Tag Archives: Shea McClellin

McClellin Setback Another Big Blow for the Patriots Defense

Steve Balestrieri
November 8, 2017 at 6:03 am ET

The news wasn’t good for the Patriots on Tuesday as they learned that LB Shea McClellin, who had been on IR since the end of preseason, had suffered a setback in his return and now he too will be likely lost for the season.

The Patriots linebacking core is already dealing with the loss of Dont’a Hightower and this one could be more damaging than meets the eye. Hightower’s loss meant that the Patriots lost an edge rusher as well as a linebacker who can stuff the run inside and be used in a coverage role. McClellin, who was brought over to New England in 2016 as a free agent can also perform all three of those roles, albeit not as well as Hightower but his versatility is what sets him apart.

The Patriots didn’t address the linebacker position at the end of the trading deadline possibly because they were expecting to get McClellin back this week. It was hoped that he’d be back in uniform this week in Denver. Now that possibility is dashed and he’ll probably not play at all this season.

Shea McClellin’s 2017 season may be over before it ever began. (SBalestrieri photo)

McClellin was placed on IR in what has now been reported as a concussion. He’s had a history of those prior to coming to New England. And once he was eligible to return to practice on October 18, he did which automatically began the 21-day window in which the Patriots had to either activate him, place him on season-ending IR or release him.

McClellin’s 21-day window ended on Tuesday at 4 p.m. If the Patriots wish to keep him on the active roster, they’d have to make a corresponding move and release another player off of the active roster.

Teams are allowed to make two such moves with players on IR each season. Since McClellin had already begun practicing, he counts as one. The added bad news is that now means that either DL Vincent Valentine or WR Malcolm Mitchell will likely be reverted to season-ending IR soon.

Neither one has begun practicing yet. It has been reported that Mitchell has begun running again but it also means that he isn’t close to returning anytime soon. Valentine’s chances may have taken a hit since the team signed DL Ricky Jean Francois on Tuesday. Francois is a two-gap run stuffer and he may see action in Denver with DL Malcom Brown likely out with an ankle injury.  

McClellin’s injury leaves the team thin again depth wise. Kyle Van Noy was moved outside as an edge rushing option more with Hightower gone. That leaves Elandon Roberts and veteran David Harris as interior run stuffers but neither one is considered viable in a coverage role.

Other players such as Trevor Reilly and Marquis Flowers are considered more Special Teams players than as linebackers. Reilly has the size and athleticism to potentially be used more in an edge role. While Flowers has speed and athleticism to be used in a coverage role. But since neither has played yet this season in either of those scenarios, it wouldn’t be expected that they’d contribute there now.

The Patriots defense has already been dealing with not only the Hightower injury but the absence of cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore. Now with Malcom Brown out with an injury, it really depletes a unit that has been struggling to find its 2016 form. With five of their next six games on the road, after traveling to Denver and Mexico City to face the Raiders, the team returns home for one week before going on the road to Buffalo, Miami and Pittsburgh, the defense is going to be facing some challenges.

So who is the “next man up” in the linebacking role? In the pass coverage realm expect to see more Pat Chung or Jordan Richards as the “Big Nickel” safety/LB role close to the line of scrimmage. Cassius Marsh who has played in about 50 percent of the snaps will probably see an uptick in work as a pass rusher, although he could do a better job of setting the edge more consistently.

It now opens the door for a potential reunion with OLB Akeem Ayers who spent the 2014 Super Bowl season with the Patriots after being picked up as a midseason trade addition. The 28-year old is currently a free agent and was in Foxboro for a workout in September. Many will remember he posted a cryptic tweet after Dont’a Hightower was injured against Atlanta. Now he could be getting a phone call as the depth at linebacker took another hit.

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 Make No More Moves at the Trade Deadline, What About the Edge?

Steve Balestrieri
November 2, 2017 at 10:52 am ET

With the trade of Jimmy Garoppolo, many people assumed that the Patriots would make another move bolster their edge rushing capability, either using that early 2nd round draft pick which is essentially a late first rounder to trade for an impact player or to use other trade capital to pick up another depth guy who could impact the pass rush.

But as the old saying goes, “It takes two to Tango” and one has to wonder if anyone out there was willing to help Bill Belichick and New England unless getting an exorbitant return.

