Tag Archives: Derek Rivers

Patriots 53-man Roster Projection 1.0 Post Minicamp Edition

Steve Balestrieri
June 18, 2018 at 9:39 am ET

With minicamp over, it is time to a very early look at a New England Patriots 53-man roster projection. We got a brief glimpse of what the players can do in the Bill Belichick system during the spring workouts and although no one was wearing pads, it was as close to actual football activities as the players will get prior to training camp beginning in about five weeks.

We’ll start posting training camp primers by position very soon to break down the current 90 man roster to a workable 53-man roster.

Offense –
Quarterbacks: (3)
Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Danny Etling

The Patriots will probably go with three QBs this year. Etling has shown enough in the spring to earn that much moving into camp. Will he push Hoyer for the backup job this summer? Very doubtful. Hoyer has a comfort level in the system and the confidence in the coaches that he can step up and play well in an emergency. Etling has a long way to go in that regard.

Running backs: (5)

Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, James White, Jeremy Hill, James Develin

Sony Michel looked like a rookie at times this spring, making mistakes, blowing assignments…all the things that rookies do in assimilating into a new system. That’s part of the learning process but shouldn’t affect his availability at all.

Sony Michel after practice. (SBalestrieri photo)

However, his upside was also there for all to see. He’s a threat to run or receive and showed a smoothness in the passing game with good hands. Along with Rex Burkhead and James White, the Patriots passing offense using their running backs should be very difficult to stop in 2018.

But that learning process may give the coaches pause enough to carry the veteran Hill to make the comeback attempt with the Patriots in the early going of the season. That may be bad news for Mike Gillislee and veteran ST presence, Brandon Bolden. I know, we cut Bolden every year and every year he’s out there making big plays on the special teams, which he’s known for.

Tight ends: (3)
Rob Gronkowski, Jacob Hollister, Dwayne Allen

The fact that Hollister had a great spring shouldn’t surprise anyone. He made the team a year ago as a UDFA and played, although sparingly during the season. He needed to bulk up and get stronger, and it appears he has. Allen has the firm backing of the head coach and is like an extra tackle out there as a blocker. If he can get anything going in the passing game, it is a bonus.

Jacob Hollister beefed up in the offseason and had an excellent spring. (SBalestrieri photo of 2017 training camp)


Wide Receivers: (6)
Chris Hogan, Jordan Matthews, Cordarrelle Patterson, Kenny Britt, Matthew Slater, Malcolm Mitchell (Suspended: Julian Edelman)

Edelman’s looming suspension, unless his appeal is successful will give one Patriots WR at least a month’s reprieve. In this case, it is Malcolm Mitchell. Mitchell’s status has zero to do with ability but everything to do with availability. He missed the majority of the spring but the good news was, the Patriots were taking a cautious approach with him.

Can he stay on the field this summer? If he does, he’s a lock, if he can’t then difficult decisions will have to be made by the coaches. There is a lot of competition to be had here at this position this summer, Philip Dorsett, Riley McCarron and Braxton Berrios will all be vying for spots. And other than Hogan, and Edelman, everything is on the table. And that includes Slater who is a WR in name only.

Offensive line: (8)
Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Joe Thuney, Cole Croston, LaAdrian Waddle

The state of the offensive line, if everyone was healthy would be very bright. But injuries abound and because of that, there are plenty of questions right now. Thuney hasn’t made an appearance yet, Wynn and Brown are coming off of shoulder injuries, Cannon is still hurt after going on IR last year. This position will bear watching this summer.

Defense
Defensive line: (8)
Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Danny Shelton, Adrian Clayborn, Deatrich Wise, Lawrence Guy, Vincent Valentine, Derek Rivers

No big surprises here, the Patriots really liked Valentine in his rookie season and if he’s healthy (a big if), he noses out Butler who played well last year on the inside. If Valentine doesn’t have the same impact, Butler or one of the other edge players Eric Lee, Keionta Davis, Trent Harris may be able to step up and be noticed.

Linebacker: (7)

Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Christian Sam, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Marquis Flowers, Harvey Langi, Brandon King

Roberts got a lot of reps with the “starters” this spring, Bill Belichick hates the term 1st and 2nd team during OTAs but the fact they drafted Bentley speaks volumes. I’m going out on a limb here and say Langi beats him out for an inside LB spot. King is an ST maven but practices with the LBs.

Harvey Langi (SBalestrieri photo)


Cornerback: (6)
Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Eric Rowe, Duke Dawson, J.C. Jackson, Keion Crosson (PUP: Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones)

Jackson, the UDFA got quite a few looks opposite Gilmore this spring and looked pretty solid. Eric Rowe didn’t have a great spring and McCourty was…unused. Neither is a worrisome development yet. But with Gilmore looking outstanding thus far and a young crop of corners entering the picture, this position looks in good shape.

Safety: (4)
Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner

Once again I go to minicamp and watch Gronkowski and Hollister smoke Jordan Richards in coverage and say, “surely the coaches see this too….right?” But when the smoke clears, we’ll see what happens. Ebner and King are STs first and safety/hybrid LB second. So the depth could use a jolt. Two words:  Kenny Vaccaro.

