Patriots

Patriots Roster Reset: Defensive line needs Beau Allen to make immediate impact

Patriots Roster Reset: Defensive line needs Beau Allen to make immediate impact

Stop the run, have some fun. It's an old football cliché bellowed by defensive linemen across the NFL on a weekly basis that means pass-rush opportunities are coming if they can do their jobs on early downs. 

The Patriots did that well enough last year for large chunks of the 2019 season. They finished sixth in the league in average rush yards allowed per game (95.5), and they were 14th in the NFL in yards allowed per carry (4.2).

Then, despite not having a player with more than 7.0 sacks, they finished seventh in the NFL in team sacks and had the best third-down defense in football, allowing only 24.1 percent conversions. 

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Yet in two of their biggest games of the season, against ground-and-pound offenses, the Patriots slipped against the run. They allowed 210 yards rushing to eventual league MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens rushing attack in a 37-20 loss on the road that looked like it would help determine AFC playoff seeding. Then in the Wild Card Round, the Patriots gave up just 14 points, but they allowed 201 yards to Derrick Henry and the Titans on 5.0 yards per carry.

Ahead of the 2020 draft, it wasn't unreasonable to wonder whether or not the Patriots would add some bulk up front to defend teams like the Ravens and Titans — both of whom will continue to rely on strong running games and look like legitimate contenders for AFC supremacy in the years ahead.

The Patriots went in a different direction, though.

They added an athletic safety, a talented sub-package linebacker and an edge defender with their first three picks in the draft. They didn't add a behemoth defensive lineman from the college ranks until the undrafted free agency portion of draft weekend when they brought aboard William and Mary's Bill Murray, Auburn's Nick Coe and Louisiana Tech's Courtney Wallace. 

The Patriots brought aboard veteran free agent Beau Allen on a two-year deal, but they lost Danny Shelton in free agency to the Lions. So the group — with Allen swapping in for Shelton — looks very similar to the one the Patriots had a season ago. That could very well work out just fine. It did for much of 2019.

But the team may need to get contributions from one more big body in the upcoming season against not only the Ravens, who are on New England's schedule once again, but other run-heavy opponents on this year's slate like San Francisco and Seattle.

Let's reset the depth chart for Bill Belichick's defensive line group...

LOCK ‘EM IN

Lawrence Guy might be the most underrated defender on the Patriots and one of the most underrated players in the NFL. He's a versatile 300-pounder who can play a variety of techniques along the line and is matched up by New England against the opposition's best blockers week after week. If he can neutralize his matchup, that makes life easier for everyone else. Guy, who was recently named to New England's All-Decade team for his work in the trenches, is going into a contract year.

Other locks include Adam Butler, who signed his second-round tender this offseason and will hit free agency in 2021. He's often the lone true defensive lineman on the field in sub situations and helps free up teammates to terrorize quarterbacks. He's not going anywhere.

Allen is the third lock here after signing a two-year deal that included $2.75 million guaranteed. The Patriots don't have another true nose tackle — Allen is the only Patriots defensive lineman who weighs over 320 pounds — meaning he's the logical fit to play the Danny Shelton role in Belichick's 3-4 style scheme. 

ON THE BUBBLE

Deatrich Wise has been a productive player in his role with the Patriots since being drafted in 2017. But his workload tailed off last year as the Patriots shifted their defensive identity. As they changed from more of a 4-3 to a 3-4 front — the Patriots, like every team, play primarily sub packages but the style of player they used most often for 3-4 profiles — that meant getting away from 4-3 defensive ends like Wise, who weighs too much to take on an outside linebacker role at 275 pounds but not enough to consistently hold up on the interior as a 3-4 end.

The Patriots may want to keep him in the mix as a high-energy hand-in-the-dirt pass-rusher who could use his length to his advantage against stubbier interior offensive linemen. But he could find himself on the bubble due to the fact that he doesn't clearly fit the team's scheme at the moment.

Byron Cowart fits in this conversation as well, though for different reasons. The 2019 fifth-round selection out of Maryland has physical talent; he was one of the most highly-rated high school recruits in the country a few years ago and ended up at SEC power Auburn before transferring to College Park. But the Patriots have a few more 3-4 end types on the roster and Cowart didn't do so much as a rookie that he would warrant "lock" status. 

