Tag Archives: Kony Ealy

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.

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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…

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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.

 

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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 Training Camp Day 3, First Padded Practice, What to Watch For

Steve Balestrieri
July 29, 2017 at 9:00 am ET

The Patriots get back to work here at Gillette Stadium on Saturday morning and now is when the work really starts. The pads come on for the first time today and as Bill Belichick so aptly put yesterday, now is when the evaluation begins.

The team had a pair of shorts and shells practices the first two days of training camp to get things started but the intensity was dialed down a bit. Today, that should change. Here are a couple of things to watch for today as the team ratchets up the tempo and intensity:

Will Rob Ninkovich Show Up? We’ve been hearing the rumors about Ninkovich possibly going to retire and the only official word we’ve heard from the Patriots is that Nink is dealing with a personal issue.

If Ninkovich indeed does decide to call it a career it will be a definite blow to the defense. Although he’s dealt with a suspension and some injuries a year ago which affected his production, Ninkovich remains one of the best Patriots players at crunch time. He’s always been at his best when the games are on the line.

He may have lost a half-step last season but he’s still a stalwart on the defense and a versatile one to boot. He can line up as a defensive end, as a linebacker and even serves as the team’s emergency long snapper in a pinch. We’ll be watching for the players coming out on the field this morning to see if he’s back….If he does retire, it would leave Kony Ealy and Trey Flowers as the probable starters with rookie draft picks Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise with veteran Geneo Grissom.

How will the Power Running Game Look: The Patriots parted ways with LeGarrette Blount this spring and brought in Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee. Those are the two backs that are expected to pick up the slack of Blount’s departure and provide the team the heavy running between the tackles that they’ll need to keep defenses honest in 2017.

James White and Dion Lewis are the primary passing back options along with D.J. Foster and veteran Brandon Bolden who can jump in for the occasional carry but the new players are the ones to watch today.

With the pads coming on today, Burkhead and Gillislee are the guys to watch. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team open in some sort of goal line drill today to set the tone for the day. UDFA rookie Leshun Daniels is a dark horse to make the roster and he is also in that power back role. It will be curious to see how he performs as well.

Can the Young Players Keep up the Pace? We wrote about how Austin Carr had turned heads in the opening days of camp with some nice catches and showing good hands. Of course, Bill Belichick pooh-poohed the entire episode during his Friday presser but the fact remains that Carr didn’t do anything to hurt his chances during the first two days of camp.

Besides Carr, the Hollister twins, Rivers and Deatrich and others in their first Patriots training camp will be guys to watch now that the heat gets turned up.

As Belichick said, the teaching part will continue but now the evaluations begin. He should be making his way to the podium shortly and after that Saturday’s practice will begin.

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 Training Camp Primer: Defensive Line

Steve Balestrieri
July 17, 2017 at 6:30 am ET

Versatility and Physicality Mark The Pats DL

The Patriots head into training camp in ten days and there should be no shortage 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. Next up on our primers is the Defensive Line position.

Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. With a roster of 90 players and no cuts needed before the final 53-man roster cut down, there will be plenty of time for evaluation.

So, we’re going to look at the Patriots Defensive Line and how they shake out. There is much versatility here and that what makes the Patriots defense so effective. In a sack driven league, they’re rather pedestrian at them despite leading the league in points against in 2016.

DL Malcom Brown will be expected to be more consistent in 2017. (SBalestrieri photo)

It wasn’t smoke and mirrors, the team uses a variety of different looks and squeezes offenses from running the ball and then with their pass rushers, do not let opponents out of the pocket where big plays tend to happen. They demand their edge players set the edge first, they’re not and have never been a “sell-out” pass rush team.

The team lost defensive ends, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long, this spring but drafted two younger guys in Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise while picking up Kony Ealy from the Panthers in a steal of a trade, during the NFL Draft. The team also picked up the versatile and underrated Lawrence Guy from Baltimore. Trey Flowers was arguably their best DL down the stretch and into the playoffs and Alan Branch was outstanding all season.

Roster Locks: Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy, Rob Ninkovich, Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown
Everything starts with the big men in the middle and Branch and Brown were very good in 2016. Branch frequently plays over the center and is outstanding at stuffing the run. Brown is as well. Their job is to force everything outside where the defensive ends and linebackers are supposed to clean it up. They each got a little bit of push in the passing game but that is something that Brown could do a bit more of as well as be more consistent in 2017.