But now the trading deadline is over and the question remains, what do they do about getting the pass rush up to an acceptable level. While it hasn’t been completely awful, it hasn’t blown anyone away either. The team obviously felt like they were in a good enough position that even with Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard leaving, that they’d be fine. Trey Flowers who came on strong late last season and Rob Ninkovich, the aging but still productive defensive end, gave them a good place to start. They drafted two young kids in top draft choice Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise. They brought in Kony Ealy, from the Carolina Panthers who they hoped would be a productive player from the inside. And they still had linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy, all of whom had shown the ability the blitz either off the edge or up the A-gap.

But things haven’t worked out smoothly, Ninkovich retired in training camp, leaving a big hole of experience. Ealy couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt to the Patriots system and was released. The light was just beginning to come on a little bit for Rivers during camp when he was injured and placed on IR. McClellin was injured and placed on IR, but with the chance to return later this season. And the worst of all possible scenarios, Hightower, their leader and best player on the front seven, the captain who called the signals and the guy they could least afford to lose was injured against the Falcons and lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. What now?

Forced to Look Within: With a dearth of trading partners, the team now has to fill their needs from players that are already on the roster. Trey Flowers is already playing nearly all of the snaps defensively and asking him to do more is frankly not possible. However, if other players show the ability to step up, it would no doubt boost his productivity.

The team brought over Cassius Marsh from the Seahawks. He was known as primarily as a Special Teams guy there but was a guy, the other members of the defense raved about as an ascending player. He plays with a non-stop motor and is an excellent STs guy but is still learning the defense here. He’s not set the edge consistently and has lost containment on a few occasions. That happens with players that lack consistent playing time. But Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia and DL coach Brendan Daly will work with him on maintaining his edge responsibilities and he will be given plenty of chances to play himself into a bigger role.

Rookie Deatrich Wise and UDFA Adam Butler have both flashed at times. Wise too needs to maintain his edge responsibilities but they’ve both shown upside. Butler has interior pass rush potential. With Hightower down, the team moved Van Noy back to a more comfortable place with him on the outside now. David Harris who had been almost a ghost in the first six weeks of the season is sharing the inside linebacker role with Elandon Roberts.

Van Noy now calls the signals and wears the green dot for the receiving the calls from the sidelines. He can also chip in with pressure off the edge. The good news is that McClellin is back to practice and is eligible to return against the Broncos. He can do a bit of everything. Drop into coverage, rush the quarterback off the edge, and .play inside support in the running game. I foresee him doing more of the first two than the latter.

The much-maligned depth at the linebacking spot is actually looking pretty good once McClellin returns to the field. However, they can’t afford any more injuries there.

But with no trade help forthcoming at the deadline, the Patriots are going to need either one of the above-mentioned players to step up or have another role player take on added responsibility.

They have the week off with the bye and now is the time for the coaches to do some experimenting and possibly moving players around to shift the responsibilities around and see who can possibly step from the shadows to help the pass rush.

Could other Special Teams’ players such as Marquis Flowers or Trevor Reilly step up and play a bigger role? It is a possibility and don’t be surprised if the coaches put them out there to see if they can make the leap into a bigger part of the defense.

But now more than ever, they’ll have to use that Patriots mantra “Next Man Up”  

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.

Best Of Social Media: Week 3 Texans vs Patriots

Robert Alvarez
September 27, 2017 at 8:08 pm ET

Heading into Sunday’s 2016 playoffs rematch with the Houston Texans, the New England Patriots were seeking to jump above .500 for the first time in 2017.

Coming into the game, head coach Bill Belichick boasted a 8-0 record at home against rookie quarterbacks in his coaching career as 22 year old Deshaun Watson got the start under center for the Texans.

In the first quarter, the Patriots offense clicked early as Brady got into rhythm with Brandin Cooks, it was a sign of things to come.

The first quarter saw the Patriots and Texans score a touchdown each, with tight end Rob Gronkowski opening the scoring and a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to take a 10-7 lead after one.

In the second quarter, Brady found Chris Hogan aka “7-Eleven” in the corner of the end zone to regain the lead at 14-10 following a Texans field goal that tied the game early in the quarter.

He’s always open.

Midway through the second quarter, after another field goal to cut the deficit to 14-13, the Texans vaunted defensive duo of Jadeveon Clowney and JJ Watt attacked the Patriots offensive line, forcing a Brady fumble that was recovered and returned for a 22 yard touchdown by Clowney. Texans 20 Patriots 14.

Needing a response, Brady found Hogan again, this time on a 47 yard strike for the touchdown to regain the lead at 21-20 going into halftime.

