Keeping this freight train rolling onwards... this time, everyone's favourite unsedated-Gorilla-like behemoths, Defensive Ends. For the purposes of this lovingly crafted article, I have to presume Belichick will stick with the existing 2-gap 3-4 defensive scheme; after all, Hoodie has stuck with the same scouts and coaches who have always scouted and coached players based on 2-gap 3-4 scheme. I figure if he's telling the same scouts to look for the same type of players they've always looked for, it's because he's going to use the scheme he's always used. Makes sense, right? Anyway, looking at the roster, you notice something pretty quickly - there are clearly see two distinct types of DE buried within the D-line ranks.
Firstly, there are those hungry-hungry-hippo Belichick-friendly 2-gap 3-4 DEs - a curious breed of 6'5"+, 300lb+ guys with a healthy supply of strength, acceleration and angry-pills. Somewhat rare, but absolutely worth their weight in gold to the New England scheme. Previous examples include Richard Seymour and Ty Warren - guys you'd never, ever want to meet in a dark alley without being armed with several varieties of Tazer. Despite being starting DEs, they're not stat-monsters, nor are they meant to be. They (along with the NT) are tasked to eat up multiple blockers and open up lanes for the Linebackers to get to the QB or RB. If they can penetrate through those double-teams and make plays of their own, all's the better, but they set up plays, not make them per se.
The second type are the sub-package DEs - slightly smaller, more mobile pass-rushers who typically (or ideally) only play in passing packages - on the inside of nickle and dime D-lines, often next to DE/OLB hybrids like Banta-Cain and Ninkovich. They're of the Jarvis Green/Mike Wright description - smaller, quicker one-gappers who try to penetrate opposition O-lines instead of engaging double-teams. They're ostensibly too small to play 3-4 DE full-time - too prone at getting pushed around and ground down over a full season because they're slightly too short and too light to truly take on double-teams easily. However, they do still get significant playing time: in 2009 the Pats were in sub packages (ie: nickel and dime) for around 50% of defensive snaps. That's a lot, so having the correct type of sub-package/backup DEs is pretty important, too.
So who've the Pats got on the roster, and what will they do with it in 2010? More after the jump.
Firstly, the ranks of 'genuine' 3-4 DEs. At the moment, the Pats have only got one sure-fire proven DE starter - the 6'5", 300lb Ty Warren, multiple Superbowl winner. Warren has his spot at LE sewn up (precluding injuries), so I need not go into depth here.
Then you consider RE, and the picture is a lot less clear. The top prospect on the roster is obviously Mike Wright. He was a particularly valuable contributor in 2009, starting 9 games at DE and DT and netting a total of 35 tackles and 5 sacks. At 6'4 and 295lbs, he has almost-but-not-quite ideal size to fill that Seymour gap at RE. Wright's two inches shorter than Seymour and at least 15lbs lighter. In other words, he's only a little bigger than recently ex-Pat Jarvis Green.
That's really my only problem with Wright becoming a full-time, 16-game+ starter - what I'll call the 'Jarvis Green effect'. Green was fantastic as a role-player and occasionally fill-in, but in 2009 in particular he struggled with the physicality of being a full-time starter in place of the traded Richard Seymour. Two inches and 15lbs might not seem a lot, but it's the difference between one blocker being able to handle you and two blockers being forced into handling you. As a 3-4 DE, you really have to command double-teams, and smaller guys struggle to do it consistently - and if they do, they risk getting hurt and/or worn down sheerly because they're putting themselves through that much more strain and effort to achieve what a bigger man could do with mass and leverage.
Bearing that in mind, I'm not sure that I want to see Wright become a full-time RE. It would be awful to see him change from being a very good substitute/package/backup DE into a mediocre full-time starter merely because he gets worn down from taking on LTs and LGs every snap. This is even more important consider the quality of Left Tackles the Pats will face next year - Jake Long (twice), D’Brickashaw Ferguson (twice), Andre Smith, Joe Thomas, Michael Oher and Jeff Backus. That's a pretty daunting list for an undersized 3-4 DE.
Looking beyond Wright into the 3-4 DE depth chart, the next obvious candidate is 2009 practice squadee Darryl Richard. Richard is 6'4 and 290lbs, meaning he's also a little short and light for an ideal full-time DE. Working in his favour, however, is the fact that he's an intelligent guy - he scored the highest of all D-linemen in the Wonderlic in his draft year. As a practice squad guy his abilities last year were unproven, so it's unclear where he features in the plans for 2010.
Finally, as a potential 3-4 DE, there's Ron Brace. He isn't an ideal option at 'only' 6'3" and at a rather hefty 330lbs, on top of his being relatively unathletic (a 5.48 40 sprint time, in case you wanted to know). He's probably a career Nose Tackle backup rather than sometime DE, although I would expect him to fill in at a pinch.
So when you examine the 'genuine' 3-4 DE roster, the cupboard seems a little bare - there's one 16-game starter (Warren), one very gifted backup/maybe starter (Wright), and an unknown quantity in Darryl Richard. It all leads to a lot of questions: how much faith do we have in Mike Wright's ability to stay healthy and effective over a 16-game stretch as a starting RE? Do we even want him to (or would you rather he stay as an impact substitute)? If not, would you rather invest in a gigantic true-RE-sized rookie? Questions, questions, and I'll do my best to answer at the end of the article.
