Patriots

The Stidham Plan: Patriots can aid young QB by getting creative with athletic fullback options

The Stidham Plan: Patriots can aid young QB by getting creative with athletic fullback options

Bill Belichick readily admitted that his offense would have to change with Tom Brady out of the picture.

"Over the last two decades," Belichick said back in April, "everything we did, every single decision we made in terms of major planning, was made with the idea of how to make things best for Tom Brady . . . Whoever the quarterback is, we'll try to make things work smoothly and efficiently for that player and take advantage of his strengths and skills." 

For now, let's assume the quarterback in 2020 will be Jarrett Stidham. How can Belichick and Josh McDaniels make him comfortable? How can they accentuate his strengths and hide his weaknesses?

We won't know for sure until the Patriots take the field. But emphasizing looks that have taken the league by storm of late, looks that have simplified things for good-but-not-great quarterbacks, looks that Belichick's pal Mike Shanahan is credited with popularizing... That might make things interesting.

The first installment of our "Stidham Plan" series takes a look at how a couple of newly-added athletic fullback options might help make the second-year quarterback's life a little easier.

* * *

Kyle Juszczyk is a unicorn at the fullback position in today's NFL. 

The Swiss Army knife in Kyle Shanahan's offense played over 100 snaps more than any other fullback in 2019. He caught more passes (20) for more yards (239) and picked up more yards after contact (155) for the Niners than anyone else at that spot. The $5.25 million average annual value of his contract, signed in 2017, isn't gaudy but it's more than $2 million more per year than the next fullback contract. His $7 million guaranteed at signing was almost double that of the next best fullback deal.

Juszczyk is an outlier, a high-IQ hybrid whose multi-faceted impact on San Francisco's offense would be difficult for anyone to replicate.

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But that won't keep new Patriots fullback Danny Vitale from trying.

"He’s kind of the prime example of what a lot of teams are moving towards," Vitale said last week. "Obviously, every offense is different, but he’s been able to do a lot of great things since his career in Baltimore and now obviously all the way into San Fran. 

"He’s kind of the player that I like to model my game after in terms of the versatility aspect. Different teams have different schemes and need their fullbacks to fill different roles, so obviously that’s what your scouting departments are looking for is guys who can fill that role that they need. But, yeah, I think he’s a good guy to look up to."

Versatile as he hopes to be, can Vitale provide the same kind of return to the Patriots that Juszczyk has provided the Niners? Can he help prop up a passing game led by Jarrett Stidham in the same way Juszczyk has helped to boost Jimmy Garoppolo's effectiveness?

Vitale's one-year contract with New England includes $100,000 in guarantees, indicating he's not a lock to make the 2020 roster. But the Patriots also added a hybrid player with one of its two tight end additions in this year's draft when they selected Dalton Keene out of Virginia Tech at the end of the third round. At least one them — and maybe both — figures to add an athletic wrinkle to a position the Patriots have long valued. 

NEW ERA IN NEW ENGLAND

When James Develin aligned in the I-formation, neck roll jutting up from the back of his collar, he was power personified for the Patriots. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound bruiser helped the team rack up over 2,000 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns in the 2018 regular season. Then in the playoffs that year he was on the field for each of New England's nine rushing touchdowns en route to a Lombardi Trophy.

After eight years with the Patriots, limited to two games in 2019 because of a neck injury, Develin retired this offseason.

"It’s definitely some pretty dang big shoes to fill," Vitale said of Develin. "James is a hell of a player. I’ve enjoyed watching him, really since I got into the league now. He was really a role model at the position, which as a fullback, a lot of people don’t typically notice how important that role can be. 

"I think it was pretty clear how important James was to this Patriot team over the last however many years. Definitely have some really big shoes to fill, but I’m really looking forward to that opportunity, as well as working with a lot of the other guys. It'll be fun."

Vitale, though, is a different type of fullback than what the Patriots have been accustomed to. He's about 15 pounds lighter than Develin, and tested similarly to Juszczyk as an athlete coming out of college.

