25 May 19
The Patriots have methodically gone about the offseason, amassing players through free agency, the draft, and trades in order to plug holes, but in many cases, to play certain roles.
Quite a few of these players have been added to aid and abet the defense, and make it even more flexible for Bill Belichick, who morphs his unit into different schemes from one week to the next depending on the offense and or matchups on the opposite side of the field.
Unless they manage to snag defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who the Bucs cut loose last week, the Patriots don’t necessarily make the big splashy moves in free agency. Usually, it’s someone who might be underused, not used properly in someone else’s scheme, or someone they’re familiar with.
“No, they don’t typically make the big splashy moves, but they’re so strategic and with role-specific players,” said NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, when reached recently. “Few teams can get away with that, but they’ve been doing it for so long, and they’re so good across the board. They have such a specific plan for those players.”
Re-signing Jamie Collins is a great example of a strategic signing with someone they’re obviously familiar with. The linebacker returns to the team on a one-year deal that could pay him anywhere from $1 million to $5 million, depending how he performs on the field. If he’s motivated, he will play a significant role in helping shut down opposing offenses.
Collins is typically an outside rusher who has the ability to drop and cover skill position players. He’s certainly an asset as a blitzer, and a linebacker who can neutralize running backs coming out of the backfield. That’s one area the Patriots have had difficulty in the past.
Then there’s defensive tackle Mike Pennel, formerly of the Jets. He was somewhat lost behind defensive tackles Leonard Williams, Henry Anderson and Steve McLendon in New York. And yet, he was one of the highest rated interior defensive linemen in the AFC East, with a better rating (87.1) than the above trio, according to Pro Football Focus. The only interior lineman rated better than Pennel was Lawrence Guy of the Patriots.
“The scheme seems like it fits me,” Pennel said, following Thursday’s OTA session. “I like what I’m learning. I’m comfortable in the system. I think they’ll know how to utilize my abilities best.”
His two-year, $5 million deal isn’t outrageous. The Pats weren’t the best at stuffing the run during the course of the season, finishing 29th overall in terms of yards per attempt (4.9 yards). Pennel, at 6-foot-4, 333 pounds, should help the cause up front if he simply does his job.
“They’re not trying to shove a square peg into a round hole,” said Billick. “They know exactly what they’re getting, and if it’s a free agent, usually they pay a minimal price.”
Moving past the free agents, you can also look at the rookie class. They took 6-foot-3, 208-pound cornerback Joejuan Williams with their second-round pick. Cornerbacks with that kind of size are rare.
There’s not much doubt they have plans for Williams, if he lives up to the billing. He’s not your basic cornerback. The Vanderbilt defensive back is a great matchup piece for Belichick, who can use him to potentially neutralize the taller receivers, or tight ends.
Williams, who was beaten a few times, but also had a pick during Thursday’s practice, said he was open to playing anywhere. He loved the chameleon nature of the defense, how he might tackle corners one week, tight ends the next.
“At the end of the day, wherever Coach Belichick wants me, that’s where I’ll play,” Williams said after the Patriots third OTA session. “I have no preference.
“It’s a testament to Coach Belichick and the defense they can swap out schemes every week, put the team in the best advantage to win a game. I look forward to it,’ Williams went on. “But I’m just taking it day by day right now. For me, I want to be wherever the team wants me, wherever Coach Belichick wants me on this defense. I want to learn every position so I can be more versatile and see the field.”
FOXBORO MA. – MAY 23: New England Patriots rookie Chase Winovich walks off the field after OTA’s at Gillette Stadium on May 23, 2019 in Foxboro, MA. (Staff Photo By Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
They also took 6-foot-3, 255 pound defensive end Chase Winovich. He’s another wild card. While he was mostly used to “go hunt” the quarterback at Michigan, as defensive coordinator Don Brown put it, the Patriots probably envision him as a stand-up outside linebacker, who, along with rushing the quarterback, will drop into coverage and play in space. Winovich did a lot of work preparing for that eventuality prior to the combine and draft.
“There’s no question, he can drop back and cover,” Brown said, when asked if Winovich had the ability to play in coverage. “He has tight end in his background. He has hands, he can catch. This off-season, getting ready for the combine, he trained a lot standing up, dropping into the flat, playing coverage, working on his hands. So he can do those things. We just didn’t ask him. The priority for us was to get him around the quarterback. But he can do it all. There’s no doubt about that.”
Trade-wise, they acquired Michael Bennett. He’s a defensive lineman who can play inside or outside. He brings more versatility. He can be kicked inside on passing downs, exploding up the middle.
Belichick can use him in plenty of different ways and alignments. As Billick said, there’s a method and strategy to the players they bring in. They usually have something in mind, particularly on defense.
“It’s worked for them so far,” said Billick. “So far, so good.”
The Patriots had different variations of Bruins hats, caps and head- bands on display during their Thursday session, which was open to the media.
FOXBORO MA. – MAY 23: New England Patriots tight end Ben Watson on the field during OTA’s at Gillette Stadium on May 23, 2019 in Foxboro, MA. (Staff Photo By Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
Benjamin Watson, returning to the team after nine seasons away, made note of how teams support each other.
“It’s what makes this place special, honestly,” he said. “It’s crazy over the last ten years how many championships have been won. I can remember being here (my last time) and thinking there were a lot of championships then. And to look and see what’s happened, not only with the Patriots, but with the Bruins, Celtics . . . even college hockey, it’s just unbelievable the excellence in sports here. I think it’s really important the support the other teams and organizations have with each other not only for the organization, but for the fan bases as well.
“To see the players, who, for some of these kids, we’re their heroes, to see us supporting, I think it’s really important when you talk about building a community. Most of us aren’t from here. Most of us have learned what it is means to be from New England from (the media) and people in our neighborhood . . . I saw the clip of the Bruins wearing (Patriots) hats during the Super Bowl. This is just returning the favor.”
Jimmy G looking good
In the words of teammate Richard Sherman, Jimmy Garoppolo was “threading it” during the 49ers OTA sessions last week.
It’s been eight months since Garoppolo tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, and all seems to be going well in his comeback.
Via the San Jose Mercury News, Jimmy G said “there hasn’t been any swelling in a long time” and that “we’re onto little things. The big strides have been made.”
Reports were he looked pretty nimble dropping back to pass, or rolling out of the pocket.
He looked nimble as he dropped back or rolled out of the pocket, and although a couple passes sailed high, he finished practice with a pin-point completion to rookie Deebo Samuel.
“Just about every throw is doable now,” said Garoppolo, who was wearing a titanium brace on the knee.
The trick is not doing too much, too fast. Garoppolo said it was a balance he had to find with the training staff.
“They’ll reel me back in from time to time. I want to go all the time, just get as many reps as I can as fast as I can,” he said. “It’s just catch up at this time. They do a good job of holding me back, but at times we have our arguments.”