Specialists: (3)
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Corey Bojorquez, long-snapper Joe Cardona

Jumping the gun here but UDFA rookie punter Corey Bojorquez can really put a charge into the ball. We watched him during minicamp and were thoroughly impressed with his leg strength and hang time. He has a long way to go to beat out Ryan Allen and needs work on his directional punting and pinning opponents deep, things that Allen is very good at. But for the simple fact of competition, we’ll give him the early edge. The other two will sleep well during camp as no one has been brought in to challenge them. That must feel nice.

 

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Post Draft Reactions: But What About the Patriots Defense?

Steve Balestrieri
May 1, 2018 at 8:30 am ET

With the 2018 NFL Draft in the books, when it comes to the Patriots, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Bill Belichick is the master at doing the opposite of what people expect him to do and once again he remained true to his principles.

Belichick has made it abundantly clear that he will not draft according to need if he doesn’t feel the value was there for the team in terms of fit or ability. He made it very clear his feelings on that just prior to the draft.

“The whole draft-need thing is… I don’t really understand that. You put a card up on the board. That doesn’t mean the guy is a good player. I think it’s important to acquire good players wherever they are. If you take a player at a position that you might so-called ‘need’ but he’s not good enough to fill that need, then it’s a wasted pick. So I don’t understand the whole need thing. I understand player value, and that’s what we try to go by.”

Down the stretch and into the playoffs the Patriots defense, specifically, the front seven didn’t strike fear into the hearts of anyone. They had a pronounced lack of depth at edge rushers and a dearth of speed and athleticism at linebacker. The prevailing thought was (and not just here) that the Patriots would address these needs early in the draft. They didn’t.

Once a few of the top edge rushers and linebackers went early in the draft, including Alabama’s Rashaan Evans who the team reportedly wanted, the Patriots didn’t look for any in the first four rounds, not believing the ability was there. In fact, their first three draft picks were a tackle, running back and a cornerback. Coincidentally, and despite what Belichick said about drafting for need, their biggest free agent losses? You guessed it, a tackle, running back and cornerback.

While we thought here that were plenty of players that could help the defense, Belichick and Nick Caserio balked. The took a linebacker in the 5th Round at #143 but he is hardly the speedy, athletic type we all clamored for. Ja’Whaun Bentley is a throwback to the 2003 era. He’s a big, 6’2, 260-pound sledgehammer. A two-down run stuffer but hardly a coverage guy. Christian Sam taken at #178 is more in line with that type of player. So what is the plan for the defense?

Belichick obviously feels the defense will be best served by getting back its own players. First of all, the team will be looking from within this year. They get Dont’a Hightower, Derek Rivers, Harvey Langi and Vincent Valentine back from injuries. Hightower and Langi could be asked to move back to the linebacker position. Rivers is seen here as a hybrid edge rusher/outside linebacker. The team picked up Adrian Clayborn and DT Danny Shelton during free agency and corner Jason McCourty will definitely help the depth of the unit.

Derek Rivers will be looked to for big things in Year 2 but his first after going on IR in training camp last year. (SBalestrieri photo)

With these added pieces, the defense, and specifically the front seven will look vastly different. Factor in that both Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler will each have a second season to further their development. Belichick always says the biggest development for players is between Years 1-2.

And of course, the team could still try to swing a deal with another team to make a trade for a veteran player early this summer or sign a free agent. Now that the draft is over, any veterans can scan the rosters and see where their best fit may be.

With everyone returning healthy, Rivers may probably be the most watched guy on the defensive side of the ball this summer.  The light was just starting to come on for the rookie when he went down with an injury that forced him onto IR. The defense could look vastly different than the one they fielded at the Super Bowl if the Patriots put Hightower back at the Mike with Rivers and Kyle Van Noy as outside backers, Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers at defensive end and Danny Shelton and Malcom Brown inside.

Some of the other guys can be used for depth and Rivers and Hightower can be moved around and play either upright or down as edge rushers. A few of the UDFAs may make a splash. A couple of the intriguing names for front seven include DTs Frank Herron and John Atkins and DE Trent Harris. Harris is a bit undersized but displayed a lightning quick first step while playing for Miami.

While the draft didn’t play out as some envisioned, (raises hand) the team obviously didn’t value the players available. While I certainly believed that a lot of guys between #56 and #143 were capable of helping the defense, Belichick did not and he’s got a little more experience building defenses. Is it time for minicamp yet?

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and myself from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

New England Patriots Draft Profile, Lorenzo Carter, LB, Georgia

Steve Balestrieri
March 31, 2018 at 8:30 am ET

Carter Has a lot of Potential Upside in the Pros

As the 2018 NFL Draft draws closer we’ll profile some of the players that may be on the Patriots radar or that we feel would be a great fit.

In an earlier post, we wrote about the Patriots issues on the edge in 2017. They had too many losses to work around because of free agency, retirement, and injury. Others that they brought in, that just didn’t work out (Kony Ealy, Cassius Marsh), added to the issue.

With some players getting back from injury this year, things should automatically look up from 2017. And the Patriots did address the position during free agency. The team signed Adrian Clayborn this spring which immediately helps.

Hightower, Rivers and Langi return, they’ll join Trey Flowers, Deatrich, Lee, and Adam Butler but they could really use another young edge player which could facilitate moving Hightower and Langi back to linebacker. That would be the best thing, as they really need some help at Inside Linebacker.