Compared to other fullbacks invited to the combine over the years, Vitale was an elite performer in Indy in 2016. At 6-foot-1, 239 pounds he recorded a 4.60 40-yard dash (91st percentile), a 38.5-inch vertical (96th), a 123-inch broad (95th) and a 4.12-second short shuttle (91st). Juszczyk was listed at 6-foot-1, 235 coming out of college and recorded a 4.71 40, a 37-inch vertical, a 121-inch broad jump and a 4.19-second short shuttle at his pro day.

Keene, meanwhile, has the size to better replicate Develin's skill set. He measured in at 6-foot-4, 253 pounds before the draft and was often used as a lead blocker out of the backfield in Virginia Tech's offense. 

While Keene could be the team's next Develin, he looks like a more dynamic passing-game option. A determined and elusive runner with the ball in his hands for the Hokies, he averaged 9.7 yards after the catch per reception in his career. Keene also possesses impressive movement skills, having recorded a 125-inch broad jump (94th percentile for tight ends) and a 4.19 short shuttle (85th) at this year's combine, indicating he has some real receiving chops.

Neither Keene nor Vitale has yet had the opportunity to show what they can do to replace the toughness quotient Develin provided the Patriots. But if either earns a role, he'll add something Josh McDaniels hasn't really had at the fullback spot of late: explosive athleticism to handle more in the passing game.

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TASTE OF SAN FRANCISCO?

Juszczyk's raw receiving numbers aren't all that impressive. But part of the reason he allowed the Niners to be as efficient as they were in 2019 was because of his ability to help keep opponents guessing.

He could play the traditional lead fullback role. He could leak out of the backfield on play-action throws. He could align as an in-line tight end, in the slot, or as an H-back on the wing. He gave Garoppolo a matchup weapon when covered by linebackers. His mere presence in the huddle helped provide the Niners with more favorable looks against which to throw by encouraging opposing defensive coordinators, fearing smash-mouth run plays, to send bigger (and typically slower) defenders onto the field. 

Opponents had to make a choice when they saw Juszczyk on the field as part of Shanahan's attack: Match the fullback's 30 or so snaps per game by keeping a linebacker on the field and risk getting exposed in coverage, or respond with an extra defensive back to protect against the pass and get run over.

Not ideal. 

That lose-lose proposition and the defensive uncertainty that came with it allowed the Niners to be extremely effective in using play-action last season. They were second in the NFL with 10.8 yards per play-action attempt, which in turn helped make Garoppolo a top-10 passer according to certain statistical categories like yards per attempt (third), completion percentage (fourth) and quarterback rating (eighth). 

As a member of the Packers last season, Vitale had some of the same responsibilities Juszczyk did. In Green Bay, where Shanahan disciple Matt LaFleur runs the show offensively, Vitale aligned as a lead blocker in traditional I-formation packages. He led the way for running backs on wide-zone runs. He motioned into the slot to run routes, as he did at Northwestern. He motioned from the backfield into a wing position to get a better angle as a blocker.

He lined up as a wide receiver — as Develin often did — to serve as a man-zone indicator for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. (If a linebacker went with Vitale to the boundary, the defense was likely playing man-to-man. If a corner stood across from Vitale, it was likely zone.) He served as the lone back next to Rodgers in shotgun situations, able to take a hand-off, run a route or pass-protect. Vitale also leaked out of the backfield on play-action passes, and his speed occasionally provided chunk-play opportunities.

Though Vitale (11 snaps per game) typically played much less than Juszczyk (33 snaps per game) last season, he had games where he might carry out half a dozen different roles in his limited playing time. Does that make an athletic fullback like Vitale (or Keene) the kind of piece who can help the Patriots shift toward an offensive attack like the one featured in San Francisco? 

Couldn't hurt. And given the results produced by Shanahan-influenced schemes in other places, it might be worth a shot.

NUMBERS DON'T LIE

The Niners style of offense and others born from it love their fullbacks.

Gary Kubiak worked under Kyle's dad Mike Shanahan in Denver in the 1990s and helped sow the seeds for the wide-zone run, bootleg play-action attacks now strewn across the league. His fingerprints are all over the offense in Minnesota, which used fullback C.J. Ham (354 snaps) almost as often as the Niners used Juszczyk (388) in the 2019 regular season.