At halftime, the Patriots held a special ceremony honoring this seasons team Hall of Fame inductee, former cornerback Raymond Clayborn

Getting the ball to start the second half, the Patriots wasted no time extending their lead with Cooks again finding the end zone, this time on a 42 yard pass from Brady. 28-20 Patriots.

The Texans refused to back down, as Deshaun Watson played like a seasoned veteran, a 10 play 70 yard drive culminated in a 12 yard pass to Ryan Griffin to get the score back within one at 28-27 to end the third quarter.

Gronk continued to have a very productive game following his injury scare a week ago, eight receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown on Sunday including this connection from Tom Brady late in the third.

In the fourth quarter, the Texans clawed back to take the lead and extend it to five following back to back field goals by rookie kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn. With under three minutes to go in the game, the Patriots needed to put together another game winning drive down 33-28.

Patriots team cameras caught sound bites of Brady’s leadership on the sideline.

The Patriots converted two third and long conversions, including this clutch grab by Danny Amendola on a third and 18.

( .gif courtesy reddit user itsNOSAJ)

Down to 33 seconds remaining in the game, Brady found Cooks for a 25 yard go ahead score adding yet another come from behind victory to Brady’s incredible resume.

Patriots 36 Texans 33 following a successful two point attempt.

(.gif courtesy reddit user dmahr)

A post shared by Tom Brady (@tombrady) on

https://www.instagram.com/p/BZdxGU3BTkw/?taken-by=tombrady

https://www.instagram.com/p/BZcowFdAELX/?taken-by=thearcher14

Final New England Patriots 53-Man Roster Projection 4.0

Steve Balestrieri
August 28, 2017 at 6:30 am ET

As we’ve been saying all summer, the New England Patriots will have many difficult decisions to make when the final 53-man cut down is due after the Giants game. The hour glass is running out and if players are going to make a move, they have a week remaining to convince the coaches that they’re worth keeping.

With some serious injuries to Derek Rivers and Julian Edelman, that will open up two spots that we had as locks. Ditto for the release of Kony Ealy. So, despite that, we can expect that the Patriots initial 53-man roster will change rather quickly as they’ll probably pick up a player or two via the waiver wire. I wouldn’t rule out a trade for an edge player either as they are really thin there right now.

With that in mind, we’ll take our final crack at the roster here on Sunday night with time to digest and re-watch the Lions game.

First up is the offense…

OFFENSE (24)
QUARTERBACK (3): Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett

Out: None
New England has traditionally kept two QBs on their roster. Last year they kept three because of the crazy Brady suspension. I didn’t expect Brissett to push Garoppolo for the #2 slot this season, but his play has been really disappointing. He holds the ball far too long and his arm, though cannon-like has the accuracy of an old smooth-bore musket and not where it should be.

But I just don’t see them cutting bait with Brissett yet. Is it possible? You betcha, but not this year. I think they will stick with three but Brissett isn’t a lock by any means.

RUNNING BACK (5): James White, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James Develin

Out: D.J. Foster, Brandon Bolden, Glenn Gronkowski, LeShun Daniels
No changes here, I really wanted to find a way to keep both Foster and Bolden. Foster is going to be on a roster somewhere on Opening Weekend. If it isn’t here, it will be somewhere else. I thought of keeping only two TEs and utilizing him in an RB/Slot receiver mode where Devlin and an extra tackle can help in the blocking. And they still may do that.

Bolden is a superb STs performer but with Gillislee back and looking healthy, I don’t see how they keep him without cutting from somewhere else.

TIGHT END (3): Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, James O’Shaughnessy

Out: Matt Lengel, Sam Cotton, Jacob Hollister
While he’s played well the past few weeks, O’Shaughnessy’s slot is still tenuous at best. He’s a better blocker but not as good as a receiver as Hollister. The UDFA rookie from Wyoming had a big game against Jax and then was barely used after that. It is obvious the team likes O’Shaughnessy and wants to keep him. Lengel, who is banged up didn’t show enough to warrant keeping him around.

WIDE RECEIVER (5): Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, Austin Carr

Out: Julian Edelman (IR), Matthew Slater (IR), Devin Lucien, Cody Hollister, Tony Washington, K.J. Maye
Julian Edelman’s injury opens the door for the Patriots to keep Austin Carr, who to me has just barely edged out Devin Lucien for the final spot at the position. Both Edelman and Slater go to IR, Slater will return later this season, which will make for another interesting decision. The top four are locks and will be needed to step up a bit more.

INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE (4): David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney, Ted Karras
Out: Jason King, James Ferentz, Chase Farris

No changes here. Center David Andrews and guards Mason and Thuney were all starters last year, are locked and have played well this summer. Karras gets the nod over Ferentz who will be a primary practice squad candidate

OFFENSIVE TACKLE (4):  Nate Solder, Antonio Garcia, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming

Out: LaAdrian Waddle, Conor McDermott, Cole Croston, Max Rich, Andrew Jelks (IR)
The good news is that Nate Solder is back at practice and although he didn’t make the trip to Detroit, he should be ready for the Chiefs game on Opening Night. Garcia has been banged up, does his injury preclude him from making the roster and going on IR? That may open the door a crack for Conor McDermott or LaAdrian Waddle (also banged up) to step in. But it appears that Solder, Cannon, and Fleming are locked in right now.

Next up in the defense.

DEFENSE (25):
DEFENSIVE TACKLE (5): Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Vincent Valentine, Adam Butler

Out: Woodrow Hamilton, Darius Kilgo, Josh Augusta,
With the lack of enough edge players and the release of Kony Ealy, this opens the door for another player to step up inside and that is Adam Butler who has had a very solid camp. He’s shown the ability to penetrate inside and disrupt things in the running game. Branch, Brown, and Lawrence Guy are locked. Guy had a solid camp and with Butler, the team may opt for more of a 3-4 look with the bigger bodies inside.

Hamilton, Kilgo, and Augusta played well this summer and are victims of numbers more than anything else.

EDGE RUSHER (3): Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Geneo Grissom,

Out: Derek Rivers (IR), Caleb Kidder, Keionta Davis
Ealy was released early…which means that he was in no way in their plans for 2017 after an up and down training camp. Depth has become a serious issue here. Wise will be looked to now, to provide the pressure with Trey Flowers. Grissom right now is my 53rd player on the roster. He could be replaced somewhere else but sticks around for his STs play. But he’s been virtually invisible on defense and that isn’t a good sign.

Look for the linebackers to provide help in this realm. Dont’a Hightower, Van Noy, and Langi will all be utilized as edge rushers as well. This is an area they may cherry pick off of the waiver wire and/or swing a trade. I think Davis will go to the practice squad and possibly play a factor down the road sometime in the future.

LINEBACKER (6): Dont’a Hightower, David Harris, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Harvey Langi, Trevor Bates

Out: Elandon Roberts (IR), Jonathan Freeny, Brooks Ellis
I had the team keeping just five linebackers all summer but with the dearth of edge players, they keep an extra LB and those guys will help out on the edge as well. David Harris is an early-down inside run stuffer who is a liability in coverage (see Roberts). But the difference is, he’s a guy who is an established, smart veteran and will be rarely out of position. Hightower is a guy who can play inside or on the edge as a rusher, as well as Van Noy.

Langi and Bates, the last addition to the linebacking crew both had a good summer and training camp. Langi was a bit overaggressive at times as a pass rusher, but he’ll learn to temper those tendencies. Bates noses out Belichick favorite and STs standout Freeny and Roberts goes to IR.

CORNERBACK (6): Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Kenny Moore, Cyrus Jones

Out: Justin Coleman, DJ Killings, William Likely
The top four are locked and ready for the season. Gilmore had, in my opinion, a terrific summer. He’s adapted extremely well to the Patriots system and should be an outstanding addition. He and Butler promise to be a dynamic pair of corners on the edge. Rowe and Jonathan Jones have split the nickel corner duties and will continue to do so, depending on the matchups. Both played well this summer. Kenny More displayed a nose for the ball all summer and just beats out the veteran Justin Coleman. Cyrus Jones, for now, is a corner in name only. He’s the primary Kick returner but the team may ultimately decide to go with Dion Lewis/Amendola, in which case he’d be expendable.

SAFETY (5): Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Brandon King, Nate Ebner

Out:  Jordan Richards, David Jones, Damarius Travis, Jason Thompson
The top three of Chung, McCourty, and Harmon have been solid and are locked. The team has depth for those two with Nate Ebner and Brandon King who are mainly special teamers, neither of whom plays much defense although Ebner has played in spots in the past.