At the outside linebacker position, they’d have Marquis Flowers and Kyle Van Noy, as well as Derek Rivers, returning. They could still shift either Hightower or Langi back on occasion to the outside but would still require some needed depth and athleticism at the position and there are players available in the draft.

Lorenzo Carter from Georgia is an intriguing prospect that played in the SEC. He’s one of those players that may become a better professional than he was a college player. After being one of the most highly recruited players in the country, his college football resume never really materialized the way most thought it would.

Carter has an incredibly long and rangy frame (6’6, 250) and played as both as a hand in the dirt defensive end and as an outside linebacker standing up. He had some experience covering tight ends and backs and even at times receivers. Although he generated a lot of quarterback pressure, Carter never was a big sack guy getting just nine and a half combined sacks in his last two seasons.

In college, he set the edge well using his athletic ability and holding the containment in the running game. But he’s not solidly built in his lower body and can get pushed around if he allows blockers to get inside of him. Because of that, at the NFL level, he’ll probably be more of an outside linebacker than defensive end.

Pros:

– Excellent Height and Length

– Good hand placement and work

– Has a knack for causing fumbles

– Good motor and speed

Cons

– Not great in coverage

– Can be pushed around in power running game

– Needs to add bulk especially in his lower body

What his Role Will Be:

Carter could immediately play in the sub-packages as an outside linebacker. He’ll have too much trouble setting the edge in the pros as a 4-3 Defensive end. If he’s used there, he’d be strictly a subpackage pass rusher initially. He can cover a bit but also rush off the edge as a blitzer.

Will his Role Change from Year 1-2?

Yes, in Year 2 if he can build up his leg strength, he could see more work as a stand-up defensive end.

How Many Downs Can He Play?

Three

What Current Player on the Roster Will He Replace?

Carter could replace an STs guy like Nicholas Grigsby and take his role on STs.

What is his ST Value?

Limited, but the team will probably use him on some of the coverage units taking advantage of his speed and athleticism

Conclusion:
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein in his profile wrote that:

Carter was a five-star prospect and one of the most heralded players in the nation when he was recruited by Georgia but he never made the impact expected of him as a Bulldog. However, Carter played with increased toughness and confidence this year and his NFL potential began to reassert itself once again. Carter is an outside linebacker in a 3-4 or 4-3 with sideline-to-sideline range and the tools to become a productive edge rusher in sub-packages. He needs to add more bulk, but he is a future NFL starter.”

Carter is a better fit at Outside Linebacker and has the skills to rush the passer off the edge where his speed and agility can be brought to bear. He’s good but not great in coverage and tended to give too much of a cushion but that happens with players that aren’t asked to do it very much.

Carter is a versatile player, something the Patriots value highly in their players and he was that guy for the Bulldogs. He could be found, rushing off the edge as a Wide-9 Defensive End, dropping into coverage as a WILL Linebacker and moving all around the formation. He doesn’t have great instincts and is more of a read and react kind of player but he has the athleticism and speed to be a very productive player at the next level.

I know he showed some good power and strength in setting the edge in college but the pros are different. His legs look a bit spindly and that could be an issue until he packs on some needed muscle. But his frame may max out quickly and it could hurt his athleticism if he bulks up.

Carter is going to be one of those boom or bust kind of prospects. It is easy to become enamored with his obvious physical skills, running a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash but he chose not to run the bigger barometer for a change of direction and agility which is the 3-Cone Drill. But for all his physical tools, it didn’t translate into production. He produced just 9.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in his last two seasons combined in Georgia.

Carter will be an intriguing prospect as we stated above because some defensive coaches will want to be able to channel that athleticism. We all saw that in the Orange Bowl with the blocked field goal attempt.

He’s mainly thought of as kind of an end of the second or early third-round prospect in most places. It may be a good place to pick him up. We know Bill Belichick saw him and the rest of the Georgia linebackers up close and worked them out during their Pro Day.

 

Carter’s highlight reel tape from Keith Benjamin can be seen here: 

 

And his 2018 Rose Bowl Game against Oklahoma highlights from Cut Up Corner can be seen here: 

 

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

New England Patriots Draft Profile, Sam Hubbard, Edge, Ohio State

Steve Balestrieri
March 29, 2018 at 8:30 am ET

Hubbard One of the Top Edge Players in the Draft

As the 2018 NFL Draft draws closer we’ll profile some of the players that may be on the Patriots radar or that we feel would be a great fit.

The Patriots were decimated on the edge in 2017. They lost Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long in free agency. But they brought over Kony Ealy in a trade with the Panthers and then drafted Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise in the draft. They were planning on having the old pro-Rob Ninkovich for one more season along with Shea McClellin and Dont’a Hightower who was moving to the edge last year.

Well, Ninkovich unexpectedly retired in training camp. McClellin and Rivers were injured in camp and were lost for the season. Ealy didn’t fit and was released. Hightower and rookie Harvey Langi who was pressed into some edge work were lost for the year as well. The team brought in Cassius Marsh, but he didn’t work out and later signed Eric Lee. Lee showed a nice ability to rush the passer but had trouble on the edge. They eventually brought James Harrison on late in the season.

The team signed Adrian Clayborn this spring which immediately helps. Hightower, Rivers and Langi return, they’ll join Trey Flowers, Deatrich, Lee, and Adam Butler but they could really use another young edge player which could facilitate moving Hightower and Langi back to linebacker.