After letting Vitale walk in free agency, the Packers used a third-round pick to draft an athletic hybrid fullback-tight end option in Cincinnati's Josiah Deguara.

The Rams almost never abandon their 11-personnel package (one back, one tight end, three wideouts) but under former Mike Shanahan pupil Sean McVay they had one of only 14 fullbacks to play at least 100 snaps last season: Derek Watt. 

Why the affinity for fullbacks? 

They help the running game, of course. They change the math for defenders wondering which gaps to play against the run. Their power, momentum and (usually) low center of gravity helps them clear space. And the fact that fullbacks are relatively scarce — the spread-happy college game isn't producing them — means there aren't many offenses that use them, which means there aren't many defenses that devote much in the way of time to defending them. 

But perhaps more importantly, for offenses that so heavily rely on successful running games and passing games that thrive off the deception that play-action creates, having someone who can make pass plays look like runs — someone who then can become a legitimate receiving threat himself — can open up a world of possibilities.

"Across the league, in general, teams average more yards per pass attempt and have a higher success rate when you're using heavier personnel out on the field," Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Stats told us earlier this offseason. "You're controlling the personnel that the defense has to play. Then you can take advantage of these guys when you have tight ends that are as good at catching the ball as they are now. When you have fullbacks that can catch the ball as well as they can now. It's a massive X-factor . . . 

"Far too often teams will use a fullback because it's a run play and he's a run-blocker. As long as you're using that fullback to sometimes catch the ball, to block in pass protection, to do a variety of things, it's very effective to have that guy out on the field. I think that more teams do need to incorporate them, as long as it's a dynamic enough player."

It might come as little surprise that some of the Shanahan-style teams have already figured that out. The two clubs that ran the highest percentage of two-back sets in the NFL last season? San Francisco and Minnesota. 

A whopping 39 percent of the Niners offense came with two backs on the field last year. Out of 21 personnel, they were deemed successful on 55 percent of their plays. Out of 22 personnel, they were successful on 52 percent of their plays. Compared to their 43 percent success rate out of 11 and 12 personnel packages, they experienced a significant up-tick in efficiency with two backs on the field. 

The Vikings, meanwhile, had two backs on the field for 32 percent of their plays. From those sets, their yards per pass attempt figure (8.7) was about a full yard higher than it was when they were in 11 personnel (7.6) or 12 personnel (7.8). In essence, when they replaced a pass-catcher at receiver or tight end in their huddle with a fullback . . . they became a better passing offense. Counter-intuitive maybe. But because of how it gets defenses to react, it works. 

It's no coincidence, either, that the play-action figures for fullback-friendly offenses in San Francisco and Minnesota were among the best in football. 

Garoppolo (second) and Kirk Cousins (fourth) were among the league leaders in yards per attempt out of play-action last season. No one threw more touchdown passes off play-action than Cousins (14), while Garoppolo was fifth in that category (9). Only Jared Goff (1,703), playing in a similar offense under McVay, threw for more play-action yards than Garoppolo (1,667), while Cousins was fourth in that category (1,373). Cousins (fifth) and Garoppolo (ninth) were both among the best in football when it came to completion percentage off play-action.

When you amass all of Cousins' and Garoppolo's attempts — play-action or no play-action — they racked up elite statistics. They were No. 4 (Cousins) and No. 8 (Garoppolo), respectively, in quarterback rating. They were No. 3 (Garoppolo) and No. 7 (Cousins) in yards per attempt. They were tied at No. 4 in completion percentage. But is either an elite quarterback? 

The numbers tell the story: That style of offense — the under-center, play-action-heavy, wide-zone-running, fullback-infused, bootleg attack — is widely considered to be extremely quarterback friendly. It simplifies reads. It buys quarterbacks time to find open windows. It buys receivers time to create open windows. For a young quarterback with some mobility, a quarterback like Stidham, it can do wonders.

