Mea Culpa 2: evaluating Defence and Special Teams predictions.


As those of you who frequented the Pulpit are likely aware, over the offseason I did a series of predictions about how the Pats will retool the roster. Given the dearth of news in this current zone of the year, I'll do a tentative evaluation of my predictions, bearing in mind that the roster is still in an amorphous, pre-cutdown state.

In my previous Mea Culpa article, I evaluated my predictions on Roster Makeup, Quarterbacks, Tight Ends, Wide Receivers, Running Backs and the O-line.

Unsurprisingly, then, this article is evaluating my predictions on: the Defensive Line; Linebackers; Defensive Backs; and Special Teamers.

My evaluations after the jump!

Defensive Line

My defensive line analysis was unsurprisingly focused on Defensive Ends; the Defensive Tackle situation is pretty solid with Wilfork, Pryor and Brace locking up the NT slots.

From the Defensive Ends, I split them into two categories - the true 3-4 DEs of the block-eating, Richard Seymour type, and the nickel-type Defensive Ends that are pass-rushing penetrators.

After a tentative breakdown of the roster as it stood at the time, I made a stab at predicting the 'cure':

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.

Belichick clearly agreed with me to at least some extent on this point, as he went out and attracted a 3-4 size DE.

I personally thought that Jared Odrick would be the front-runner, as he had the closest-to-ideal size and explosiveness to fill a Richard Seymour role. However, I had a caveat on that:

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.

It seems my last line was prophetic; Belichick went out on the free agent market and picked up 6'4, 330lber 1st round, 3rd pick free agent Gerard Warren. Warren's frame puts him solidly in the size/weight bracket of a 3-4 DE, meaning he'll compete or rotate with Wright in an ideal world. He will, however, have to pick up a foreign system in a very short time. He will also be a short-term loaner; he's 31 and obviously not getting any younger. Whether that's an indication that Belichick likes what he sees in the 2011 draft is speculation, but it really wouldn't surprise me given Belichick has two 2011 first-round draft picks to use.

Overall grade: B-. I missed on the Odrick pick, but I don't feel overly bad about it as he was picked up by the 'Phins. He was obviously enough of a Pats-style 3-4 DE to make Bill Parcells want him, so I suspect that Odrick would've fitted in well with the Pats. It was a case of CB being a greater need than DE, and for that I blame the fact that Santonio Holmes and Brandon Marshall were recent additions to the division. Having top-flight WRs to be guaranteed rivals for at least 4 games a season, every season, meant CB was the pressing need.

Linebackers:

My main point in this article was that the Pats need a specific type of Linebacker - versatile, 3-down guys who are equally adept in run-defence, pass-rushing and coverage. I took it to the logical extent - that it's better to have a so-so athlete with the requisite skillset than it is to have a pass-rushing freak only.

As I put it:

the opposition QB or Co-ordinator couldn't just look at the defensive package of 3-down linebackers and know what the defence was doing - any of those linebackers could be pass-rushing, dropping into coverage, sliding into the flat, anything. That allowed Belichick to dictate terms to the opposition, not the other way around - he controlled the misdirection and therefore the flow of the game without having to sub guys on and off to do it. If he needed a big play, he could risk it and call a blitz with his base package of players; if he wanted to keep bend-but-don't-break, the normal coverage will do.

My suggested resolution to this was

The solution? This suggests to me two things - whoever the Pats take have to have the physical abilities to do a little of everything. That means his OLBs should be as close to his 6'4", 250lb, 4.70 40 time as is possible, because if they're too small they aren't able to do all the things required of them. And if they can't do that, they're 2-down guys, and that means the Pats are back to where they started. They have to be physically capable of doing everything, or Manning or Brees will pick on them by exploiting their weaknesses

So what did the Pats do? They picked up OLB Jermaine Cunningham, who's pretty close to the size/weight/skillset prototype. He's decent in pass-rushing - 19.5 sacks and 11 QB pressures. He's also surprisingly good in pass coverage for an ex-college 4-3 DE - 7 passes deflected and an interception he took back 18 yards for a pick-6. And to top it all off, he's pretty useful in run-stopping, racking up 34 stops behind the line of scrimmage out of his 152 tackles (80 solo), totalling minus 126 yards. He's got the skillset necessary, unlike other highly touted prospects Sergio Kindle and Jerry Hughes. The only other guy who remained on the radar for a second round pick was Koa Misi, and he went to (unsurprisingly), the Parcells-influenced 'Phins.

