The Patriots need an outside linebacker who can do it all- a guy who can set the edge against the run, generate pressure on the quarterback, and drop into coverage. There's no one in the draft who has proven that they can excel in all three, although a couple prospects seem to to have the athleticism if they tried. One of those players is Robert Quinn, who is pretty much assuredly out of the Patriots' reach, unless they trade up. Another is Aldon Smith, who has an outside chance of dropping to 17. Smith has the final step the Patriots need in an outside linebacker, as well as the strength to stop the run. The question is in his coverage, although he has shown a base ability and fluidity to drop back. Beyond those two players, there's no real top prospect.
Of course, the best option would be to take either Quinn or Smith in the draft, but what if that doesn't happen? What if it costs too much to grab Quinn, or if someone moves right in front of the Patriots to grab Smith? Why can't Dane Fletcher be that guy?
Let's examine Fletcher's potential after the jump!
As stated, there are three parts to being a successful outside linebacker: having the strength to set the edge and stop the run, having the agility and awareness to drop into coverage, and having the speed and quickness to generate pressure on the quarterback. Here's how Fletcher stacks out:
Rushing the Quarterback
Watching Fletcher play, it's clear that he has the finishing speed that players like Jermaine Cunningham do not possess. He has the ability and speed to get by blockers and get to the quarterback. The only question is how he reacts when he is engaged by a blocker. He has a great first step so he should have an immediate advantage over some linemen, but he is extremely light for an OLB, which means that he can be handled if engaged.
Verdict: Fletcher can absolutely rush the quarterback and, if he can add 5-10 pounds and maintain his burst, he could be an excellent complement to a stout run stopping OLB like Cunningham.
Setting the Edge
Clearly, this is where Fletcher will have to improve. While he has asked to play OLB in the Patriots' sub-4-3 defense, he has not really been asked to set the edge- he's been asked to shoot the gaps. As an outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, Fletcher will have to have the strength to seal off the edge and to force the running back inside. He is extremely able at making tackles, but he needs to add strength to allow other players to make tackles.
Verdict: Just like rushing the quarterback, Fletcher will need to add weight to help stop the run. He's a fundamentally sound tackler and he does a solid job of getting around blockers, but the weight will be needed to engage with blockers and to hold his ground.
Dropping into Coverage
Check. Fletcher's initial role on the defense was to be a spy on outlet passes to running backs. His first real game came against Baltimore when he was asked to watch Ray Rice and to stop him from breaking out into large gains. Well, Rice's long on the day was 11 yards, but he averaged just 4.75 yards/reception. That's a stellar job of defending. Fletcher will continue to improve his instincts, but he definitely has shown the ability to cover players and prevent gains on check downs.
Verdict: Absolutely. Fletcher is as ready as any 3-4 OLB prospect in the draft, if not much, MUCH more ready to drop into coverage. He's a solid option.
So what's the final result? Well, Fletcher definitely needs to add 5-10 pounds if he wants to make the move to outside linebacker, but he has all the makings of being an excellent 3-4 OLB. If the Patriots can't get Smith or Quinn, then Fletcher would be the next option on my list. Some prospects lack the speed to excel at the next level (possibly Kerrigan), others get washed out in run defense (Beal), and a few more lack the athletic ability to drop into coverage (Sheard).
If I had to rank the best possible outcomes at OLB, it would turn out the following:
1. Patriots draft Robert Quinn
2. Patriots draft Aldon Smith
3. Patriots transform Dane Fletcher
4. Patriots draft Sam Acho in the 3rd
The fact that this is a pretty weak OLB draft needs to be kept in mind when projecting drafts. Don't take players for the sake of drafting the position, but take players who actually fit the scheme and bring something more to the table. I believe that moving Fletcher to OLB not only fits the Patriots' scheme, but his versatility to play every linebacker spot adds a lot to the defense. He can stay on the field in the 3-4, the 4-3 sub, the 3-4 sub and everything in between. As long as he can add 5-10 pounds, maybe even 15 over the course of the next couple seasons, he can be an excellent fit.
I'm a fan of Fletcher's future. I think he's going to be a great player. Letting him play OLB might allow him to develop into a star over the course of next season.
What do you think?