Sam Hubbard from Ohio State has prototypical size for an edge player at 6’5, 265-pounds. He still had a year of eligibility left but decided to come out in this season’s draft and has first-round talent. He had a very productive final season with Buckeyes, garnering 42 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for a loss, seven sacks, and two forced fumbles.

He would be a nice fit for the Patriots defense and would be a Day 1 contributor as an edge player as part of their rotation. He could easily develop into an above average pass rusher and a starter.

Hubbard was a lacrosse player (oh yeah another lacrosse player) and is a converted safety before he packed on the muscle and became one of the stalwarts on the team’s defense. Hubbard is a high-motor guy as well as a high character one. He was a team captain as well as Academic All-American.  His work ethic will immediately win over the coaching staff and his tenacity will get kudos for the team’s fanbase.

He has a high football I.Q. and his instincts are excellent. While not an elite athlete, he produces thru his smarts and instinctive play.  He’s a sure tackler and does a good job at setting the edge in the running game.

He’s not an explosive pass rusher, and benefitted from the stunts and twists the Buckeyes ran in the passing game. But he displayed good, quick hands and is versatile and can play on either side of the line. While he’s not an elite pass rusher, he’s a very solid all-around player who can do it all.

Pros:

– Good Height and Length

– Sturdy setting the edge

– Great instincts

– Excellent motor

Cons

– Not an elite athlete

– A bit stiff at times when turning the edge

– Needs to keep pad level lower

What his Role Will Be:

Hubbard will be an immediate rotational player on the edge. With Flowers and Clayborn and possibly Rivers, he’ll be expected to play whenever they need to keep fresh legs out there.

Will his Role Change from Year 1-2?

Yes, in Year 2 he should have packed on a few pounds in the strength and conditioning program. Then he can push for more reps and perhaps slide into the starting position with a solid rookie season.

How Many Downs Can He Play?

Three

What Current Player on the Roster Will He Replace?

Geneo Grissom, who has been a very good Special Teams player but hasn’t contributed at all defensively. Hubbard could force him out.

What is his ST Value?

Limited, but he has done some coverage duties in the past

Conclusion:
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein in his profile wrote that:

“Hubbard will pass the eyeball test with his height, weight, and build, but he’s missing the plus athleticism to take him over the top as a pass rusher. His tape is solid, but nothing jumps off the screen. Teams looking for a big-time edge rusher won’t get too excited by him, but he will appeal to defensive coordinators looking for guys with size and motor to plug into a blitz-heavy, twist-happy defense. Hubbard could become an early starter as a strong-side defensive end for a 4-3 defense.”

Hubbard is what many draft experts call a “safe pick”, in that he has a very high floor and while he may not become an elite defensive end, because of his work ethic, excellent instincts and high motor could be a very good one.

While Patriots fans want the guys who can pin their ears back and rush the QB kind of players, that isn’t the defense that they run. The “read and react” defense is predicated on setting the edge first in the running game and then having the ability to push and squeeze the pocket forcing the opposing QB into making mistakes.

They want versatile guys who can do it all and Hubbard is the kind of player they covet. Bill Belichick will love this guy, he has a tremendous work ethic, high football I.Q., a non-stop motor and will be a productive member of the defense.

While he’s not that explosive guy at the line, he’s very quick and ran the 3-Cone Drill in a very impressive 6.84. He has the ability to be an above-average pass rusher in the NFL with a bit of experience. He should be an immediate Day 1 contributor to the defense if the Patriots decide to pull the trigger.

Hubbard’s highlight reel tape from Devo Highlights can be seen here: 

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Draft Profile, Rashaan Evans, LB Alabama

Steve Balestrieri
March 23, 2018 at 8:30 am ET

Evans New Breed of NFL Linebacker, Fast, Physical, Explosive

As the 2018 NFL Draft draws closer we’ll profile some of the players that may be on the Patriots radar or that we feel would be a great fit.

The Patriots really need more depth and a dose of athleticism and speed at the Linebacker position. They were thin at the beginning of the 2017 season and injuries to key players set them back to where it became a glaring weakness in the Super Bowl loss.

The team lost Shea McClellin in the preseason due to concussions and he missed the entire season. Top draft choice Derek Rivers who they were playing in a tweener role bouncing back and forth at DE/OLB was lost to a torn ACL in training camp as well. Dont’a Hightower missed most of the season with different injuries and was placed on IR. He was the one guy the front seven could ill afford to lose. David Harris showed that he had lost too much speed and was barely used. James Harrison was added late in the year. Kyle Van Noy and Marquis Flowers  both played well and they return and help with the depth

Hightower and Rivers return which should help the depth but inside Elandon Roberts is better suited to be a backup than a starter. He frequently was out of position and is a liability in coverage. Will the team move Hightower back inside or will they leave him on the edge? Will the team use Harvey Langi, who was also lost to NFI (Car wreck) at linebacker or will they use him too on the edge? Lots of questions here.

Rashaan Evans from Alabama comes from a Pro-ready program with Nick Saban and can step in on Day 1 and be a key contributor. With the steady influx of talent with the Tide, Evans had to be patient. But despite not being a full-time starter until 2017, he played significant snaps on Special Teams as a freshman.