Patriots rookie DE Deatrich Wise in action at minicamp in June. (SBalestrieri photo)

Ealy will be an intriguing guy to watch this year. He’s in a contract year and has been given a clean slate by the coaches in New England.  The biggest knock against him was that he didn’t buy in when he was in Carolina. He seems to be doing that right off the bat here, which is a good sign. When he’s on, he’s a difficult man to block. Just rewind to Super Bowl L and watch him against the Broncos.

Big things are expected of Flowers this season, and after the way he finished 2016, he seems to be the go-to guy in the pass rush. Flowers, like many others in the Pats defense, is versatile and can rush from the edge or push inside as an interior pass rusher.

Ninkovich is a guy who is always at his best in clutch situations. He may be losing a step but he’s another versatile guy who can line up as a defensive end or drop as an outside linebacker.

Rob Ninkovich has been a clutch performer for the Patriots defense. (SBalestrieri photo)

Rivers and Wise by virtue of their draft stock are untouchable this season. Rivers is another guy who can play DE or OLB and was the Patriots top draft choice this season. Wise is another big DE in the Patriots mold that is an edge setter first and a pass rusher second. He was hurt in his senior season in college but had a very impressive 2015.

With the depth listed above, these rookie edge players, they won’t have a ton of pressure put on them to produce much this season. They will be able to learn the defense, get used to the speed of the pro game and get some reps here and there.

Near Roster Locks: Lawrence Guy, Vincent Valentine
Valentine showed some nice flashes last year in his rookie campaign. He’s another big body who can stuff the run on the inside. Guy is a versatile, movable piece and plays the 1-technique or out to the 5-technique. He seems like he’s going to be a nice fit in the Patriots defense. We’ll have to see if he can translate that to the field.

It is going to take some hard work from the guys below to unseat either of these two players. But stranger things have happened. Unless someone gets hurt or a case of the Foxboro Flu.

On the Bubble: Geneo Grissom, Woodrow Hamilton, Darius Kilgo, Josh Augusta, Adam Butler
The clock is running out on Geneo Grissom. He’s a guy that was drafted ahead of Flowers and was thought to have all kinds of versatility. But it hasn’t happened for him, he’s been unable to make a dent in the defense. Hamilton made the team a year ago but with the addition of Guy from the Ravens, he’s going to have to turn it up… a lot.

Augusta is a big-body, run stuffer in the Vince Wilfork mold, he’s listed at 6’0, 335-pounds…which may be wishful thinking. Passing the conditioning test on Day 1 will be a tough task for the big man, who failed to complete a lap during minicamp…twice.

Butler is a definite under the radar guy. Signed as a UDFA from Vanderbilt, the 6’4, 305-pound DL can be a run-stuffing tackle or a penetrator from the interior on passing downs. He played OL in college before switching over. He’ll be a guy to watch to see if he can turn some heads.

Kilgo was drafted by Denver and appeared in 18 games in two seasons before being released last November. The Pats signed the big 6’3, 320 DL to the practice squad where he spent the remaining part of the season.

Our next primer will have the Patriots Linebackers… stay tuned.

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.

An Early Projection for the Patriots Starting Lineup, Better, Stronger, Faster

Steve Balestrieri
May 8, 2017 at 9:08 am ET

The NFL Draft is in the books, free agency has been fruitful, and the Patriots have made a flurry of initial UDFA moves. Barring any late moves or last minute trades, the initial roster of the 2017 Patriots should now be set.

As it stands now on paper, the roster for this season’s team looks better than the one that just won the Super Bowl. But as Bill Belichick has frequently said, you never really know what each season’s team will be like until Thanksgiving. Lots of things can and will change, injuries occur, and some players’ production will either rise or fall inside the system. Tweaks to the roster always occur during the season.

But what we see now should constitute the bulk of this year’s team. Confidence is high as always in New England. And for a team that has won 10 or more games for 14 straight seasons, why should there be any other feeling?

So here is a quick projection for the starting lineup for the 2017 Patriots

Offense:
Quarterback:

Tom Brady: Well duh? No change from last year or the 15 years prior. While the talk remains that eventually, his play is going to fall off a cliff due to his age, at this point, it is a lot of wishful thinking for a lot of non-Patriots supporters. His play, especially in the 2nd half of Super Bowl LI shows he’s still at the top of the heap in regard to NFL QBs.

