him time to earn postseason playing time, whereas Clayborn's time off has come when the Pats want to be playing their best football. 

Still, it's the best and most recent example of a veteran player at that position being benched and coming back to contribute. There's a chance Clayborn's benching could have a similar impact, sparking better play in his first win-or-go-home game as a member of the Patriots. There's a chance it won't.

When I spoke to him last week, he vowed to continue to prepare the way he has all season and let the rest work itself out. The question is...Is that enough?

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Six Patriots draft questions that need answering

Six Patriots draft questions that need answering

Big draft? Big draft.

The Patriots have significant restocking to do this year. They lost their left tackle, their best front-seven player and a Hall of Fame tight end since the Super Bowl ended. They have a very experienced secondary that’s on the edge of aging. There’s no Tom Brady successor in the house. Their wide receiver group is Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett and a whole lot of hope for the recovery of Demaryius Thomas and stability of Josh Gordon. We’ll learn some stuff beginning Thursday. Here are six questions that will start getting answered then.

HOW LONG WILL WE HAVE TO WAIT?

I bet I can convince you the Patriots should trade up in this draft. Watch. They drafted 12 players last year and they have another 12 picks this year. They don’t have room on the roster for a couple dozen new players, nor do they have a fleet of experienced coaches to easily indoctrinate them. Moving up a little makes a difference.

First-round picks inside the top 25 yielded Isaiah Wynn (23), Chandler Jones (21), Dont'a Hightower (25) and Nate Solder (17) in the past 10 drafts. Outside, the Patriots have gotten Devin McCourty (27), Dominique Easley (29), Malcom Brown (32) and Sony Michel (31). The higher you go, the better the player.

But with the talent dropoff perceived to be after the first dozen players, the difference between the 15th pick and the 50th pick is said to be negligible. But it’s in the Patriots' nature to drop down and add picks. It gives them options and room to move. If there’s no pick made by the Patriots on Thursday, expect a wild night of trades on Friday.

Unless the wild trade comes on Thursday and the Patriots bring in Josh Rosen.

WILL THEY HAVE 2020 VISION?

If the Patriots do deal out of the first round, their preference almost certainly would be trading into next year. If they can get a team to send them a first-rounder for next April when the quarterback crop is expected to be much better with Tua Tagovailoa (Bama), Justin Herbert (Oregon) and Jake Fromm (Georgia), the Patriots would then have multiple first-rounders.

That kind of caché will give them more latitude when it’s time to replace the ageless wonder.

ANY LOVE FOR THE OFFENSE?

The Patriots have used their first selection on defense in 10 of the past 12 drafts. The only time they didn’t go defense, they selected offensive tackles (Nate Solder, 2011; Isaiah Wynn, 2018). Tight end is an obvious need spot but the best two, Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, are expected to be gone by 32 and Alabama’s Irv Smith is regarded as a borderline first-rounder.

The top wideouts - A.J. Brown, Marquise Brown, Parris Campbell, D.K. Metcalf and Deebo Samuel - are varied talents and all fall in the 20 to 40 range. I truly wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots went wideout in the first round and if Campbell is the pick.

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DO THEY SEE A CHUNG SUCCESSOR?

Patrick Chung is 31 and this will be his 11th season. To do what he’s done – especially in the last five seasons – at the level he’s done it for as long as he’s done it is remarkable. He’s one of the most underrated players of the Patriots’ great run.

And it’s time to get serious about finding another player like him. As a guy who could cover deep, play in the box, play in the slot and contribute on special teams, Chung was actually a little ahead of his time. Now, every team needs a safety/linebacker/corner like him and teams are trying to get them.

Mississippi State’s Johnathan Abraham and Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson are two players who can bring Chung-like sensibilities. They are top-40 players.

WHAT’S THE LEVEL OF QUARTERBACK SERIOUSNESS?

The Patriots made it through 2018 with Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling as Tom Brady’s backups. That’s got to be one of the shakiest setups in the league. Meanwhile, two years earlier, the Patriots had arguably the best setup in the league with Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett.

Will the Patriots go into this draft looking for a Brady successor or a caddy for Hoyer? Unless Etling had an absolutely remarkable season of practices and an incredible offseason, the player we saw come out of LSU last April and play during training camp didn’t scream NFL potential. Expect the Patriots to draft somebody at the position in the first three rounds — and if they make a move up to go and get someone, that’s an indicator they aren’t just bringing in an arm because they should but are hoping he can be the No. 2 and maybe develop into an eventual starter. Say, Ryan Finley from N.C. State.

HOW ABOUT A BIG-PROGRAM WIDEOUT?

The Patriots have drafted wide receivers from such far-flung programs as Marshall (Aaron Dobson, 2nd round, 2013), TCU (Josh Boyce, 4th round, 2013), Ohio University (Taylor Price, 3rd round, 2009) and North Carolina (Brandon Tate, 3rd round, 2008).

Yes, Malcolm Mitchell was from Georgia and Chad Jackson was a second-rounder from Florida in 2006, but the Patriots are more prone to try and unearth a find at a mid-major than to take a wide receiver from a high-profile program. And how often is that going to work out?

Julian Edelman? OK, fine. Whatever.

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NC State QB: Learning from Tom Brady, Patriots would be 'dream come true'

NC State QB: Learning from Tom Brady, Patriots would be 'dream come true'

There's no better quarterback to learn from than New England Patriots star Tom Brady, and one lucky QB in the 2019 NFL Draft could be fortunate enough to get that opportunity.

The Patriots enter the 2019 NFL Draft with several different positional needs, most notably tight end, offensive and defensive lines, as well as wide receiver. Another area that could be addressed is quarterback. The Patriots still don't have a real successor to Brady, who despite coming off his sixth Super Bowl victory is still 41 years old. 

One potential fit for the Patriots in the middle rounds is North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley, who was recently asked on NFL Network what it would be like to be drafted by New England. It's safe to say he'd be pretty happy with that outcome.

"Obviously, that would be a dream come true for me, going and just being able to learn from Tom Brady and just being able to have somebody of that caliber mentor you," Finley said. "I think that's what all of us quarterbacks are looking for. Just a great situation to learn and continue to grow as players. Obviously, learning from Tom and a number of other guys in the league would be really a blessing."

Finley completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 3,928 yards with 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a senior for the Wolfpack last season. 

NFL.com projects Finley as a third-round pick. The Patriots have three third-round selections (Nos. 73, 97 and 101), so it wouldn't hurt to take a chance on a quarterback at that stage of the draft.

The Patriots reportedly held visits with a few other quarterbacks in the 2019 draft class, including West Virginia's Will Grier and Duke's Daniel Jones.

Click here for our final 2019 Patriots mock draft roundup>>>

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