Jordan Richards is a favorite of Belichick and the team is trying every way of keeping him around. They switched him to the linebacker position in the “Big Nickel” look, the Pat Chung role and he was as inconsistent as he’s been elsewhere. Too slow, too stiff with a penchant for taking bad angles. Jones was hurt all summer, Travis played well in spots. Both may be candidates for the practice squad.

SPECIAL TEAMS (3): Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona,

Out: None
A good solid group who have had a good camp thus far. Gostkowski still seems to have a mental block for extra points. But is solid on his field goal attempts and his kickoffs which are outstanding at getting the team great field position on defense. Allen has had a very strong camp. We haven’t mentioned Cardona much at all….which tells you his snaps have been right on the money.

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.

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.

New England Patriots Training Camp Primer – Linebackers

Steve Balestrieri
July 18, 2017 at 6:30 am ET

Healthy Hightower and Depth Are Key for 2017

The Patriots head into training camp at the end of next week 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. We’re on to the linebackers

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. And some serious decisions will have to be made to get to the 53-man limit at the end of camp this summer.

Our earlier evaluations looked at the Running Backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Offensive Line
Defensive Line

So next up is the Patriots Linebackers. This spring the Patriots lost LB/ST Barkevious Mingo during free agency but he barely made a dent in the playing time on defense last season. There were hopes that the Patriots could find a spot for the athletic Mingo to thrive but it didn’t pan out. However, the big news was that they brought back Dont’a Hightower after they let the veteran test free agency. Hightower’s re-signing with the team was huge. But then two weeks after he was released by the Jets, the Patriots signed the 33-year old David Harris who should make a nice impact with the team and add to the depth.

So, with that in mind who are locked in and who’s on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Dont’a Hightower, David Harris
The resigning of Hightower was a priority this spring, the Patriots best (only?) three down linebacker has a skill set that they just couldn’t replace with anyone that was on the roster at the time. Hightower is a run-stuffer inside who has shown the knack for being a good disruptor and blitzer on the edge as well as up the A-gaps.

Signing Dont’a Hightower back to the team after allowing him to test free agency was a great move for the team. (SBalestrieri photo)

Having Hightower back and healthy this summer was a huge plus for the team. I’d look for the Patriots to limit his reps this summer and in preseason to preserve him for the season, especially the end of the season stretch and into January.

Harris was a no-brainer signing as he still has plenty left in the tank and he can still be a very effective two-down linebacker. He’s a very smart, instinctive football player who Bill Belichick has always had a lot of respect for. He can easily spell Hightower on early downs, play beside him in a 3-4 type situation and be a tremendous role model for the younger players.

I equated his signing with that of Junior Seau a few years ago. He’s not quite the player he was a few seasons ago, but with the system him limiting his playing time and putting him in situations that he’s in the best to position to succeed should prolong his career.

Near Roster Locks: Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin
The Patriots brought these two players in last season and each were former high draft picks that didn’t work out and needed a fresh start. The team used them mainly as sub-package linebackers and they each carved out good roles.

Shea McClellin was a versatile performer for the team in 2016. (SBalestrieri photo)

Van Noy was a third down specialist who displayed the ability to blitz from the edge and cover the running backs in the flat. He’s got good athleticism and seemed to pick up the defense quickly.  With a full offseason in the system this summer, he should be ready to be more effective this season.

McClellin is a versatile guy and has done whatever the team has asked him to do. He’s been a third down edge rusher, a coverage linebacker, played in the middle and has filled in as a defensive end with his hand in the dirt. He is a good special teams’ player and will be hard to unseat.

On the Bubble: Elandon Roberts, Harvey Langi, Jonathan Freeny
The Patriots loved what they saw in Roberts at times last season. Although slightly undersized, he’s a downhill thumper in run support and showed great instinctive play and explosion.  But he’s also shown that he can be a liability in coverage. That’s something that he’ll have to work on and improve this season.

Langi is a very intriguing prospect. If you want to see what the Patriots saw in him ignore his 2016 tape when his college coaches moved him to DE as an edge rusher. Watch the 2015 tape with him as a linebacker. The Patriots paid him a guaranteed $115,000, the most paid to a UDFA this spring. He has the kind of athleticism that can be impactful on Day 1 as a special teams’ guy. That may be his ticket to the roster.

Freeny is another Belichick favorite who was worked his way from being a STs standout to a Week 1 starter last season before an injury landed him on IR. Freeny counts only $1.7 million against the cap this season but could find himself replaced by one or both of the younger guys. Something is going to have to give here. All three and probably two will not make the cut. This will be one of those “tough decisions” that Belichick and the staff will have to make.