Moving onto the one-gap Nickel DE/DTs, there are a number of options on the roster. There's Mike Wright, of course (the proven contributor, and as I believe, a better option for the one-gap rush-DE role). There's also Darryl Richard, Damione Lewis and Adrian Grady.
Firstly, Adrian Grady. He's 6'1", 290lb, and was an undrafted free agent out of Louisville. He's bounced back and forth between Colts, Pats and Rams practice squads, and has zero NFL stats. In other words, Grady's a completely unknown quantity as an NFL D-linemen, so I'm not sure what to expect of him as a contributor - probably not a lot.
Secondly, there's the new free agent pickup Damione Lewis, who is 6'2" and 301lbs. He was a pretty solid contributor at the Rams and Panthers, finding his forte as a one-gap inside penetrator-type with a penchant for sacks and QB pressures. That's a rather handy skillset, so I'd expect Lewis to line up as a DT in Nickel packages. However, I wouldn't expect much of him beyond that - he's never played 2-gap 3-4, he's a little short for a traditional 3-4 DE, and he's a little light for a traditional 3-4 DT. Nickel packages, yes. Base 3-4, no.
So the rotation of guys to fit on the inside of Nickle packages looks fairly deep (albeit untested). Damione Lewis ought to be a pretty solid contributor in his limited Nickel rush-DE role, and if Mike Wright is expected to make the full-time transition to 3-4 DE, then Lewis, Richard and Grady will be expected to take more reps in the sub packages to give Wright breathing time. If not, then Wright, Richard and Lewis will be the basis of a very good Nickel D-front.
So, my overall DE roster prediction? I'm really torn on this one. I definitely see a gap at starting 3-4 RE, and it's definitely Seymour-sized. I really like Mike Wright as a player and rate him highly, but I'm not convinced he's ready to be a full-time RE. I just keep having awful visions of the 2009 Mike Wright turning into the 2009 Jarvis Green. He's best in his sub packages as a nickel DT/DE, with the added bonus of being able to fill in as 3-4 DE or NT at a pinch. But as a full-time 3-4 starter? Maybe not.
Who is goint to be the 3-4 DE starter, then? This is where I definitely see a role for a guy like likely first-rounder Jared Odrick - 305lbs, 6'5", a carbon copy of the Richard Seymour/Ty Warren type. Another first-round option (who will probably be off the board by the time the Pats pick, however) is Carlos Dunlap, at 6'6 and 290lbs. A first rounder is a high price, but if you look at it as an investment, Belichick has splashed out on D-linemen before - Warren, Seymour and Wilfork were all first-rounders. Marquise Hill and Ron Brace were second-rounders. The history is there.
The other thing about first-round D-linemen is they hold their value - Richard Seymour cost a first, the Pats got a decade of use out of him, and they traded him out for a first-round draft pick. That's a lot more economic than drafting a TE or HB in the first (yes, Watson and Maroney references. Sue me). However, problems. With Odrick, some scouts question his ability to play 5-technique DE (in other words, his ability to play like Richard Seymour). They suggest the technique and intelligence isn't quite there. Carlos Dunlap is unlikely to last to the 22nd, and he may or may not have the same issues as Odrick - some scouts don't think he's a 5-technique, either.
If that's true, and the Pats aren't sold on Odrick or Dunlap, or they're gone, then there's also Tyson Alualu and Corey Wootton to consider in the second round. With Wootton and Alualu, there's further problems - they're both shorter and/or lighter than ideal - Wootton's 6'6" but only 272lb; Tyson Alualu is only 6'2" or 6'3" (depending on source) and 294lbs. They're both fine players, but not quite ideal, either.
The final thing to bear in mind is that the (likely) 2011 draft stock of DE/DTs is surprisingly deep of guys around the 6'5" 300lbers ideal. Of the college DEs, Cameron Heyward is 6’6" and 287lb with a sub-5 40 time; Christian Ballard is 6'5" and 285lb with a very quick 4.79 40; Cameron Jordan is 6'4" and 285lb and a 5.06 40 - all very big, very quick men who can surely add a few pounds to their big frames. From the college DT stocks there are also interesting options - Marvin Austin at 6'3" and 305lbs with a sub-5 40; Allen Bailey at 6'4" and 288lb running a speedy 4.79, UCLA's David Carter at 6'5" and 290lbs running 4.94. The 2011 draft class looks like it has a few guys who could make fine 3-4 DEs, so there's always the chance that Belichick installs a stop-gap one-year RE solution and chooses to draft a RE in 2011 instead of 2010.
My personal belief is that a guy like Odrick could well be the answer. He's a rare blend of size, bulk and a very quick first step. That's rare, and unlikely to be replicated in the lower round guys - they might have the size but not the athleticism, or vice versa. 6'5", 300lb guys with great acceleration don't come with the rain, and the Hoodie strike-rate on these guys is phenomenal - Wilfork, Seymour, Warren are all Pro Bowl quality 3-4 D-linemen. I'd rather draft Odrick and snag OLBs in the second round. However! You get to vote. So have at it.