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LONG SHOTS

Nick Thurman had his moments in last year's training camp as a second-year player out of Houston. He's bounced from the Texans to the Bucs to New England and could be destined for a practice-squad role, which is where he spent last season for the Patriots. Auburn's Nick Coe, Louisiana Tech's Courtney Wallace and William and Mary's Bill Murray — all undrafted rookie signees — qualify as "long shots" as well.

Murray is intriguing, though, having received $125,000 to sign with the Patriots after the draft. That indicates that there was some competition for his services. He had 10 blocked kicks in his college career and has some explosiveness that could translate to success as a pass-rusher on the interior in the NFL. Murray played under former Patriots linebacker Vincent Brown (the defensive coordinator and associate head coach at William and Mary) in 2019.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

Allen projects as the team's top nose tackle in 2020, making him the easy choice as the newcomer to watch. Though Shelton seized that role early in training camp last summer and then went on to have what was perhaps his best season as a pro, Allen could end up filling in nicely. He has experience both as a two-gapping player and a defensive tackle in a one-gap system after playing under different staffs in Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.

Last year he played in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' 3-4 system so he should be plenty familiar with the techniques he'll be asked to execute in Foxboro. It can be difficult at times to tell big-bodied players, particularly ones who are accustomed to penetrating, that their job is to occupy space. But for Allen, who's been considered a strong locker room presence at his last two stops, he's no stranger to that type of role.

It might not lead to loaded stat sheets, but it's a valuable one for Belichick and his front. 

X-FACTOR

Butler seems like a good choice here because he was such a critical piece to the third-down success the Patriots had in 2019. Former Patriots assistant Bret Bielema compared Butler to a point guard dishing out assists when it came to the Vanderbilt product's work in New England's games and stunts up front.

Oftentimes Butler was asked to rush at an angle, picking a blocker aligned across from another Patriots pass-rusher. That led to confusion and either freed up an edge defender or freed up Butler himself to drill a quarterback if the offensive linemen involved didn't properly communicate how to handle the nature of the two-man (or three-man) pass-rush concept coming at them.

If Butler can make the same kind of impact on passing downs in 2020, the Patriots defense and its talented secondary could be in line to be among the best third-down units in the league once again.

NFL Rumors: Details of Lamar Miller's Patriots contract revealed

NFL Rumors: Details of Lamar Miller's Patriots contract revealed

The New England Patriots have signed another former Pro Bowler for pennies on the dollar, it appears.

Running back Lamar Miller officially signed a one-year contract with the Patriots in free agency Thursday, and now we know the reported details of that deal, thanks to ESPN's Field Yates.

Miller will make $1.05 million in base salary in 2020 with $200,000 guaranteed. He has an additional $1.5 million in incentives, per Yates, meaning he can earn up to $2.55 million this season. 

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That's a pretty steep discount for the 29-year-old running back, whose four-year, $26 million contract with the Houston Texans (with $14 million guaranteed) expired this spring.

Miller made the Pro Bowl in 2018 and has two 1,000-rushing-yard seasons under his belt but missed the entire 2019 campaign after tearing his ACL in the preseason.

Miller actually has the same base salary as Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, who took an even bigger pay cut to join New England in free agency. Newton's contract has more incentives, though: The three-time Pro Bowler can earn up to $7.5 million this season.

Starting running back Sony Michel is still recovering from ankle surgery and may not be ready for Week 1, so Miller has the opportunity to revive his career in New England, while the Patriots are hoping to find value in another talented player coming off an injury.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Jeff Benedict details process of writing 'The Dynasty'

Patriots Talk Podcast: Jeff Benedict details process of writing 'The Dynasty'

There’s one sentiment shared by everyone who’s covered the New England Patriots for the entirety of their dynastic run. Gratitude. 

It might not show up in the day-to-day coverage of reporting on the nitty-gritty of where the team is and where it’s headed. It might not seem like it when we probe and analyze the interpersonal relationships and shine a light on where the agitations are. 