Evans put the time in and saw his snaps and production increase each year. During the two playoff games in 2016, he started both and was ready for his coming out party last year. He led the excellent Crimson Tide defense with tackles (74), with 13.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and three passes knocked down, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He was All-SEC Second Team.

He’s 6’3, 234 pounds and has tremendous sideline-to-sideline speed.  He’s a quick twitch athlete who is versatile and can play inside at the Mike Linebacker position or outside as well as rush off the edge in sub-packages.

Watching the Alabama defense, he’d be an outstanding delayed Blitzer up the A-Gap. His speed would put an interior offensive lineman on their heels. He flies around the ball and is relentless. The one play that stands out was against Clemson in the national championship. He blitzed off the edge from the left. The quarterback threw a quick screen to the right. Evans after getting to the quarterback still chased down the running back for a minimal gain going across the field.

Pros:

– Tremendous speed can easily go sideline to sideline

– Tough, explosive, and a very good tackler

– Versatile can play inside or outside on the edge

– Excellent blitzer up the inside gaps

Cons

– Can sometimes overrun plays

– Some durability concerns

– Only a full-time starter for one season

What his Role Will Be:

Evans role would be to immediately take over the inside linebacker position and is a big upgrade over Roberts inside. He can cover a tremendous amount of ground and will be a big addition not only in the running game but in coverage and blitz as well.

Will his Role Change from Year 1-2?

Yes, with his ability to go from sideline-to-sideline, they can then explore the possibility of letting him call the defensive signals and as he grows more comfortable in the defense allow him to blitz more.

How Many Downs Can He Play?

Three

What Current Player on the Roster Will He Replace?

He’ll bump Roberts for the starting role on Day 1. While Roberts spot on the 53-man roster is probably still secure, some of the other depth players may find themselves outside looking in.

What is his ST Value?

Very good, he can be an immediate contributor and played significant STs snaps since his freshman year in college.

Conclusion:

NFL.com’s Lance Zeirlein in his profile wrote about his versatility. “Evans is an ideal inside linebacker fit for a blitz-happy 3-4 unit, but he could easily fit as a 4-3 WILL with rush potential on sub-packages,” Zeirlein said. “Evans is an early starter with high-end potential if he can stay healthy.”

Evans is a smart, tremendously athletically gifted linebacker who has the perfect work ethic that teams will covet. He wants to play, improve and above all else, puts the team first. Nick Saban has a knack for finding some outstanding talented front sevens during his tenure at Alabama and Evans is the latest of talented linebackers to move to the pros.

He and Hightower would make a great team at linebacker and he’d immediately upgrade the unit. With a linebacking core desperately in need of speed and athleticism, Evans checks the block quite easily. He can cover tight ends, running backs and even slot receivers in a pinch. He ran the all-important 3-Cone Drill in 6.95.

The problem with him is where he falls in the draft. I’ve seen Evans drafted anywhere between 16 and 25 on mock drafts. There is no way, he falls to the Patriots at #31. So, if they like him and see an opportunity, then the Patriots are going to have to move up in the 1st round and swing a deal with someone to swoop in and steal him away from other teams.

Evans’ highlight reel tape from M&M Productions can be seen here: 

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Edge Rushers in 2018, Biggest Need is Health

Steve Balestrieri
February 26, 2018 at 8:00 am ET

If there was an area more snakebit than the edge for the Patriots in 2017, then please share. The team lost both Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long during free agency. But with Rob Ninkovich, Trey Flowers, Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin, and Kyle Van Noy returning, they weren’t in terrible shape. Then they addressed it with two draft picks, Derek Rivers, and Deatrich Wise. Kony Ealy was brought in with a trade and Harvey Langi was added as an undrafted free agent. So things didn’t seem bad at all, …and then the wheels came off.

Ninkovich retired abruptly during training camp. Rivers and McClellin were hurt in training camp and lost for the season. McClellin may be gone for good as he’s suffered numerous concussions and this one may be it for him. Wise missed time during camp but came on strong afterward. Things weren’t helped when Ealy flamed out and the player they brought in from the Seahawks Cassius Marsh wasn’t a fit. Langi was shelved for the year after he and his wife were rear-ended at a traffic light and both got seriously injured.

Derek Rivers, here against the Jaguars, was just beginning to flash in TC when he got hurt. (SBalestrieri photo)

The team moved Hightower to the edge before he too was injured and ended up on IR. Keionta Davis never took the field as he had a bulging disk in his neck that didn’t hurt him in college but it made it where no one drafted him. It remains to be seen if he’ll be able to contribute down the road.

The team brought in Eric Lee who displayed a decent ability to rush the passer but struggled to set the edge. And very late they brought in James Harrison who at 39 still set the edge very well and had some juice left to get after the passer. Harrison, as well as ST/Edge player Geneo Grissom, are both free agents.  Now entering 2018, the team is back to square one. Obviously, edge rusher is a big need, but good health is paramount.

Getting Hightower, Rivers, and Langi back is big. Hightower is a known commodity and he’s the Patriots best defender in the front seven…when healthy. Which is becoming an issue. We still don’t what they have in Rivers and Langi. But both flashed potential last season. Although they both got to sit in the meeting rooms last season, they’re still essentially rookies on the field. So while question marks on one side, they’re both like a free draft pick on the other.  McClellin will bear watching, it may be in his best interest to call it a career after multiple concussions and missing the entire season due to others.

