With the trade of Jimmy Garoppolo, many people assumed that the Patriots would make another move bolster their edge rushing capability, either using that early 2nd round draft pick which is essentially a late first rounder to trade for an impact player or to use other trade capital to pick up another depth guy who could impact the pass rush.
But as the old saying goes, “It takes two to Tango” and one has to wonder if anyone out there was willing to help Bill Belichick and New England unless getting an exorbitant return.
But now the trading deadline is over and the question remains, what do they do about getting the pass rush up to an acceptable level. While it hasn’t been completely awful, it hasn’t blown anyone away either. The team obviously felt like they were in a good enough position that even with Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard leaving, that they’d be fine. Trey Flowers who came on strong late last season and Rob Ninkovich, the aging but still productive defensive end, gave them a good place to start. They drafted two young kids in top draft choice Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise. They brought in Kony Ealy, from the Carolina Panthers who they hoped would be a productive player from the inside. And they still had linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy, all of whom had shown the ability the blitz either off the edge or up the A-gap.
But things haven’t worked out smoothly, Ninkovich retired in training camp, leaving a big hole of experience. Ealy couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt to the Patriots system and was released. The light was just beginning to come on a little bit for Rivers during camp when he was injured and placed on IR. McClellin was injured and placed on IR, but with the chance to return later this season. And the worst of all possible scenarios, Hightower, their leader and best player on the front seven, the captain who called the signals and the guy they could least afford to lose was injured against the Falcons and lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. What now?
Forced to Look Within: With a dearth of trading partners, the team now has to fill their needs from players that are already on the roster. Trey Flowers is already playing nearly all of the snaps defensively and asking him to do more is frankly not possible. However, if other players show the ability to step up, it would no doubt boost his productivity.
The team brought over Cassius Marsh from the Seahawks. He was known as primarily as a Special Teams guy there but was a guy, the other members of the defense raved about as an ascending player. He plays with a non-stop motor and is an excellent STs guy but is still learning the defense here. He’s not set the edge consistently and has lost containment on a few occasions. That happens with players that lack consistent playing time. But Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia and DL coach Brendan Daly will work with him on maintaining his edge responsibilities and he will be given plenty of chances to play himself into a bigger role.
Rookie Deatrich Wise and UDFA Adam Butler have both flashed at times. Wise too needs to maintain his edge responsibilities but they’ve both shown upside. Butler has interior pass rush potential. With Hightower down, the team moved Van Noy back to a more comfortable place with him on the outside now. David Harris who had been almost a ghost in the first six weeks of the season is sharing the inside linebacker role with Elandon Roberts.
Van Noy now calls the signals and wears the green dot for the receiving the calls from the sidelines. He can also chip in with pressure off the edge. The good news is that McClellin is back to practice and is eligible to return against the Broncos. He can do a bit of everything. Drop into coverage, rush the quarterback off the edge, and .play inside support in the running game. I foresee him doing more of the first two than the latter.
The much-maligned depth at the linebacking spot is actually looking pretty good once McClellin returns to the field. However, they can’t afford any more injuries there.
But with no trade help forthcoming at the deadline, the Patriots are going to need either one of the above-mentioned players to step up or have another role player take on added responsibility.
They have the week off with the bye and now is the time for the coaches to do some experimenting and possibly moving players around to shift the responsibilities around and see who can possibly step from the shadows to help the pass rush.
Could other Special Teams’ players such as Marquis Flowers or Trevor Reilly step up and play a bigger role? It is a possibility and don’t be surprised if the coaches put them out there to see if they can make the leap into a bigger part of the defense.
But now more than ever, they’ll have to use that Patriots mantra “Next Man Up”