Does that mean the Patriots should be all-in? Not necessarily. Later in this series, we'll dive into the challenges involved in a full-on commitment of that nature.

But if Belichick and McDaniels wanted to emphasize those types of looks as they find an offensive identity following Brady's departure, having athletic options at fullback to deploy all over formations and sell play-action could help them achieve that end.

Coming next week: Patriots rookie tight ends could make for endless opportunities

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Jason, Devin McCourty put pressure on NFL over uncertain 2020 season

Jason, Devin McCourty put pressure on NFL over uncertain 2020 season

Like many players, Devin and Jason McCourty have lots of questions. And the NFL hasn't given them sufficient answers.

The twin brothers and New England Patriots defensive backs wrote a guest column for Sports Illustrated's "The MMQB" in which they voiced their concerns about the 2020 NFL season amid the coronavirus pandemic and urged the league to address these concerns before training camps begin later this month.

"So many questions with virtually no answers, all three weeks removed from a potential start to training camp," the McCourtys wrote.

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While other professional sports leagues hashed out detailed return-to-play plans prior to restarting their seasons, the NFL has yet to share details of what the 2020 season may look like, all while keeping the same timeline, save for reportedly eliminating two preseason games.

The start of the regular season still is almost two months away, but with players returning to their cities to prepare for training camp, the McCourtys want answers from the league.

"Will we have an option to opt out of the season? Will we be making our full salary? What if there is a COVID outbreak within the league?" the McCourtys wrote. "It's so hard to make a decision of whether we will play or not without knowing what the exact plan is."

The twin brothers, who both have families with young children, also expressed hesitation about signing on to play a season with so many unknowns.

"Will we be able to have meetings in the building? Or will the meetings still be done virtually? Will testing be a few times a week or will it be every day?" they wrote. "As players, how do we decide what is best for us and our families when we don’t know what we’re walking into?"

The NFL and NFL Players Association has formed a joint committee of doctors and trainers to develop protocols that can help players safely prepare for the season. Based on the McCourtys' column, though, it sounds like the league and that joint committee still have plenty of work to do.

"We face a whole lot of unknowns, a whole lot of question marks, and overall are dealing with unsettling feelings about how to handle the two major topics that have hit our entire country hard this year," the McCourtys wrote, referencing COVID-19 and the racial justice movement reinvigorated by the death of George Floyd. 

"The year is only halfway done, so the verdict is still out on whether we can get some answers moving forward."

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NFL Rumors: How Cam Newton, N'Keal Harry's first Patriots workout came together

NFL Rumors: How Cam Newton, N'Keal Harry's first Patriots workout came together

A bit of good luck allowed Cam Newton to throw passes to Mohamed Sanu just days after joining the New England Patriots last month.

But the new Patriots quarterback apparently has been taking matters into his own hands since then.

Newton "initiated" contact with second-year wide receiver N'Keal Harry to set up last week's workouts in Los Angeles, ESPN's Mike Reiss reported Sunday.

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Newton and Harry spent "a couple of days together" working out, per Reiss, the first of which was a two-hour session that included fellow Patriots tight end Devin Asiasi and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

It's a good sign for Harry and the Patriots that Newton is eager to work with the 22-year-old wide receiver, who has mostly been training in Houston and Arizona but gladly traveled out to Southern California to link up with his new QB.

Newton also gave Harry some love on Instagram over the weekend, commenting, "DØĒ•ßØ¥‼️😂 -1ØVĒ🤟🏾" on the wideout's post from a workout in Beverly Hills.

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Relentless‼️

A post shared by N'Keal Harry (@nkealharry) on

Julian Edelman and Sanu are projected to be Newton's top two wide receivers in 2020 -- assuming the QB beats out second-year Jarrett Stidham for the starting job -- but Harry has plenty of upside.

While New England's 2019 first-round draft pick appeared in only seven games during an injury-riddled campaign, Reiss pointed out Harry could develop a similar rapport with Newton as Kelvin Benjamin did in Carolina.

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Harry and the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Benjamin have similar frames, although Harry is working to get more agile and run sharper routes this offseason.

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