His backups remain Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. The rumor mill for Jimmy G. had him being traded this offseason but he’s still here, at least for 2017 and should any injury occur, he’ll be ready to step in.


James White is among a crowded Patriots backfield this season.

Running Back:

James White: After a Super Bowl where he could have easily been named the MVP, White has been given a nice raise and contract extension. And with the Patriots being a passing team first, White has proven to be a trusted, capable weapon in the offense.

But the Patriots are a matchup team that uses a rotation of running backs so their roster of backs doesn’t really have a starter per se, it will depend on how they match up against an opponent. Mike Gillislee will have a big role, taking over the big back i.e. LeGarrette Blount role. Something to consider, New England runs the ball on third down much more so than most fans would believe, so Gillislee will have a big role.

Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis, who should be completely healthy now round out the RB options. James Develin remains the fullback. Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster, and LeShun Daniels are longshots for the roster at this point.

Wide Receiver:

Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Brandin Cooks: The Patriots brought in the speedster Cooks who was very productive in New Orleans this offseason. He’ll move around from outside to the slot depending on the matchups. A look at the top three with Edelman, Hogan, and Cooks shows that all of them can do the same. That makes for a very difficult group to cover. The versatility factor makes this group even more dangerous.

Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola are the primary backups and they’ve shown that they’ve earned Brady’s circle of trust. Mitchell came on in the second half of his rookie season and should be ready for more production in Year 2.

Devin Lucien, Devin Street, and Cody Hollister are longshots for the roster.


Rob Gronkowski is once again the Patriots top TE Option heading into 2017.

Tight End:

Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen: Gronkowski returns healthy for 2017 and Allen was brought over in a rare trade with the Colts, replacing Martellus Bennett who left in free agency. Gronk, when healthy remains the gold standard for NFL tight ends. Allen is an excellent blocker that can be very productive in the passing game who can attack the seams of the defense.

There is now plenty of depth behind them with James O’Shaughnessy, Matt Lengel, Rob Housler and Jacob Hollister fighting it out for a roster slot and repetitions. Training camp competition will be interesting to watch here.

Tackle:

Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon: No changes here from 2016. Solder returned from IR and played very solid in 2016. He’s in the last year of his contract and the Patriots must decide this year if they want him to return in 2018. Cannon was the biggest pleasant surprise of 2016. He parlayed a contract extension into a very solid campaign under the able tutelage of Dante Scarnecchia.

The team drafted a potential replacement for Solder in 2018 or beyond with Antonio Garcia. They added another tackle in the late rounds of the draft with Conor McDermott. He’ll be fighting backups Michael Williams, Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle for reps and a roster slot.

Guard:

Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason: No changes here from 2016. Thuney came in and started from Day 1 at left guard. As can be expected, he struggled a bit as a rookie and needs to come back stronger for his second season. Mason is a tough, road grader in the running game and will be looking to improve as well in 2017.

Primary backups should be Jamil Douglas who was brought over in midseason from Miami who was a 4th round draft pick in 2015 and Chris Barker.

Center:

David Andrews: No change here from 2016. Andrews is a bit undersized for the position but is smart and tough. He won over Tom Brady during training camp last year because of his ability to make the line calls and seeing the field much like Brady did.

His backup remains Ted Karras, the tough but less mobile version of Andrews. Karras can also play guard as well, the versatility that the coaching staff loves.


Flowers had a strong showing in 2016.

Defense:
Defensive End:

Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy: Lots of changes here. Gone are last season’s Week 1 starters Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard via free agency. But Flowers, who came on strong in the 2nd half of the season was the team’s best defensive lineman down the stretch and should be primed for a very solid 2017. Ealy was brought over from the Panthers as well as a 3rd round pick for the Patriots 2nd rounder.

Lots of good depth here now, Rob Ninkovich will play both DE and OLB and fill in where he’s needed and may still lobby for starting duties. Top draft choice Derek Rivers gives the team the speed and athleticism from the edge. Deatrich Wise is a bigger, edge setting end who can kick inside as an interior pass rusher. Lawrence Guy is another big man who can play inside as an interior tackle or on the edge. Geneo Grissom is on the outside looking in this year.