Outside Looking in… Long Shots: Trevor Bates, Brooks Ellis
Bates is a guy who may be just done in by numbers. The Colts drafted him in the 7th round of the 2016 NFL Draft but was cut loose before the Patriots signed him to the practice squad on November 7. He’s got very good athleticism to be a standout STs performer and the team liked him enough to give him a raise on the PS from $6900 a week to $18,000. He was a Practice Player of the Week for NE four times.

Ellis is a long shot but had one of the best 3-Cone Drill times at the NFL Scouting Combine this spring. The very athletic 6’2, 247-pound linebacker was a captain and a finalist for the Campbell Trophy as an Academic All-American. He’s versatile and can play all three linebacker positions as well as be a standout STs player. And he’s studying to be an Orthopedic Surgeon. I see a nickname of “Bones” for this kid…

Next up our training camp primer on the secondary…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.

Why the Patriots Should Kick the Tires on David Harris

Steve Balestrieri
June 21, 2017 at 7:23 am ET

The Patriots love to bring in established veterans at the end of their careers and give them a role that they can still thrive in. It is something that Bill Belichick has traditionally done because it not only allows a player that is closer to the end of his career than the beginning the chance to still be a productive player, but will aid the team by giving them a veteran presence in the locker room, a mentor for the younger players and with their experience, almost another coach on the field.

That’s why the team should at least kick the tires on a David Harris signing. The 33-year old inside linebacker spent 10 very productive seasons with the Jets before being released recently in a salary cap dump. He was set to earn $6.5 million dollars under the salary cap in 2017 and along with Eric Decker was also jettisoned by the Jets in their house cleaning.

The Patriots have faced Harris twice a year in the AFC East. They and the coaching staff know him intimately. Another reason why he’d be a fit is the fact that Belichick likes to snag players that play well against his team. They’ve done with Wes Welker, Randy Moss, and more recently Chris Hogan and Mike Gillislee among others.

But Harris reminds one of another former Patriot, Junior Seau. Seau was close to retirement when Belichick came calling and he gave the team a couple of solid seasons. Was he the player he was earlier in his career? No, but it didn’t diminish what he brought to the table both on and off the field.

The Patriots have a concern at middle linebacker, I wouldn’t characterize it as a weakness but a lack of depth. Dont’a Hightower was resigned but has had some injury issues. Elandon Roberts is mainly untested. Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, and UDFA rookie Harvey Langi are either better outside or not ready (in Langi’s case) for major duty inside.

Bringing in a guy like Harris would immediately upgrade the unit. He could give the team, that two-down presence inside and allow them to move Hightower around more. He could come out in sub-packages allowing Van Noy and McClellin the opportunity to be productive either rushing the passer or dropping into coverage.

Like Seau, Harris was an unquestioned leader for the Jets on and off the field. He was known as the first man in the building and the last man out. His release was such a surprise and shock to his teammates, that coach Todd Bowles called a special, players meeting to discuss this.

“I miss him,” Darron Lee said of Harris. “He’s a great mentor and a great leader. I’m still going to consult him. Even though he won’t be around here, I’m still going to ask him for advice and everything. But it definitely was a somber day the next day and for the whole defense, really, and for this whole organization and for everybody in here because Dave was like a dad to all of us, a lot of young guys in here. He was like a father to me.”

With plenty of room under the salary cap, it would make sense for the Patriots to kick the tires on Harris. He would immediately consolidate the middle linebacker position, and allow Matt Patricia’s defense, even more, flexibility on early downs to mix and match their pieces to allow Hightower to be even more effective.

He could be brought in for a modest amount for a year or two and provide the Pats with the type of veteran’s presence that Seau gave them a few years ago. And with Belichick loving to tweak the Jets, how delicious would it be to see Harris grasping a Lombardi Trophy in February after languishing a decade with the Jets.

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.

Which Patriots Veterans Could Be On the Hot Seat This Summer

Steve Balestrieri
May 25, 2017 at 9:16 am ET

The Patriots made splashes in both the free agency period and the 2017 NFL Draft this offseason to augment an already loaded roster that won the Super Bowl in February. While we continue to watch the developments of these players and try to figure out how well they’ll fit in their new environs, the other side of the equation always is, who do they replace?

