Patriots

Will training camp provide clues as to how the Patriots will deploy Michael Bennett?

Will training camp provide clues as to how the Patriots will deploy Michael Bennett?

Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where our focus will be when practices begin. Today we take a look at the biggest veteran acquisition they made this offseason, Michael Bennett, and wonder how he'll be deployed.

When the Patriots acquired Michael Bennett in a trade with the Eagles prior to the start of free agency, Bill Belichick was commended almost universally. The consensus was that Bennett would be a pretty nice insurance policy in case Trey Flowers departed via free agency. 

That's exactly what happened. Flowers signed a five-year deal worth $90 million with the Lions that the Patriots were never going to approach. Bennett, meanwhile, was scheduled to make a fraction of that yet showed in 2018 that he still had the talent to replace a reasonable portion of that which Flowers provided. (The Patriots have re-worked Bennett's deal since trading a fifth-round pick for him, giving the 33-year-old a two-year deal worth $16.75 million.)

But what percentage of Flowers' production might Bennett replace? And will Bennett even be used similarly to his predecessor? Is his skill set such that Belichick will have to cook up a unique role, sharing what were Flowers' responsibilities between multiple defenders?

We won't know for sure what Bennett's specific duties will be for the entirety of 2019 based on how he's used in training camp. But I think it's reasonable to assume we will have a better idea of the team's plan for its newest pass-rusher once the pads come on and he's placed in a competitive situation on the fields behind Gillette Stadium.

What makes Bennett's role somewhat difficult to pin down ahead of camp is that a) he's played a variety of techniques, been used in a variety of situations over the course of his career, and b) the same was true for Flowers.

Flowers played all along the defensive line -- left end, right end, three-technique, nose tackle in passing situations -- and was used in just about every situation. He was New England's highest-graded pass-rusher last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and its second-best run-stopper. He played 892 snaps last season, including playoffs, which put him on the field for 77.4 percent of his team's defensive plays. Sixty-eight percent of those plays came against the pass. 

Bennett's career took an interesting turn in his one season with the Eagles in 2018. He played about 100 fewer snaps than he did in each of his previous two fully-healthy seasons with the Seahawks in 2017 and 2015 . . . but he still was on the field for 830 plays and didn't miss a game. His situational breakdown was tweaked a bit as well. Seventy-five percent of his snaps came against the pass last year, a significant up-tick from how he was used in Seattle. From 2014 to 2017, Bennett saw at least 36.5 percent of his plays come against the run. 

What's more is the Patriots have for years been a two-gapping defense. Their linemen and linebackers are consistently asked to stand up their blockers, read the play, then shed and flow to the ball wherever it ends up. How might Bennett fit in that type of scheme? In both Philly and Seattle, Bennett made the most of his ability to aggressively attack a single gap to get up the field quickly. 

Bennett thrived in Pete Carroll's 4-3 "under" front for years -- where four defensive linemen shade away from the strength of the offensive formation -- making three Pro Bowls. He often played the five-technique defensive end spot (across from the offensive tackle) and then kicked inside in passing situations. He, of course, played out wide as well, creating havoc just about everywhere he was aligned, as the Patriots found out in Super Bowl XLIX

With the Eagles, Bennett fit their scheme as more of a true edge rusher, rushing off the left side 71 percent of the time, per PFF. From that spot, he was credited with chipping in on eight sacks, with none coming from the right side and one coming from the interior. Of his 78 total pressures last season (tying him with Flowers), 45 came from the left end position.

Will Bennett see more time as an interior rusher for the Patriots now that the team is learning to cope with life after Flowers? Flowers rushed quarterbacks from the inside on 177 snaps last year, far and away the most of any "edge defender," according to PFF, winning one-fifth of those pass-rush reps. 

It'd make sense for Bennett to help make up for that interior production, as he has been an extremely productive interior rusher in the past. PFF credits Bennett with 45 interior pressures on 331 interior pass-rush snaps since 2015. A role more similar to the one Bennett held in Seattle -- more time spent against the run, more time rushing from the interior -- would seemingly benefit the Patriots as they re-shape their line in Flowers' absence. 

All that said . . . Will training camp, where fundamentals are so often the focus, provide us with answers as to how Bennett will be used in New England? Probably not definitive ones. Nonetheless, we'll keep our eyes open for clues once practices kick off next week.

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NFL rumors: WR Justin Hunter to work out with Patriots, several other teams

NFL rumors: WR Justin Hunter to work out with Patriots, several other teams

The New England Patriots will be among the teams to work out wide receiver Justin Hunter as Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season approaches.

ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported Friday that Hunter will have workouts with several clubs, mostly from the AFC.

Hunter was a second-round draft pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2013 but has battled injury throughout his career. He has missed 20 games over the last two seasons, and he's played more than 12 matchups in just one of his six NFL seasons. Hunter tallied seven receptions for 22 yards and a touchdown in 12 games for the Steelers over the last two years. He has career totals of 85 receptions, 1,349 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The Patriots all of a sudden are deep at wide receiver with Josh Gordon getting reinstated from his suspension and Demaryius Thomas returning to practice after suffering a torn Achilles injury in December. New England doesn't have a ton of deep threats at the position, however, so Hunter's skill set certainly is intriguing. 

The Patriots will conclude their preseason schedule next Thursday when they host the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium. New England opens its Super Bowl title defense Sept. 8 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Patriots QB Tom Brady admits he revels in pissing off defenses by running

Patriots QB Tom Brady admits he revels in pissing off defenses by running

The New England Patriots might have gone an entire game without scoring a touchdown if quarterback Tom Brady hadn't scrambled for a first down on a 3rd-and-three situation in the second quarter.

It was Brady's third and final series of Thursday night's preseason matchup against the Panthers at Gillette Stadium. The 42-year-old quarterback picked up the first down using his legs, and eight plays later fullback James Develin ended the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run that led to a 10-3 victory.

"I think those plays are important," Brady said when asked about keeping plays alive with his feet. "To get a first-down conversion on me scrambling, I'm sure the defensive coordinator is like, 'What the heck? This is not -- you know, we've got to stop (Julian) Edelman, we've got to stop (James White), we've got to stop the run game, we've got to stop these great players.'

"And all of a sudden, Brady for a scramble. That's got to piss him off pretty good. So, I revel in that. Hopefully, I can do that once a game -- I think I'd be good with that -- and if they give me an opportunity, I'll take it. It's just, I don't think it would be much more than four of five yards."

You can tell Brady takes great pride in his ability to extend plays with his footwork. He's never been a mobile quarterback, but few players at his position are more effective at moving around in the pocket to evade pressure and deliver an accurate pass.

The Patriots have a great rushing attack led by Sony Michel and a deep group of running backs. Brady probably won't need to pick up yards with his legs too often this season, but he's clearly going to take advantage of any opportunities that arise.

After all, he's got to keep his status a 1,000-yard rusher intact.

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