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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Robert Kraft has brief first comment on Patriots-Bengals taping controversy

Robert Kraft has brief first comment on Patriots-Bengals taping controversy

Patriots owner Robert Kraft's first public comment on the controversy surrounding a team production crew being investigated by the NFL for allegedly taping the Cincinnati Bengals sideline during the Bengals game in Cleveland on Sunday was brief.

"You know everything you should know," Kraft said while declining to talk to reporters, including Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, after walking out of a meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at previously scheduled league meetings in Dallas.  

The team released a statement Monday night acknowledging that their failure to inform the Bengals of the taping was an "unintended oversight" and admitted the video crew unknowingly broke league rules by filming the field from the press box. 

The Patriots (10-3) visit the Bengals (1-12) this Sunday in Cincinnati 

Earlier Tuesday, coach Bill Belichick again insisted he had no knowledge or involvement in what the team production crew was doing and that it's a completely independent operation from the team.

The Athletic reported Tuesday that the tape shows about eight minutes of video that's focused directly on the Bengals sideline. 

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Patriots now have three practice squad openings after these departures

Patriots now have three practice squad openings after these departures

The New England Patriots have some more space available on their practice squad.

The recent departures of center Tyler Gauthier and defensive back Nate Brooks have opened two new spots, according to ESPN's Mike Reiss.

These moves bring the number of open spots on the Patriots practice squad to three. 

Brooks spent the last 13 weeks on the Patriots practice squad. His new head coach with the Miami Dolphins is Brian Flores, who was the Patriots' linebackers coach from 2016 through 2018. Gauthier signed with the Patriots in May as an undrafted free agent but never played in a game for New England.

Huggins was signed by the Patriots last week but was released this past weekend when the team needed to make room on the 53-man roster to add kicker Nick Folk.

Reiss also reported Tuesday that New England worked out former University of Georgia defensive back Jayson Stanley.

The Patriots play the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The Week 15 matchup is their final road game of the 2019 regular season.

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