Harvey Langi in coverage against Tommy Bohanon, was injured in a car wreck. (SBalestrieri photo)

Free Agency Options: So what is out there in Free Agency? Top tier pass rushers Demarcus Lawrence and Ziggy Ansah are going to command much more cash than the Patriots can afford. Second tier players that may interest New England are Adrian Clayborn from the Falcons, who had 9.5 sacks in 2017. Trent Murphy from the Redskins had a nice 2016 but then missed all of 2017 with an injury.

Of course, they could bring back Harrison but one name to keep an eye on, could be Julius Peppers. The ageless, 38-year old pass rush specialist for the Panthers had 11 sacks last year in Carolina and could be one of those veteran players the Patriots and Belichick have brought in to bring some heat on the QB.

While we have been beating the drum that they need to get younger and more athletic on the edge, why bring in Peppers? Great question, while we’ll continue to believe that, there is nothing like solid production. Peppers hasn’t had less than seven sacks since 2007. He could be a nice fit with Belichick and the Patriots in a limited snap count role.

Names in the Draft: Now we’ll be the first to say, don’t even bother with draft scenarios until free agency is about played out. That will ultimately decide how the team decides to approach the draft and not the other way around. However, we always get a ton of questions about talented edge guys coming out in the draft.

Some guys to watch during the NFL Combine are Bradley Chubb, NC State, who will go far before the Pats select, and in no particular order (yet) are some edge rushers that could be of interest to New England:
Arden Key, LSU 6’6, 265
Marcus Davenport, UTSA, 6’6, 250
Harold Landry, BC, 6’3, 250
Sam Hubbard, Ohio State, 6’5, 266
Marcell Frazier, Mizzou, 6’5, 260
Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest, 6’3, 275

This list will grow as we get past the combine and get deeper into our NFL Draft coverage as we’ll look at some players whose skill sets may be of interest to the Patriots. If they opt for a guy like Peppers in free agency for instance, then they’ll likely look for an edge player closer to the middle rounds.

But regardless, the biggest thing the team needs now is health. Getting a healthy Hightower, Rivers, and Langi all on the field will do wonders for what ailed the team in 2017. Be intriguing to see if Davis, who was a productive college player can get a clean bill of health, ditto for McClellin.

We’ll be watching as free agency unfolds like everyone else, but with a limited amount of cash this spring, the Patriots will probably not be big players in free agency this season. They’ll have to do some creative work with the cap to make that happen and most of their big decisions will come down to whether or not to sign their own players. And while it won’t be the kind of moves that Patriots fans want to see, their biggest moves this spring may be just getting their own injured players back in the fold.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Hightower’s Return Opens Up Possibilities for the Defense

Steve Balestrieri
August 24, 2017 at 10:31 am ET

The Patriots got a great bit of news this week when Dont’a Hightower came off of the PUP list and returned to practice. This was the first time that he’s been in full uniform since the Super Bowl.

Hightower is back in the fold after testing the waters during free agency this spring. The market wasn’t exactly hot for the big, 6’3, 265-pound linebacker who, as he admits, fits best with the Patriots. Although he was courted by both the Jets and the Steelers, Hightower returned to Foxboro with a four-year deal worth $35.5 million dollars with a full $19 million guaranteed including a $10 million dollar signing bonus.

Hightower has the skill set to play in the middle of the defense where he’s been in the Patriots scheme the past five years as the Mike linebacker as well as off the edge as a blitzer. His strip sack of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl was one of the big turning points in the game. He’s been effective blitzing up the A-gaps but with David Harris in the fold in 2017, this will allow Hightower to play more on the edge. So he’ll be working on playing more on the edge in practice to get ready for the season.


The Patriots defense just got a huge boost with Dont’a Hightower returning this week to practice. (USA TODAY Images)

But with the Patriots defense, they have the versatility to move players around. Harris or Hightower can play the middle while players like Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin can line up as outside linebackers, drop into coverage or blitz off the edge. The Patriots are thin on the edge with Rob Ninkovich retiring as soon as camp opened and top draft choice Derek Rivers being on IR with an ACL injury.

Fellow rookie edge player Deatrich Wise was having a very impressive summer before suffering a concussion against the Jaguars. He missed all of last week’s practice, the preseason game against the Texans and won’t travel to Detroit this week as the Patriots are just being cautious with him. Hopefully, this won’t set back his progression as he looked to be carving out a spot for himself during training camp.

With Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and the defense, it is all about the matchups. I expect to see Hightower lineup all over the field this fall, although I do believe that they’ll utilize him more as a blitzer this season than in years past. Does this mean that he’s going to be a “designated pass rush specialist” for the Pats in 2017? Hardly. But whenever they seem a matchup they think they can exploit, then they’ll unleash him to come off the edge. And like in the Super Bowl, if Hightower sees an opening to blitz uncovered, he’ll be given the green light more frequently than he probably was allowed to in the past.

Having the big man back on the field is bound to give the defense overall a boost. Hightower is an extremely valuable member of the Patriots defense, and the rest of the league not seeing his value when he was in free agency is the Patriots gain. The two latest Super Bowl wins probably don’t happen without big plays from #54. In Super Bowl XLIX, he stopped Marshawn Lynch short of the goal line on first down, setting up the heroics for Malcolm Butler a play later to ice the victory. And last season’s strip sack of Matt Ryan set the Patriots up in prime field position to tie the game up and send it into overtime, where Tom Brady and James White, powered them to Lombardi #5.

