by Cian Fahey
The New England Patriots are forever evolving.
Having won the Super Bowl with an expensive secondary in 2014, head coach Bill Belichick took the complete opposite approach to building his roster for the 2015 season. Safety Devin McCourty was re-signed to a very team-friendly deal, but the Patriots did not pick up an expensive option year on Darrelle Revis. Revis and McCourty were the defense's two most important pieces last year. Brandon Browner was a vital matchup-specific option, but with the departure of Revis suggesting a scheme change in New England, the Patriots cut him too. Then nickelback Kyle Arrington, who played more than 600 snaps last season, was cut as well. Browner is now in New Orleans and Arrington is in Baltimore. Logan Ryan, a cornerback who played the fourth-most snaps of any defensive back last season, remains on the roster but has seemingly fallen out of favor.
From the outside looking in, most NFL decision-makers appear to have specific approaches to building success. Head coaches tend to prefer specific schemes while general managers remain committed to certain principles of roster construction. Belichick is part of the minority that understands football games can be won in different ways. He was never going to overpay for Revis, McCourty, or Browner simply because he had enjoyed success with them in the past. Instead, he focused on finding value on the defensive back market while growing the expectations for his front seven. Adding Malcom Brown, Jabaal Sheard, Geneo Grissom, and Trey Flowers to his defensive line rotation, combined with the expected return of Jerod Mayo, should elevate the overall quality of the defensive front.
The Patriots defense will no longer be able to rely on Revis and McCourty to dictate schemes to the offense. This year, the Patriots will be more adaptable to react to whatever opponents attempt to do to them.
This year's defense should look a lot more like last year's offense. The Patriots offense constantly adapts to the opposition to exploit specific weaknesses. This was no more evident than during the playoffs. In the divisional round against the Ravens, the Patriots targeted Rashaan Melvin over and over again. They threw the ball more than 50 times and scored 35 points in the process. Just a week later, they faced the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots had previously run through the Colts in the regular season with Jonas Gray. Gray only had four carries this time around, but LeGarrette Blount had 30 and ran for 148 yards with three touchdowns. The Patriots scored 45 points while bludgeoning the Colts' defensive front.
Such is the nature of this approach that the names of important players are constantly changing. Tom Brady, McCourty, and a handful of other top players remain, but as Brandon LaFell showcased last year, previously overlooked players will get opportunities to become impact stars. Two to keep an eye on entering this season are tight end Scott Chandler and defensive lineman Dominique Easley.
The 30-year-old Chandler was a free-agent addition this offseason. Chandler spent time with the Chargers, Giants, and Cowboys without ever catching a pass, then gained 182 receptions for 2,120 yards and 17 touchdowns in four-plus seasons with the Buffalo Bills. Chandler was one of Buffalo's most talented receiving options over the years, but he never played with a quarterback capable of consistently getting him the ball. The Patriots brought in a number of tight ends this offseason, but Chandler was always the favorite to be Rob Gronkowski's complement.
Injury prevented Chandler from playing through training camp and the early stages of the preseason, but once healthy he showed why the Patriots signed him to a two-year, $5.3 million contract.
Chandler isn't as versatile a player as Aaron Hernandez used to be, but he is the most talented receiving complement that the Patriots have put alongside Gronkowski since Hernandez's incarceration. Chandler has the size and fluid athleticism to beat defensive backs in different ways. He can line up in the slot or tight to the formation to run a variety of routes to different areas of the field. In the above GIF, the tight end lines up in the slot and works a deep in route that puts him just in front of the arriving safety, Tre Boston. Chandler's route wasn't good enough to create a pocket of space, but he could use his sheer size and strength to fend off Boston and absorb his hit before securing the first-down reception.
That was a traditional type of tight end play, working the middle of the field and relying on size to essentially box out a defender for a rebound. In this preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, Chandler showed off his comfort working in space as well.
This is a relatively simple play, but a valuable one that is executed perfectly -- at least, perfectly after the ball is snapped, because Chandler was fortunate not to be flagged for not being set at the snap after motioning across the formation. It's easy to see how comfortable Chandler is accelerating towards the sideline and making a hands catch away from his body before seamlessly turning downfield. What is more subtle is the early movement in his route that slowed down linebacker Luke Kuechly. Chandler hesitated early instead of simply running directly towards the sideline. By squaring his shoulders and looking directly at the linebacker, Chandler forced Kuechly to take a backstep before he broke towards the sideline. This backstep prevented Kuechly from being aggressive with his athleticism, and that allowed Chandler to eventually turn upfield.
It's a simple quick throw to the flat for a 6-yard gain, but this is the type of play on which the Patriots build their offense. An easy 6-yard throw can be completed consistently, setting up second-and-4 over and over again -- in other words, putting the offense in more manageable situations.