But to have had a front-row seat to history for 20 years? To watch a once-failed head coach, an overlooked quarterback and an idealistic and sometimes naïve owner combine to lift the Patriots from NFL afterthought to the most successful team in the history of America’s most beloved sport? Right place, right time for me. 

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I coulda been born in Saint Augustine, Florida, and spent my career covering the Jaguars. I wasn’t. I got to cover the team I loved first. The team I cried over when it lost in the 1976 playoffs to the Oakland Raiders. I can still remember the sense of accomplishment I felt at the 1997 NFL Draft, the first event I covered in person on the Patriots beat. It was all I wanted to do. 

The Patriots drafted Chris Canty in the first round. It’s gotten better since then. 

When you cover the team this long, you develop a sense of “ownership.” A belief you know the story as well as anyone possibly could. It’s probably not healthy. Really, it’s a barrier to learning. But I’ll admit it lurks. So when it was announced that author Jeff Benedict would have a book called, “The Dynasty” coming out in September, there was a flash of, “I already know the story…” combined with a twinge of “Why’s he writing it? What’s he know that I don’t?"

Well, as it turns out – and as I expected from an author of Benedict’s ability – there’s a lot he knows about the Patriots that I didn’t.

I’m more than 200 pages into the 525-page book. Benedict spoke to 250 different people. He got everyone who matters on the record – Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft, Tom Brady, Roger Goodell … the list goes on. I’m learning a lot. 

Benedict, who along with Armen Keteyian wrote the best-selling book, “Tiger Woods,” is a master at digging for details and anecdotes and putting his reader in a fly-on-the-wall position because he’s such a terrific reporter and storyteller. 

”The Dynasty” won’t be released by published Simon and Schuster until September 1. There’s an embargo on the content until then. But I did get to speak with Benedict on “Tom E. Curran’s Patriots Talk Podcast” about the two-year process of writing this book. 

Patriots Talk Podcast: Benedict explains the process behind upcoming book, "The Dynasty" | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

“To me, we’re talking about the greatest sports dynasty, certainly of this century in America and it’s in the conversation as being the greatest sports dynasty in America ever,” said Benedict. “I did feel a tremendous sense of being overwhelmed, a sense of foreboding because it’s such an epic story. 

“I’m not an insider,” Benedict said. “I know all these guys who have been around this franchise forever. I wasn’t there for any of it. I’ve literally never covered a Patriots game … And here’s an army of men and women who’ve been around the team, so it was sort of this idea of, ‘What can you bring that would actually add value and be different?’ 

“I tried to look at it from the perspective of the one thing I can relate to is, I’m a New Englander to the core. What I do feel is I really understand my audience. And the core audience for this book is people who live in New England and people who have followed this team and are in love with this team.

"It’s not to say I don’t want to write it for people in other parts of the country. I want them to read it too and there’s a great story there even if you’re a Jets fan or a Steelers fan. But the core audience is us who live in New England.”

The start of the book is Kraft-centric. The first 100 pages cover the machinations he went through to purchase the team, keep it in Foxboro and build a stadium, which have been somewhat been taken for granted around here and are laid out in detail by Benedict. I learned a lot.

“I have a wonderful editor,” said Benedict. “My editor gave me the same challenge with this as he did with Tiger Woods and that was, ‘I want the reader to learn something new on every single page of this book.’ So if the book is 500 pages long, that’s at least 500 things you need to find that no one else knew. 

“That’s really hard in the New England market,” Benedict added. “The Patriots are the most beloved team in New England. They’re the kings. They’re covered the most. It’s saturation coverage. So I took the approach that, this is not a book about a person, this is a book about a team, about a franchise.

"I went into it with two central questions that all Patriots fans are interested in. First, how was this dynasty built? How was it made? What distinguishes this team from all of those others is they ran their course in about a decade. And after that, their ship had sailed. This dynasty has doubled the length of any of its predecessors. And the second question is how did they sustain it?”

The book is current. It gets into the departure of Brady, the machinations that led to it and the sentiments of everyone involved. Again, I know the story and what I’ve been told. But nobody told me exactly what was said, where conversations took place and how people reacted. 

Benedict has that in The Dynasty. Which serves as further proof that, in life, you think you know. But often you don’t really know.

Check out the latest episode of the Patriots Talk Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or on YouTube.