His biggest asset, besides being a totally unselfish player, is his versatility and smarts. He’s worn the “Green Dot” communication device for the defense and is able, and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

And don’t forget, although he hasn’t had the opportunities here to rush the quarterback, he’s done some of that while he was a member of the Alabama defense. While the team is still a bit thin on the edge, with Wise and more importantly Hightower back on the field, things are looking a lot rosier for Matt Patricia’s defense.

The Patriots won’t lead the league in sacks this season, but they may be just fine with Hightower helping out the likes of Trey Flowers, Wise and Kony Ealy. It’s all about the matchups.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Derek Rivers Injury Leaves Patriots Thinner On the Edge, Options?

Steve Balestrieri
August 18, 2017 at 8:39 pm ET

The Patriots got more bad news this summer as rookie edge player Derek Rivers has torn his ACL and will be lost for the season. It was a tough blow for the rookie who was injured conducting kickoff drills during joint practices with the Texans on Wednesday and was sent home for further evaluation.

Rivers was the Patriots top pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and up until his injury the other day, been coming on as he grew accustomed to the speed and physicality of the NFL. His play has been much better lately and now, like Trey Flowers in his rookie season, he’ll watch the season on the sideline.

But now the big question is, where does the team go from here? With the loss of Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich from last year’s team, they were thin on the edge. Now they’re dangerously so. With Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy and Geneo Grissom the only healthy players at the present with experience, the pressure on the edge will have to come from somewhere. The good news is that rookie edge player Deatrich Wise should be back to practice soon after the team returns from Houston. He was kicked in the head during the first preseason game and suffered a concussion. At the time of his injury, he was having a very impressive summer. The team is obviously hoping that this injury won’t set back his progress. The team can look for upgrades in three places. Internally, via free agency and also trades.

Internal Options: The Patriots like to operate out of flexible and changing front, which is why Bill Belichick doesn’t like to classify anything as a 4-3 or 3-4. Rivers was a good fit for this as he could switch between a standup OLB and a hand in the dirt DE. With David Harris on the roster at MLB, the Patriots could use Dont’a Hightower at OLB who could help with the pressure. He’s been very effective as that.

Other linebackers that the team picked up last year, Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin have both been defensive ends or blitzed off the edge. Each could be tasked to help in that area. This injury may open the door for a guy like Adam Butler, an interior player who has shown the ability to create some pressure inside. He and Lawrence Guy, are 300 pounders who can play anywhere along the line but may be used as interior pass rushers.

Another rookie who has been turning heads is Harvey Langi. The UDFA has been both a stand up inside LB and a blitzer off the edge. He played DE in his senior year of college. He’s another guy who could conceivably fit the bill as an edge rusher. The internal options point to more of a three-man front look or a 3-4. But they can also look elsewhere.

Free Agency and/or Trade: We’ve seen in the past that Bill Belichick isn’t shy about pulling off trades during the season, Akiem Hicks, Akeem Ayers, and Van Noy a year ago are just some of the players that he’s picked up who played big roles for the team.

One of the biggest names out there is Dwight Freeney the former Patriots nemesis with the Colts who played a nice role with the Falcons a year ago. Freeney still showed he had what it took as he had seven QB hurries and a sack of Tom Brady in Super Bowl LI. At age 37, he’s no spring chicken but could be a sub-package pass rusher where he could still be effective.

Jared Odrick is a guy the Pats had in this spring for a physical, which he passed after a shoulder injury shelved him in 2016. He’s another one of those interior type pass rushers though so it would be interesting if they kick the tires on him.

Another name surfacing on social media is Mario Williams. There’s never been a question about his talent. His desire is another matter. Williams’ drive and motivation have been called into question the last few years. I highly doubt that Belichick would take a chance on wasting time with Williams if he wasn’t going to go all in. That would take a selling job not seen since Seward bought Alaska for a song.

On the trade front, there are a couple of guys out there who would be intriguing. But perhaps the most would be Za’Darius Smith of the Ravens. This possibility was first mentioned by Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit and one we’d agree with…Baltimore is another question. Smith had a solid rookie season but is being phased out of the defense as the Ravens invested heavily in the edge this spring. Baltimore needs tight end help, could one of the three Patriots TEs competing for the #3 spot be of interest to Ozzie Newsome? It would be an interesting fit. He’s 6’4, 275-pounds and about the approximate size of Wise. With him on the outs in Baltimore, he may be available…if the price is right.

While I wouldn’t be surprised if they kicked the tires on a free agent, I think Belichick may decide to fill the position from within. One dark horse that we didn’t mention is DE Keionta Davis. Davis was signed just recently and the Patriots may be stashing him on the roster for down the road, future use. He’s an athletic 6-3, 271-pound edge rusher who, if healthy, can help the team out. But our best bet here….most of the slack they may try to fill internally.

Which probably means Freeney signs about two minutes after this is posted…

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Reports Concerning For Rookie Derek Rivers’ Status for 2017

Ian Logue
at 11:49 am ET

With the retirement of Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots were in need of another player to step into the former defensive end’s role heading into the future.

For 2017, it sounds like rookie Derek Rivers might not be part of an immediate solution.