There is always movement on the Patriots roster and Bill Belichick has always shown that he’ll cut a player a year early rather than wait until a year too late. Even some of his favorite players that he’s coached will eventually be shown the door, that is part of the reason why he continues to be so successful year after year.

So, with that in mind, the competition in training camp this season should be pretty intense and here are a few veterans that may be facing getting a visit from the “Turk” this summer.

Danny Amendola:  His name is on the list seemingly every year, so eventually we’ll be right, or he’ll retire in another few years before he’s shown the door. Another season, another re-done contract. Amendola has shown to be a tough, reliable wide receiver who while not putting up great numbers, saves his best for big plays at crunch time.

Danny Amendola runs a route in training camp 2016 (SBalestrieri photo)

With a very deep roster at the wide receiver position this season, Amendola will invariably face the questions if he’ll get axed this summer. With Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and Malcolm Mitchell already penciled in, the competition will be there for Amendola to produce for the fifth WR position.

But Amendola has worked his way into QB Tom Brady’s circle of trust which is no small feat. If he stays healthy, he should be able to fend off his competitors for another season. Then come late February, he’ll be the subject of these rumors again.

Brandon Bolden: One of the more intriguing guys on the roster, Bolden is a core Special Teams player on a roster that already has a bunch of them. Bolden was a free agent this spring and signed a new deal to return.  But his roster spot is anything close to a given this year.

With the additions of Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, the Patriots backfield with James White, Dion Lewis, D.J. Foster, and UDFA LeShun Daniels as well as fullbacks James Develin and Glenn Gronkowski makes the RB position stacked. Bolden may find himself a victim of the numbers game. With RB position in mind…

Dion Lewis: Wait?! What?! Don’t be shocked if Lewis, who was injured in 2015 and came back midway thru the 2016 season is under the gun this summer. He showed glimpses of what he’s capable of last season, but he wasn’t all the way back from his injury (Torn ACL) last year.

Now, more than a year removed from his rehab, Lewis will have to show the shiftiness that made him a Swiss Army Knife of the Patriots offense, a guy who can do a little bit of everything. James White took over his role last year and was simply outstanding in the Super Bowl, parlaying that into a contract extension.

Lewis faces the added competition of Burkhead, Gillislee (who should be taking the LeGarrette Blount role) and second year player D.J. Foster, who is a dangerous receiver with the ball in his hands. Lewis’ spot if far from a certainty either.

Linebackers Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy: Any of these three could be cut this summer, possibly even more than one. Freeny was a starter at the beginning of 2016 and a favorite of Bill Belichick. Freeny’s base salary is $1.8 million this season, he’s always been a stellar Special Team’s performer but his ability to contribute on defense, or lack thereof may be something to watch this summer.

Shea McClellin in 2016. (SBalestrieri photo)

McClellin was picked up last season and the team seemed to struggle to find him a role at first until they put him in a sub-package role, but while he’s not as good in coverage or as a pass rusher as Van Noy, nor the run stuffer that Elandon Roberts is, he can do a little bit of each. And he’s a guy that can slide down to defensive end for a few snaps as well. Versatility being a big thing with the coaches but will it be enough?

Van Noy was a nice pickup from the Lions last season, he showed that he could rush the passer and drop into coverage with good production. While not great against the run, he’s the best bet to remain this season, but will have to have a good summer as well.

All three will face some competition from second year player Roberts as well as UDFAs Harvey Langi and Brooks Ellis. Langi is an intriguing player who looked fantastic as a junior in 2015 before his coaches moved him out of position to DE last year. The Patriots paid him $100,000 guaranteed money which is a lot for an UDFA, so they have some hopes that he could compete for a roster spot.

Brandon King/Nate Ebner: These two players are safeties officially but are big special teams’ contributors. Their level of play has continued to be high and both are valuable pieces of the puzzle. So why are they on here? Numbers.

With the Patriots possibly keeping more WRs or RBs on the roster this season, the numbers dictate that someone is going to have to be cut to make room. The bottom of the roster will be an intriguing place to watch this summer.

Neither plays many snaps on defense, although Ebner does fill in on occasion in short yardage and goal line packages, and the Patriots are pretty much set at safety. Their value lies on STs but there are only so many spots on the roster that can be penciled in, each must have a good summer to stick although I’d give Ebner the edge here.

Two other names that can be added to the list are tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming although the latter seems a good bet to stick this season.

The Patriots will have some great positional battles during training camp this summer. The tough part of having a stocked roster is that you always have to let go of some good veteran and rookie players.

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.