Patriots

Sunday Notes: Ja'Whaun Bentley may be the key to the Patriots defense leveling up

Sunday Notes: Ja'Whaun Bentley may be the key to the Patriots defense leveling up

Analysis of the Patriots this offseason has focused mainly on what they don’t have and how/when they will get it.

Makes sense. When it’s time to shop and stock time, focus is on the things you need, not what you already have.

But while the offense is being retooled and redesigned, the Patriots defense – its strong suit in the 2018 playoffs – has the potential to be even better in 2019. And that’s even with the departure of Trey Flowers and three key defensive coaches – Brian Flores, Josh Boyer and Brendan Daly.

The key to the Patriots leveling up? It could be second-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. Why Bentley ahead of newly-acquired players like Michael Bennett, Jamie Collins or Mike Pennel or mainstays like Donta Hightower, Stephon Gilmore or Devin McCourty?

Because of the domino effect a healthy Bentley could have on the rest of the defense beginning with Dont’a Hightower.

The smarts and versatility Hightower brings in a uniquely fast and powerful package make him the player that the Patriots hoped they were getting when they signed Adalius Thomas more than a decade ago.

In 2016, Hightower’s value as an edge defender was tapped in the final five games of that championship season when he went from taking 22 percent of his snaps on the edge to 52. A play you may remember from his time there? His strip-sack of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl that made America sit up straight and say, “They really are going to do this, aren’t they?”

In 2017, Hightower was being readied for a bigger role on the edge (great insight on the move at that time from Pats Pulpit) but missed the first couple of games with a sprained knee. The Patriots defense was a confused shambles during his absence and – when he got back – he was back at inside linebacker. The improvement was drastic. But a torn pec in Week 5 cost Hightower the rest of the season and the New England defense was never as trustworthy after that.

Same thing last season. Hightower, who’d trained differently in the 2018 offseason and showed up more streamlined, was in for a bigger role on the edge. He began the season there and Bentley, a rookie from Purdue, was in the middle with the “green dot” as the lead communicator for the defense.

The Patriots opened 1-2, Bentley tore his pec, Hightower moved back to the middle, took over communication and things got better. Again. He capped the year with an MVP-worthy performance in the Super Bowl when he had a sack off the edge, another lined when he was lined up at defensive tackle and a pressure on Rams quarterback Jared Goff when he exploded through the Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein.

Kyle Van Noy’s eye-opening performance in 2018 came in part because he was able to play more freely with a PhD in linebacking next to him.

So, back to Bentley. He’s not going to approach Hightower’s level of institutional knowledge. But if he can get enough of it right, Hightower is then freed up to be in different spots. The likelihood of that happening? High. Bentley’s style is reminiscent of another No. 51, Jerod Mayo. With Mayo now coaching linebackers, Bentley becomes his pet project. Van Noy has another year of smarts and production under him and the return of Jamie Collins means the Patriots have two guys that can deal with the run, cover adequately and rush the passer while Bentley and Elandon Roberts take over as the guys relied on to deal with grinding running games.

Meanwhile, Hightower is continuing to train for speed. He’s now about 20 pounds lighter than the 270 pounds he carried when he was drafted so obviously, the intention is to have him spend less time in the middle. If Bentley can hold it down, a defense that closed last year holding the explosive Rams to just a field goal in Super Bowl 53 could be even better this year.

*****

It’s smart to keep an eye on the Kyle Rudolph situation in Minnesota. It’s devolved in the few weeks since the draft since the cash-strapped Vikings and the 29-year-old tight end hit an impasse. Rudolph is due $7.625 in salary. Asked last week if he’d consider a pay cut, his answer was, “No way. I’m too young for that.” That is the correct response for a player who’s caught 204 passes for 18 touchdowns the past three seasons with Case Keenum, Kirk Cousins and Sam Bradford throwing to him.

If the Patriots were to trade for Rudolph, they have to create space. And this could create urgency to get Tom Brady’s contract restructure done so that his $27M cap hit comes down and there’s room to fit Rudolph.

Even though the Patriots whiffed on the tight end they went after hardest to replace Rob Gronkowski – Jared Cook – they’ve done a good job whipping bodies at the spot since with Matt LaCosse, Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and Benjamin Watson. Rudolph is a different level player, though, in terms of production and durability.

Would trading for him mean one of the other tight ends would be immediately cut loose? And would Rudolph’s addition mean a post-Thanksgiving return by Gronk would be less likely (though I’m not sure it’s likely right now)?

If the Patriots do make that move, it would be bad news for the AFC.

*****

It has to be encouraging for the Patriots to see wide receiver Demaryius Thomas able to build some straight-line speed as he works back from his Achilles injury. But even if he’s trending upward now, the process of getting back to full speed is still just beginning

Thomas will almost certainly start training camp on the PUP list and – even if he is able to compete by early September – he probably won’t be full speed and confident for another two months based on medical sources I’ve spoken with. So the decision will be whether activating a less-than 100 percent version of Thomas in September is necessary or whether the Patriots and Thomas will choose to wait. I’d bet on the latter.

*****

The NFL is putting together some interesting lists for the league’s 100th anniversary and I’m one of the 50 voters enlisted to help choose the winners. Huge honor. The categories are Greatest Play; Greatest Teams; Greatest Games; Game Changers; and Greatest Characters. The process begins with Greatest Plays. We are charged with logging on to a website, reviewing 100 plays and choosing the top 50. We’re trying to establish how much I can legally share with you all while going through the process so stay tuned because I love input.

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NFL rumors: Eagles intend to sign RB Jay Ajayi before Week 11 game vs. Patriots

NFL rumors: Eagles intend to sign RB Jay Ajayi before Week 11 game vs. Patriots

A second stint with the Philadelphia Eagles for Jay Ajayi appears imminent.