Making the simple plays will make Chandler a valuable piece in the Patriots offense, but as teams focus on covering Gronkowski and Julian Edelman while still aligning against the running game, he should also find himself with preferable matchups to work deep downfield. In the above play, Chandler caps off the drive with a long touchdown reception on a sideline route against Thomas Davis, one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL. Therefore, even though he doesn't create huge separation against the linebacker and he is reliant on a perfect throw, it is still an impressive play for the tight end to make. If Chandler executes like this against your typical NFL linebacker, he will be comfortably open downfield for an easier reception.
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For all of the different amalgamations the Patriots' game plan went through last season, they didn't heavily feature a second tight end in the passing game very often. Tim Wright was the second most productive tight end behind Gronkowski. He scored six touchdown passes, but caught only 26 passes on the year for 259 yards. Wright had just three games of significant consequence and didn't register a reception during the playoffs. Chandler should be more consistently prominent in the offense from the very start of this season. That is because he is a more talented player than Wright, but also because there are major questions about the team's receivers. Brandon LaFell will be inactive on the PUP list for a while and Julian Edelman is available but appears to have a lingering ailment from the injury that sidelined him during the preseason. Aaron Dobson didn't have a good camp, but is in line to be the third receiver on the field if Edelman is healthy.
While Chandler is a new face who should be pushed into a prominent role, Easley is a carryover from last season. He was the team's first-round pick of the 2014 draft. Although first-round picks are often not heavily involved as rookies, the Patriots knew that they were likely going to be waiting for at least one year before they could get the most out of Easley. That is because the former Florida defensive tackle was coming off the second torn ACL injury of his career. The Patriots were still willing to invest a first-round pick in Easley despite those injuries because of his special talent.
Easley isn't Vince Wilfork. He's a lighter defensive tackle who is more of a penetrating presence than a nose tackle. That is why he spent some time as a defensive end last season. With Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, and Trey Flowers available to play outside, there is no reason to think Easley will be moved to the edge this year. That should allow him to prosper. His ability to disrupt the pocket from the interior will be hugely valuable because it's so difficult to find defensive tackles who can explode off the line of scrimmage the way he can.
In college, Easley was regularly the first defensive lineman off the ball. He was consistently able to engage offensive linemen or get into their gaps before they had even fully left their stances. His burst was so rare that it was likely unique. On a few occasions, Easley had been so quick off the snap that he had pushed offensive linemen backwards so that he was level with both edge defenders as they engaged the tackles outside. The edge defenders had got to the same point unopposed as Easley had working through contact. The Patriots were banking on that burst returning after his second ACL surgery, one on each leg. During his rookie season he dealt with swelling and pain that shortened his season, and when he was on the field there wasn't any real reason for optimism.
During the preseason this year, that all changed.
Easley might not be an every-down defensive tackle, but the Patriots won't need him to be this season. Both he and this year's first-round pick, Malcom Brown, are outstanding penetrators who will provide huge value on passing downs. Easley can also be effective against the run as he can easily penetrate against zone-blocking schemes with his burst off the snap, and he has the strength to manhandle blockers against power runs. He won't be eating up two gaps, but the Patriots should not need him to in their 4-3 front.
The below GIF highlights the kind of play the Patriots are going to expect to get from Easley this year.
Easley lines up over the center at the snap. He is isolated against the center and uses his hands to violently knock him backwards as he explodes through him. Although Easley doesn't touch Cam Newton on the play, his penetration through the middle of the pocket disrupts the quarterback and opens a lane for Jamie Collins to run through. The backside of this play offers up an example of what the Patriots are expecting this year. Their defensive back is beaten on an out route by Ted Ginn. Ginn may be in position to reach forward for a first down, but Newton misses him because of the pressure he's working under in the pocket. When people talk about the pass rush making the coverage better, this is the type of play they are highlighting.
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Being overly reliant on the front to create pressure can be a dangerous strategy for any defense. On plays where the front can't disrupt the pocket, the secondary is left susceptible to consistent completions and big plays downfield. While McCourty at free safety has limitations as an individual player, he can play a major role in preventing big plays. What a free safety can do for others at this level is often overstated, but McCourty is the second-best free safety in the NFL, a player who can take on tough assignments and execute them comfortably with his range and intelligence. With McCourty on the back end, a strong set of starting linebackers and their talented rotation on the defensive line, the Patriots should be able to alleviate the pressure on their cornerbacks to perform.
That is essentially the inverse of the philosophy on which the Patriots defense was built last season. Belichick understood back then that he was getting adequate value from the players in whom he invested. Whether he will get the same from his investments this year is still unclear, but on paper it at least looks like his team is set up for another successful season.
Belichick gets a lot of credit for his years of success. There are very few aspects of his career that aren't celebrated. But his willingness to adapt and understanding that it's not about what you do but rather how well you do it is something that deserves consistent praise. It is at the core of his Hall-of-Fame career.