Tackle:

Malcom Brown, Alan Branch: No changes to the starting lineup. Brown played solidly in Year 2 but could stand to improve his pocket push in 2017. Branch was excellent against the run in 2016, eating up a ton of space. He returns with a new deal and has played the best football of his career since coming to New England.

Backups include Vincent Valentine, Woodrow Hamilton, Guy, Darius Kilgo, and UDFA Josh Augusta who is one of the players to watch in training camp. He’s a huge space eater who could be one of the surprise players to stick on the roster.

Linebacker:

Dont’a Hightower, Jonathan Freeny: Wait, what? People forget Freeny, a Bill Belichick favorite was a starter for the defense a year ago until landing on IR. Hightower got a new deal after testing free agency and not finding the market he envisioned out there. He’s the glue that holds the defense together for the Pats. He calls the defense and is the guy they need in the middle. He can do it all, stuff the run, cover in the flat and blitz up the A-gaps. Hightower’s starting slot is secure, Freeny will have to re-earn his spot this summer. But for now, he’s in.

Backups include sub-package third down players Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy, run-stuffer Elandon Roberts, Ninkovich, Trevor Bates and UDFA Harvey Langi. Langi is one of my players to watch this summer.

Since the Patriots spend so much time in sub-packages, we only include two starting linebackers, therefore…


Butler’s potential return solidifies a terrific secondary.

Cornerback:

Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe: The team gave Gilmore a big money contract this spring during free agency. And after a contentious period with Butler, he signed his free-agent tender and has been in for off-season workouts. Rowe is a big matchup corner and gives the Patriots a very solid starting three. Each has the versatility to be shifted around and play outside or in the slot depending on how Belichick and Matt Patricia choose to use them.

Backups include Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Coleman, Jonathan Jones, and intriguing UDFA D.J. Killings who for now, is a long shot for the roster.

Safety:

Devin McCourty, Pat Chung: No changes here from 2016. McCourty is the QB for the secondary and always ensures that the players in are in the right position. He plays the centerfield position in the base defense and can slide up to play in the slot in the “big nickel”. Chung is the guy in the box, he plays physical against the run and he’ll cover tight ends in the short to intermediate range.

Duron Harmon was brought back with a nice deal in free agency. He plays a lot of snaps and replaces McCourty as the center fielder in big nickel coverage. Jordan Richards has been disappointing thus far. Nate Ebner and Brandon King are special teamers.

Special Teams:

Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater: The team’s specialists remain the same. Gostkowski will have training camp competition for the first time in a while from Josh Gable, known more for his trick shots. Punter Ryan Allen and LS Joe Cardona face no competition. Slater is a perennial Pro-Bowl gunner.

So, with the additions made in the draft and free agency, the Patriots look …on paper in a prime position to compete for another Super Bowl bid. Of course, injuries and other factors always weigh in but there are no holes on the roster as it currently stands. They’ve addressed their needs across the board and look even better than the team that won 14 games in the regular season and three more in the playoffs in 2016.

Is it time for mini-camp 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 I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patscap Podcast: Recap Of The Patriots Draft

Russ Goldman
May 3, 2017 at 1:13 pm ET

In this episode Miguel shares his thoughts on the Patriots draft.

Patriots’ Defense on the Edge Will Have a Different Look in 2017

Steve Balestrieri
at 10:50 am ET

 The Patriots didn’t have to make too many changes for a roster that had just won Super Bowl LI but one of the areas that underwent pretty dramatic change was at defensive end on the edge. With Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long leaving via free agency, it was considered the Patriots biggest area of need.

And the Patriots have addressed it, bringing in Kony Ealy in a trade with the Carolina Panthers and then drafting a pair of edge players Derek Rivers from Youngstown State and Deatrich Wise from Arkansas. Those three players will join Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich for the Patriots this season. The team signed UDFA linebacker Harvey Langi as well and he played the edge for BYU somewhat last year, but his best fit is at outside linebacker.

Flowers was arguably the best Patriots defensive lineman down the stretch last season. He’s guaranteed to be starting at RDE when the season starts. Ninkovich and Ealy will compete for the LDE spot. With Rivers and Wise providing rotational depth.

But this year’s unit has a much different feel to it because they have more versatility. Ealy is a bigger guy at 6’4, 275 pounds. He can set the edge in the running game, has the athleticism to get after the passer and is big and physical enough to kick inside as an interior pass rusher on third down. Flowers already does that frequently.