The Eagles "intend to sign" the veteran running back, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported Friday.

Philadelphia will host the New England Patriots at Lincoln Financial Field in one of Sunday's most anticipated Week 11 matchups. The Eagles need all the offensive depth they can get because the Patriots have the league's best defense in terms of yards and points allowed per game.

Ajayi has 28 carries for 75 rushing yards, as well as seven receptions for 51 yards in three career regular season games against the Patriots. He has not scored a touchdown versus the Pats.

The need for the Eagles to add another running back was increased over the last 24 hours given running back Darren Sproles' injury situation. Sproles was added to the injury report Thursday with a quadriceps issue, and NFL Media's Mike Garafolo reported Friday that the veteran running back will not play again this season.

Ajayi was acquired by the Eagles in a trade with the Miami Dolphins during the 2017 season, and he averaged 5.1 yards per carry en route to a Super Bowl LII win over the Patriots. He tore his ACL in Week 5 of the 2018 campaign and missed the rest of the season.

The Eagles also brought back veteran wide receiver Jordan Matthews earlier this week after their receiving depth was hit hard by injuries to DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery.

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Patriots Mailbag: How many snaps will N'Keal Harry play if he's out there?

Patriots Mailbag: How many snaps will N'Keal Harry play if he's out there?

The Friday Bag is back, friends. Every week I'll be answering your questions be they Patriots-related, NFL-related or otherwise. This week, the focus for many of you was -- no surprise -- N'Keal Harry. We'll start there...

I think he'll play, Jamie, but I don't think he'll see a full complement of snaps. If the Patriots choose to go up-tempo, as they did in Baltimore, he could have a hard time having a regular role. But in the Patriots locker room on Thursday it sounded like Harry would play. And they could use him. They could use him in the red zone (they're 21st, getting into the end zone at a 50 percent clip), and they could use him on the outside. This Eagles defense has been incredibly generous to outside-the-numbers wideouts in 2019.

Philly's defense is also built in such a way — running a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 1, with a single-high safety — that seam routes to big slot receivers would work. Harry played in the slot a bit in college and could be used as a contested-catch player down the middle of the field since the Patriots are without a vertical threat at the tight end position. I've said many times that I think this Patriots receiver group still needs an injection of talent. Harry has talent. And his skill set would help them exactly where they need it.

If he can't handle the communication or the mental side of things, that's obviously an issue. But Bill Belichick has told us that mentally he was on top of things even while on IR. I think we'll have an opportunity to see what Harry can do — if not exactly on a full-time basis — this weekend. Here are the debut snap-counts for rookie Patriots wideouts over the last decade: Malcolm Mitchell (Week 1, 39); Chris Harper (Week 1, 12); Kenbrell Thompkins (Week 1, 91!); Aaron Dobson (Week 2, 34); Josh Boyce (Week 1, 15); Taylor Price (Week 17, 26); Brandon Tate (Week 7, 20). Mohamed Sanu said Thursday he thinks Harry will play more in his debut than Sanu did in his. Sanu saw five snaps in Week 1 of his rookie season. Let's set the over/under for Harry snaps at 14.5. I'll take the over.

Hey, Don. They have short-area passing plays, but I don't think they're "saving" anything. We've seen these plays in the past. A lot of them deal with creating some traffic right near the goal line in order to create space in what's a pretty tight area. You'll see receiver tunnel screens in there. You'll see slant-flat route combinations in there to create a natural "rub" or "pick." They'll occasionally throw fades to the back corner, though we haven't seen much of that post-Gronk.

Perhaps that's something we'll see again whenever Harry becomes a part of the red-zone attack. The Patriots have been throwing down deep in opponent territory a little more lately, I think, because their personnel isn't really built to bulldoze at the goal line anymore. Their fullbacks are hurt. Their tight ends have been unavailable, though that may change this week if Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo can go. If they had plays that worked down there, they wouldn't hold them back. They're 28th in the league in goal-to-go passing success rate this season. 

The tight end position is one that's traditionally very difficult for young players to pick up because there are so many responsibilities between the the run game and pass game. It's really only secondary to the quarterback. (That might be part of why the Patriots haven't invested at the position in the draft and have preferred to try veteran free agents there behind Rob Gronkowski.) So the fact that T.J. Hockenson isn't lighting it up doesn't shock me. Noah Fant — the other first-round tight end — was always going to have a ways to go in the running game. I think both will be much better next year with a little more experience.

And yes, getting Wynn and Andrews back would go a long way toward solidifying the line. One issue that'll be interesting to track this offseason is what happens with Joe Thuney. He's scheduled to become a free agent and will get paid — whether he's in New England or somewhere else. If Thuney departs, that could allow the Patriots the freedom to draft a top tackle or guard next spring. If the best player available is a tackle, they could bump Wynn to left guard. If it's a guard, they could keep Wynn at tackle. 

I don't think so, Brett. What Joe Thuney has done at left guard, situated between Karras and Marshall Newhouse, has been invaluable. If you were to swap Karras and Thuney, you'd be weakening that left side. The counter to that? Pressure up the middle is what has the ability to undo the Patriots offense much more than pressure off the edge.

Brady is great at stepping up and away from edge pressure when he has room. Thuney is the team's best pass protector right now, so why not put him right in the middle. If that's what you're saying, I get it. But Karras has been fine in pass protection this year. According to Pro Football Focus, he's 11th among centers in pass-blocking efficiency. The Patriots just need to get Isaiah Wynn back, and that'll help them up front in both the run and pass games. 

Beautiful instrument. Bring it back. Thanks for the question, Steve, and thanks to everyone else who chipped in this week. Enjoy the games this weekend, friends.

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