The Patriots head into training camp in just a few weeks and there should be plenty of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53 man roster and who is on the bubble.
Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring is a learning exercise and that the competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 88 players on board, 35 of these current members of the roster now, at a minimum will be cut.
We’ve already looked at the Patriots offense and you can check out the links below:
Next up is the Patriots defense and specifically the defensive ends. With the big losses in the Patriots secondary the defense is going to look much, much different than in 2014. Gone are cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington. Also gone is long-time defensive lineman Vince Wilfork.
The pressure this season will be on the front seven to pressure the opposing quarterbacks and ease the onus on the secondary to cover for long periods of time. Much of the pressure will fall to the edge rushers to get after opposing QBs.
So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?
Roster Locks: Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard
The defensive ends have consisted of Ninkovich and Jones and not much else the past few years. Once Jones went down with an injury the team brought in Akeem Ayers who played well but left via free agency.
Ninkovich is the money player of the group; While Jones has more athleticism and potential, it has been Ninkovich that has been the guy who always seems to make the big play at the big time. He’s been the quintessential Patriots success story. Ninkovich was the guy who made it onto the roster as a long-snapper, who transitioned to linebacker. He moved to defensive end where he’s been one of the steadiest performers on the defense. But he has played far too many snaps and needs some help to keep him fresh for the second and fourth quarters of games.
Jones was the Patriots first round pick, 21st overall of the 2012 NFL Draft. Entering his fourth season, he’s still looking to break into the top tier of NFL pass rushers. He’s been good, but hasn’t taken that step to become an elite defensive end. After an 11.5 sack season in 2013, he was expected to make the big jump but his hip injury caused him to play in only 10 games. In a contract year and with added help to keep fresh legs in 2015, this may be Jones’ time.
Sheard was signed as a free agent back in March and he’s just what the doctor ordered in terms of providing a veteran, reliable presence who can enter the rotation on the edge. Sheard was originally drafted as a defensive end but in the Browns change to a 3-4 defense, he was switched to play outside linebacker in 2013 and last season.
With a revolving door of three different coordinators over the past three seasons in Cleveland, Sheard’s production suffered. With Bill Belichick and the Patriots, he should find the stability that has been lacking in his career. Having played in the intensely physical AFC North, Sheard excels at setting the edge in the running game and can be a very good pass rusher.
Next up are the near locks.
Near Locks: Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers
The Patriots looked for more help with edge rushers during the 2015 NFL Draft, selecting three guys who can play defensive end or blitz off the edge as an OLB. They drafted Grissom with the 97th overall pick in the 3rd round, Flowers with the 101st pick in the 4th round and then Alabama “Jack” linebacker Xzavier Dickson with 253rd overall pick in the 7th round.
Grissom is a versatile guy who has lined up as a 4-3 DE, an OLB and even as an interior pass rusher. Belichick practically raved about his potential after he was drafted out of Oklahoma. Belichick compared Grissom to Ninkovich stating that they both can do different things and they can play multiple positions.
How they exactly plan on using him will have to wait until training camp starts. But Grissom is an interesting piece of the puzzle that has excelled in limited opportunities to rush the passer. He’ll have time to learn his craft, as with Sheard now, he’ll be able to ease his way into the lineup.
Flowers was rated by Pro Football Focus (PFF), as the second biggest steal of the 2015 NFL Draft. While he isn’t overly athletic having run a 4.93 in the 40 at the NFL Combine, but he has the proto-typical length and strength to be a very effective defensive end in the pros. Playing for Arkansas in the tough SEC, Flowers faced top level competition every week. Flowers excels at setting the edge in the run game and while he only logged six sacks for Arkansas in 2014, he contributed 46 hurries off the edge on opposing quarterbacks.
Flowers former coach Bret Bielema from Arkansas compares him to Texans DL J.J. Watt who Bielema also coached at Wisconsin. While that may be just a bit of a stretch at this point, if the Pats can get anything close to Watt-like production from Flowers, the coaching staff will be thrilled.
Both he and Grissom provide valuable, versatile edge players who can be counted upon to provide valuable snaps for Belichick.
Next …the guys on the bubble
On the Bubble: Zach Moore
The Patriots added the big (6’6, 275), but raw Moore during the 2014 NFL Draft from tiny Concordia-St. Paul University. He had a red-shirt type season as he honed his craft and bulked up. He looks, according to media reports to be a very solid 275 pounds.
Moore has the wingspan and size to be very effective on the edge. The plan is to use him as a versatile five-technique on the edge and to kick him inside as a three-technique on some passing downs.
With a dearth of long-limbed interior players, Moore could find a niche as sub-package interior pass rusher. But like both Grissom and Flowers he brings an element of versatility to his game that will make the coaches give him a long look in camp.
All three have obvious practice squad eligibility so it will be interesting to see how this position plays out. But one thing is for certain, the Patriots edge rushers in 2015 should be a very improved, deep and versatile unit. Of course that is on paper. The true test will be once the players take the field on July 30. It won’t be just Ninkovich and Jones this season however, so with fresh legs on the field, the ceiling is much higher.
Stay tuned, we’ll be down at training camp filing daily updates about the goings-on with the Pats as they begin the march to the 53 man roster.