The Patriots brought in another free agent, Lawrence Guy who can be a sub-package interior pass rusher. That’s what they’ll get in Wise as well. He’s a big kid, at 6’5, 275 pounds with insanely long arms that he needs to learn to use better. When he extends his arms, with his upper body strength, he can push through tackles and get to the quarterback. He’s frequently been compared to Chandler Jones but isn’t nearly as athletic. He’s more of a big edge setter. But Wise can also kick inside and provide interior pass rush…Seeing a trend here?

Which brings us to the team’s first draft pick Derek Rivers. If there was one element the Patriots front seven lacked on the edge last season was speed. Rivers will bring that speed to the pass rush with an athleticism that should serve the team very well.

Rivers isn’t as big at 6’4, 250 pounds at the defensive end position but ran a 4:61 in the 40-Yard Dash, with a 1:61 10-Yard Split. His time in the 3-Cone Drill was third best at the position with 6:94. That shows he has the quick twitch athleticism, loose hips and the ability to change direction as well as bend off the edge to get to the QB. He showed his strength with 30 reps at the Bench Press.

He may need some time to find his feet in the NFL, similar to how Flowers progressed in his first campaign, but he has the potential to be a very good player in the league. The good part is, with the depth of the team, he won’t be pushed too hard too soon. They can let him develop and learn the nuances of the position at the NFL level.

With the added depth, the Patriots can move Ninkovich around and possibly let him take some snaps at OLB with Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, and Langhi.

However, the edge will look quite different in 2017. How effective will it be? No one knows right now but I’d bet on Belichick having it figured out as the season winds along.

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 News 4-30, AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
April 30, 2017 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here are your Sunday’s Patriots news 4-30, & AFC East Notes.

Not that anyone really cares but on Saturday, Deflategate actually ended. The Patriots had to cede their 4th round draft pick. But if the NFL’s arbitrary enforcement of an equipment violation’s intent was to punish New England, think about this. During the timeline of Deflategate, New England was 31-7 with two Super Bowl wins…. Back to the drawing board guys.

With the draft complete, the Patriots were so deep at so many positions, they drafted only OL and DL. That is a good problem to have.

We mentioned this before here, but nobody does a better job of evaluating talent than the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock. Between his work on the Combine and then the Draft, he’s head and shoulders above everyone else. I’d be surprised if someone doesn’t try to bring him on board a franchise soon as a talent evaluator.

Draft Had the Future in Mind: The Patriots added some depth and potential impact players in the 2017 NFL Draft but this seemed to be a draft with the focus clearly on 2018 and beyond. While players such as top pick Derek Rivers will be looked at to contribute this season, he and OT Antonio Garcia were selected clearly with the future in mind. Deatrich Wise will be looked to be a sub-package player initially.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. With a roster as loaded as New England’s is and fresh off another Super Bowl victory, there aren’t a ton of open starting positions available. And they used some of their draft capital on free agent player, which will segue right into this…

Belichick, Patriots Go for Known Commodity, Value over Draft Picks:
We’ve repeated this time and again but it bears repeating. While many fans and some of the talking heads in the media lament the lack of draft picks for the Patriots, Bill Belichick doesn’t

“Obviously, we’ve been watching a lot of picks go by, but I feel like overall our opportunity in this draft started a couple of months ago, Belichick said.

“The four players that we acquired already are also part of the draft process, Belichick added.”

“Hopefully we’ve been able to improve our team, become more competitive. That’s the ultimate goal, he said.”

One needn’t have to read the tea leaves to see that Belichick considers the players traded for draft picks in free agency as draft capital. So, he deems Brandin Cooks and Kony Ealy as the team’s first and second-round picks. Dwayne Allen as a fourth rounder and Mike Gillislee as a fifth-round pick.

In trading for established pro players, Belichick has a known commodity in making the deals. Cooks, for example, has been a very productive receiver in the NFL and there’s no reason to believe that at just 23 years old, he won’t continue to grow as a player.

The draft is a crap shoot because no one really knows how a player will turn out once he turns professional. How many “can’t miss” prospects end up busting? It is an inexact science, something Belichick has said numerous times. They know Cooks, Ealy, Allen, and Gillislee can produce in the NFL because they already have. Albeit, some at different levels than the others but with Belichick, he will place these players in a position to succeed, knowing that they are professionals already.