Grade: B. Right type, wrong guy. I was leaning towards Koa Misi as he seemed the most rounded guy, and while Cunningham wasn't on my radar as he was only rated as a 3rd or 4th round talent pre-draft, he's one of the few guys who has the right mix of talents. Misi is a superior athlete on paper, so it was natural he went off the boards before Cunningham. However, those two were the only clear choices who had the requisite skillsets, especially with dubious pass-rush-first (only?) players Sergio Kindle and Ricky Sapp seemingly having value-killing injury issues on top of dubious skillsets.

Secondary:

Two things - I overestimated Springs, and I wrote the article before (although published it after, d'oh!) both Brandon Marshall and Santonio Holmes entered the division. I advocated for the status quo, suggesting that Springs and the wonder twins would be decent enough as slot/depth guys to cover the Pats for this year. I didn't foresee Springs being cut (although SlotMachinePlayer picked up on the possibility in the comments when he noted that Springs was being fingered as a bad locker-room influence). If I had seen him being cut, I would've suspected the Pats would use the draft to get a replacement; similarly, if I'd known Marshall and Holmes were coming the AFC East, I'd have bumped that CB draft pick into the first- or second-round area.

Grade: C+. Could've, should've, would've. I did note the kind of CB the Pats like - bigger, strong tackler, good run defender, doesn't jump routes - and McCourty fits the bill. But I still didn't envision the Pats drafting one, let alone a first-rounder at the time I wrote the piece. If someone had told me that Holmes and Marshall were coming, I suspect I'd have been higher on the idea, but I didn't pick it even though Richard Hill thought they may well go CB. Oh well.

Special Teams:

If I missed on the previous three, I nailed it on special teams. My thoughts on the outset were:

It's no surprise, then, that [Belichick] spends time, effort and draft picks in an effort to upgrade and maintain the special teams unit at most opportunities.

And boy, did he this year.

When I was discussing coverage guys, I noted that:

Arrington has definitely earned his stripes, so I'd not only expect him to be on the roster at the end of training camp, but also to be a core special teamer. He's dynamic and a game-changer, and very quick to boot. In fact, between his speed and Slater's, I have a feeling that may be why Hoodie has given punter Hanson the boot - while Belichick favours hang-time over depth in his punters up until now, he currently has two potentially game-changing gunners and may want a deeper-booted punter to give them an opportunity to make plays.

Buried in there is two ideas: that Belichick would want a big, booming puner, and alongside his new punter he'd want top-notch, game-changing gunners. He got one of both.

Firstly, he found a way to bookend Arrington with an even better coverage guy - first round draft pick Devin McCourty. McCourty racked up three blocked kicks and a blocked punt in college, as well as a 98-yard return (a school record). He is also a very good tackler and very quick (a 4.48 40), meaning he's an ideal coverage-unit guy too. He's hefty enough to play in all coverage units, at 5'11" and 193lbs. He's a born contributor.

Secondly, he upgraded and created competition in the Punter slot.

Given the sudden upgrade at gunner, I'd expect serious competition in the punter position. The Pats recently signed Australian Aussie Rules player David King; he's likely to have a good punt on him and decent fundamentals, but is otherwise an outside chance given his lack of depth in the American Football game. I'd fully expect the Pats to bring in a draftee or Undrafted Free Agent to compete for the spot; before the Pats signed King, they were seriously scouting rookie punters. Given they've usually had punting competition in training camp, expect more of the same.

One of those guys they brought in? Pats draftee Zoltan Mesco. And there is a serious competition going on for that roster slot, one which Mesco appears to be the frontrunner. A big, booming punter indeed.

Long Snapper:

It's not so much the starter that's interesting - Jake Ingram is a fixture - but the backup spot that's of note. Rob Ninkovich was the backup last year (as well as being OLB), and this year he's competing for that slot with backup RT Welch. As I noted:

If it comes down to keeping Ninkovich or replacing him with someone similar, the fact Ninkovich can fill in at a specialist position may well mean his roster spot is safe.

So whether Welch or Ninkovich is the better LS backup may well influence which one is cut when filling out the total roster.

Returner
I suggested there was an open slot in the kick and punt returner ranks given the injury to Welker;

The Pats, if they address CB, S, WR or HB, may well specifically target a guy who can return kicks, solely because of the somewhat thin lineup at the moment... I'd be highly surprised if the Pats didn't get a punt-returning [player] in the upcoming draft.

The Pats have filled that ably with McCourty and with the return to health of Brandon Tate.

Grade? A-. I got both the likelihood that the Pats will draft a punter, importance of the gunners given a new booming punter, and likelihood of taking a KR/PR guy. I also predicted the competition between Ninkovich and Welch for LS duties. Booyah.

Thoughts? Complaints?

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