Consider the league like any other market. Those who do best in their market are the ones who can take advantage of inefficiencies that others are unable to see in order to gain an advantage.
Ernie Adams is the Patriots Director of Football Research and, as a former municipal bonds trader, is extremely familiar with the concept of inefficiencies. There's no question that his role is to help identify where the league is missing out on high quality players and he's helping the team capitalize on the market. From tight ends and slot receivers, to the 3-4 defense, Adams has helped identify where the inefficiencies lie. It seems quite possible that we're seeing another wave of change on defense.
The Patriots made a recent shift from the 3-4 defense to the 4-3 base that left many people wondering about the direction of the unit. Of course, the NFL saw a sharp rise in the use of the 3-4 defense as the Patriots and Steelers saw success in the early part of the millennium, drying up the well of a formerly-saturated market of players.
The 3-4 defense used to thrive because of players who couldn't fit. Outside linebackers were too big to be a linebacker, yet too small to be a consistent defensive end. 3-4 defensive ends were too long to maintain consistent leverage as a 4-3 defensive tackle. Bill Belichick capitalized on these unwanted players and began a long run of defensive success. In a similar fashion, Pete Carroll in Seattle has been enacting the same style of thinking with his larger-than-normal defensive backs.
Yet when every team started to play the 3-4, the inefficiency was no longer there and the Patriots had to adapt. If anything, the formerly overvalued defensive ends started to become more appropriately valued and Belichick was all too willing to tap into the market.
The league had trended towards a passing league by the mid-part of the decade and teams were looking to become lighter on defense. They wanted players who could move in coverage. When the Patriots featured a tight end heavy offense, teams started clamoring for not just tight ends, but safeties with the size and speed to cover them. Defenses were getting faster, yet they had to get lighter in order to do so.
Belichick and Adams realized that a lighter defense is easier to run against, which is why you need versatile offense- you need to force the defense to play light in order to hammer them with the run. In an offensive league, the spread offense can easily manipulate a defense to create easy running lanes. While teams were still trying to create a viable high-tempo passing offense, Belichick was already on to bringing back the run game.
Defenses have been built as reactionary units. If the league was a passing league, they focused on how to stop quarterbacks. When the opposition runs, they learn to stop the run. Belichick wanted to stay ahead of the trends and he's done a tremendous job.
Enter the 270 lbs of Dont'a Hightower, the best player on the Patriots defense over the past five games. A guy who can stop the run with the best of them, yet is quick and savvy enough to drop into zone coverage and force interceptions.
Or the 270 lbs of Chandler Jones, with his explosive 10 foot broad jump, who is strong enough to bull rush the quarterback and smart enough to play defensive end, defensive tackle, and outside linebacker.
Or maybe the 250 lbs of Jamie Collins with his 4.59 speed and absolutely insane 11 foot 7 inches of broad jump explosion. The former defensive back, turned linebacker, turned defensive end, turned linebacker seems like a complete player who can play against every single facet of the offense.
Or Michael Buchanan, who has the same size and athleticism as Chandler Jones. Out with the single faceted Brandon Spikes and in with the new age of defense.
If offenses want to change how they play the game, that's fine with the Patriots. In fact, they'll be at the forefront. But just remember that they also benefit from being a market leader by being able to plan on how to stop themselves before the rest of the league even knows what they're going to have to stop.
The Patriots have built their defense with the goal of being able to stop their own offense, and at the very heart are their linebackers and edge rushers. Any of Jones, Collins, Hightower, Buchanan, or Rob Ninkovich can play defensive end or linebacker. Add in Jerod Mayo and those core players can accomplish anything. They provide the versatility to attack the quarterback, or drop into coverage, all while remaining stout against the run.
Running backs and tight ends who can catch the ball are the immediate future of the offense. There's not a generally accepted type of player who can stop them. The Patriots saw value in the oversized Hightower and the positionless Collins and transformed them into one of the most promising linebacker duos in the league.
There's about to be a new age of defenders. Thankfully, the Patriots are one step ahead.