Now take a second look at the Patriots ‘draft’ haul and it looks much different.
1st Round – Brandon Cooks, WR, Trade with New Orleans
2nd Round – Kony Ealy, DE, Trade with Carolina
3rd Round – Derek Rivers, DE, Youngstown State
3rd Round – Antonio Garcia, T, Troy
4th Round – Dwayne Allen, TE, Trade with Indy
4th Round – Deatrich Wise, DE, Arkansas
5th Round – Mike Gillislee, RB, RFA Buffalo
5th Round – James O’Shaughnessy, TE, Trade KC
6th Round – Connor McDermott T, UCLA

Now courtesy of another lookover of the haul and it seems like a much deeper draft class, doesn’t it?

Garoppolo and Butler Stay Put, Despite All the Trade Rumors:
After much talk dedicated to the “what if” category of New England trading QB Jimmy Garoppolo and CB Malcolm Butler this offseason, both remain here and likely will for at least the 2014 season.

There were rumors that the Patriots rebuffed a Cleveland Browns trade offer on Thursday night. Whether the Browns didn’t offer enough compensation or not remains unseen but supposedly New England told the Browns that Garoppolo was not up for grabs.

Cleveland eventually took a QB in the draft, DeShone Kizer from Notre Dame with the 52nd pick, so that should put the Jimmy G. rumors to rest now.

Butler too was subject to many trade rumors to New Orleans. Although the Saints said they were impressed with him, they didn’t swing a deal for him since they would have had to give the Patriots compensation of a first-round pick and then some and subsequently signed him to a long-term contract.

Both remain on the roster and should remain there for at least the 2017 season. With no CB taken, Butler, Stephon Gilmore, and Eric Rowe seem to be the top three CBs in the rotation. Butler may see some time in the slot depending on the matchups. Cyrus Jones is in the mix too.

Rivers on Meeting Belichick on Pre-Draft Meeting, “It was Awesome”:
Top Patriots draft pick Derek Rivers

“It was awesome, man,” Rivers said to the media via conference call. “I mean, we talked ball. I love coach Belichick. I love everything he is and what he stands for and how he coaches his demeanor. I mean, he’s an awesome dude. I could learn a lot from him.”

“Man, it’s awesome,” he said when asked about coming to New England. “I’m super excited. I mean, there’s just so much I can learn from those guys that were there, as far as just the commitment that those guys have, the type of coaching that’s in that locker room.”

“I’m just ready to learn from those guys and get better with those guys.”

UDFA Signings By the Patriots:
As soon as the draft was complete, the undrafted players immediately began getting interest from teams. The Patriots have already either signed or are bringing in several players on a tryout basis. Those already linked to New England include:
DT Josh Augusta, Missouri
LB Harvey Langi, BYU
WR Austin Carr, Northwestern
S Jason Thompson, Utah
G Jason King, Purdue
TE Jacob Hollister, Wyoming
CB Kenny Moore, Valdosta State
DE Corey Vereen, Tennessee
S David Jones, Richmond
DT Adam Butler, Vanderbilt
RB Leshun Daniels Jr., Iowa
OT Cole Croston, Iowa
OT Max Rich, Harvard
S Damarius Travis, Minnesota
CB D.J. Killings, Central Florida
DE Adam Butler, Vanderbilt

There will be plenty of comings and goings on this list, so stay tuned…

East Bound and Down…AFC East Notes:

Bills Address Needs and Move up and Down the Board:
The Buffalo Bills had needs at CB, and WR with the loss of Stephon Gilmore and Robert Woods. Their first two picks in the draft definitely met those.

LSU CB Tre’Davious White is a perfect fit for the Bills zone defense and he’s considered a solid locker room presence as well as a player. He will compete for an immediate role as a starter.

Zay Jones, the WR from East Carolina gives Buffalo a solid #2 WR that will provide the receptions to move the chains. He was an incredibly productive receiver with 399 career receptions in college.

I loved the pick of BC LB Matt Milano, who flies all over the field and will play special teams. But moving up for RT Dion Dawkins? Seemed like a reach and there wasn’t really a need to move up. Time will tell. The pick of QB Nathan Peterman from Pittsburgh was another nice move. He’ll push Cardale Jones for a roster spot.

Miami Grabs Nice Edge Rusher in Harris:
The Miami Dolphins first pick in the draft was Missouri DE Charles Harris, who we really liked in the pre-draft process. He fits an obvious need and should fit right in with the Dolphins defense.