According to ESPN’s Field Yates and Mike Reiss, the Patriots sent Rivers back to New England for a MRI following an apparent knee injury suffered by the rookie on Wednesday and the outlook appears to be grim.

The two report that the team fears that Rivers’ status for this season appears to be in jeopardy, which could end the former standout from Youngstown State’s season before it even got started.

Rivers reportedly suffered the injury on special teams during a kickoff drill where he went to change direction and his knee buckled.

If he’s lost for the year, the team is already thin at the position, with Trey Flowers as the sole player who has played well enough to be at the top of the depth chart.  From there the team has just Kony Ealy, Geneo Grissom, Deatrich Wise Jr. (who suffered a concussion last week vs Jacksonville) as possible candidates, as well as long-shots Caleb Kidder and Keionta Davis.

It’s a tough early blow to a team that for the most part had avoided any serious injuries thus far during camp.  Now they’ll have to switch gears and it should make the next couple of weeks interesting to watch as they begin figuring out how to move on should Rivers’ season come to an end.

With Ninkovich Retired, Who Steps Up on the Edge?

Steve Balestrieri
July 31, 2017 at 8:59 am ET

The retirement of Rob Ninkovich on Sunday afternoon was a significant loss for the Patriots in both terms of experience, (he’s been a stalwart on the team for eight years) but in terms of snaps. Other than last year where he missed the first four games and was bothered by his triceps injury all season, he’s always been one of the leaders in snap percentage on the defense.

The Patriots lost a lot of combined experience on the edge this season, Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long are all gone from the 2016 team, a combined 27 years of experience. Now they have as their longest tenured edge player, Trey Flowers who is entering just his third season.

We know Flowers is expected to be their main guy this season. We saw over the course of the second half of last season and the playoffs that he was arguably their best defensive lineman. One of the reasons they let Sheard and Long walk was they felt that this was the time for Flowers to shine and they went with youth.

So that part was certainly expected. But Ninkovich’s retirement leaves a void in experience and snaps, so who steps up in 2017 to fill the gap and provides the team with the pressure they’ll need?

Kony Ealy is definitely a guy the team expects big things from in 2017. They made a trade with Carolina to bring in Ealy, who has shown flashes of brilliance at times in his career but has yet to put it together.
The cards are all falling in place for Ealy to get a new jumpstart to his career. He has the most experience of any of the edge players, but he’s only 25 and is entering just his fourth NFL season. Things didn’t get off to a great start at camp for Ealy who missed the first day’s session. When asked about it, he stammered out a response that made it seem that Bill Belichick and he weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on something. It may be nothing, we’ll have to monitor this moving forward.

Ealy could team up with Flowers and give the Patriots a young, dynamic 1-2 duo on the edge…if everything plays out. The ball is in his court, and when the team gets back to work on Tuesday morning, Ealy and Flowers will be definitely under the microscope a bit more now.

Derek Rivers after his first training camp practice. (SBalestrieri photo)

The team drafted two edge players in Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise in this spring’s NFL Draft. Rivers was their top draft pick and Wise was also taken in the early going.

Rivers hasn’t turned heads yet, but we’re really only two padded practices into camp, He’s a rookie and has a steep learning curve, having not played against this level of competition in college, especially with the speed of the NFL game.

Rivers arguably has the higher ceiling of the two but he’s in a new defense and admitted on Thursday after the 1st practice session, he’s trying to just react and play his game without having to think about what he needs to do. It is early, and this is what training camp is for.

Wise has made some flashes already, the big guy from Arkansas has shown some nice moves and good explosion off the ball in the early going in both one-on-one drills and during full team work. He’s still got a long way to go as well, but thus far, the results have to be encouraging for the coaching staff.

Deatrich Wise has flashed some good explosion in the early going at training camp. (SBalestrieri photo)

The team will need at least one if not both rookies to step up a bit this season. The pass rush was so-so for much of the 2016 season although it isn’t about sacks but pressure and being able to influence the opposing quarterback’s decision-making process. If they can get their 3rd and 4th round draft picks involved and productive, it will go a long way.

Geneo Grissom is the guy who could garner the most impact with Ninkovich’s retirement. He’s been a bit of a disappointment for a 3rd round draft pick, and has had very little impact on defense, instead just being a core special teams’ player.

Entering his third campaign, he should see an immediate uptick in snaps now that Ninkovich is retired. Like Ealy, the timing is perfect for Grissom, who, if he’s ever going to make an impact on the field, this should be the time.

Grissom looks to have added extra muscle in Year3, in a pivotal year for the DE. (SBalestrieri photo)

Besides the defensive ends, the Patriots also have some linebackers who have shown the ability to rush the quarterback from the edge. Dont’a Hightower is on PUP right now, but he’s been a very effective blitzer from the outside linebacker position. His sack of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl was one of the big turning points in the game.

Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin have also shown the ability to bring pressure on opposing QBs. And both should see some plenty of work in doing that. Rookie Harvey Langi is another LB who could see a role as a blitzer on passing downs.

So while Patriots nation, bids a fond farewell to Rob Ninkovich, the business of the NFL takes back over and the Patriots pass rush, while not glaring to the point of being called a weakness, is now an area of concern with #50’s retirement. Their depth took a hit there. And now it is up to the players that are here to step up.

 

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.