Another excellent pick in Round 2 was Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillian. He filled a position of need at ILB where the team will eventually decide to replace Koa Misi. He’s solid, and an excellent player against the run.

Round 3 CB Cordrea Tankersley from Clemson gives them the length they needed at the position. He should compete for reps on Day 1. Isaac Assiata was another good pick. The OL was a place the Dolphins needed to upgrade and he’s a good choice. An excellent run blocker, he’ll need to work on his pass protection. A very good draft for the Dolphins.

Jets Snag Two Safeties Early:
The New York Jets double-dipped at the safety position with two good selections who fell right into their lap at the #6 and #39 positions respectively with Jamal Adams from LSU and Marcus Maye from Florida. The Jets had an obvious need there and those two should step right in and compete.

They then double-dipped at WR with Ar’Darrius Stewart and Chad Hansen but their sleeper pick is Jordan Leggett, TE from Clemson who has the tools to be a very good one in the NFL. But the biggest question still isn’t answered. Who is going to be the QB?

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: Washington Edge Player Joe Matthis

Steve Balestrieri
April 20, 2017 at 6:19 am ET

As the 2017 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 are certainly going to be looking at players on the edge with the picks that they have left in the NFL Draft.  Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy, and Rob Ninkovich are the guys we look to at providing the edge pressure but they still have DL Lawrence Guy who can play on the edge as well as kick inside as an interior pass rusher. Geneo Grissom is a STs player.

As we’ve repeated here many times, edge rushers are like cornerbacks, you can never have too many good ones. Many experts are looking for the Patriots to double dip in the draft next week, taking a DE and an OLB that can provide pressure as well. And this next guy maybe a bit of a sleeper.

I was watching a few games of Washington looking for tape on Sidney Jones and this next player began to jump off the screen in the early games of the season. So much so, that we grabbed him in our Mock Draft a week ago.

Joe Matthis from Washington is a 6’2, 266-pound defensive end/outside linebacker who is a well-rounded edge player. He shows good leverage in the running game and an ability to get to the passer despite not being a “quick twitch” athlete. He’s a guy that is versatile and can play with his hand in the dirt or stand up as an outside linebacker. That is always a plus in the Bill Belichick book with the Patriots.

He has good, heavy hands and uses them well to shed blockers at the line of scrimmage. Matthis is a very physical player who goes non-stop and all out on every down. He’s a sleeper because he was injured after just six games in 2016 and there was very limited tape on him.

At the time of his injury, he led the team with five sacks thru six games. A look at how their defense faded after his injury may provide a good look at how valuable he was to the team.

Pros:

– Good frame and strength on the edge

– Excellent, heavy hands with a violent punch

– Good football I.Q., very good against the run

– Shows good bend around the edge, non-stop motor

Cons

– Only average athletically

– Needs to refine pass rush moves

– Injury history, limited body of production on tape

What his Role Will Be:
Matthis’ role would be to initially be a part of the rotation outside as an outside linebacker and drop into coverage for the Patriots. He can also move on to the defensive line and play with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end and rush the passer.

Will his Role Change from Year 1-2?
Yes, with some added lower body strength and more work on his pass rush moves, he could easily develop into a full-time very productive player

How Many Downs Can He Play?
Three

What Current Player on the Roster Will He Replace?
Grissom, Matthis will be a guy that they’ll feel that they plug on the edge and get to play special teams.

What is his ST Value?
Good

Conclusion:
Matthis is a guy who will be intriguing to see where he ends up in the draft. The Washington coaches moved him around and after a productive start of 2016, he suffered an injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year.

He has very good, heavy hands and has a violent punch that will keep defenders off of him and allow him to get some separation. He has a good bull rush with good bend coming around the edge. He’s very good at setting the edge in the running game, a must in the Patriots system.

Matthis is a Patriots kind of player. He’s versatile, can play standing up as an outside linebacker or with his hand in the dirt, has good instincts and a high football I.Q. He plays with a violent streak, never stops working and will make plays all over the field with a non-stop motor.

Matthis is a guy who won’t be in high demand because of his injury, his lack of taped production and the fact that he’s isn’t an athlete that will blow people away with his measurables. But if he’s on the board in the fourth round, the Patriots could land one of the sleepers of this draft.

Matthis’ highlight tape 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.