There was a time last season when Chandler Jones was injured and the newly acquired Akeem Ayers was thrust into a leading role. Jones and Ayers are two entirely different players and it showed in their utilization on the field.
Chandler has an ability to kick inside on passing downs to generate pressure against interior lineman, and he has an undeniable strength and stoutness to hold the edge and force rushers inside. Ayers played defensive end out of necessity, but also showed the flexibility to drop back into coverage. With Chandler on the field, the Patriots were going to use him as a defensive end in either the 3-4 or the 4-3. Ayers was either the 4-3 defensive end, or the 3-4 outside linebacker.
The utilization of Ayers sparked the interest of many Patriots fans because he seemed like the perfect complement to fellow edge defender Rob Ninkovich. Ninkovich has made his bread by aligning as the edge defender in every front, and showing the ability to drop back into coverage. With Ayers and Ninkovich on the field, along with linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, the Patriots had four players who could either rush the passer or drop into coverage, and could perform either role at a high level.
It was a tantalizing display of versatility that allowed the Patriots to emerge from a brutal stretch against the vaunted passing attacks of the Bears, Broncos, Colts, Lions, Packers, and Chargers relatively unscathed with Chandler Jones on the sideline. The flexibility confounded some of the top quarterbacks in the league and planted a seed for a future cornerback-barren defense.
With the 97th pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots selected Geneo Grissom, and no one had any idea how to react. He wasn't overly athletic. He didn't put up monster numbers. He didn't start many games. But his Oklahoma Sooners used him all over the defense and Bill Belichick was downright giddy to add him to his defensive arsenal.
"I'd say he's very instinctive as a pass rusher," Belichick stated about Grissom in his post-draft press conference. "He's in coverage a decent amount of the time as a walked-off linebacker. So you see a guy play out in space, out over the slot. He does a lot of that. So, for a guy to play from three-technique to end-of-the-line to a walked-out linebacker at the Senior Bowl, they actually played him off the line, like in the tackle bubble. He's a pretty athletic, versatile guy."
Grissom is the wonderful combination of both Akeem Ayers and Chandler Jones in his utility, and he will have plenty of time to develop his skill set on the Patriots depth chart. Like Ayers, Grissom can drop into coverage, he can play linebacker, he can align anywhere and be a bother. In fact, Belichick even compared Grissom to Ninkovich.
"I think there are some similarities [between Grissom and Ninkovich]," Belichick explained. "I would say that Grissom has just done more than Rob. Similar to Rob, but he's played a lot of three-technique. Which, I don't think, Rob just hasn't done a lot of that. Rob's been on the end of the line, he's been a linebacker.
"Rob's played more linebacker than Grissom has. Grissom's played in the inside part of the defensive line. Not just on passing downs, he's played there on their base defense in '13. He's an interesting player."
Grissom's college coach, Bob Stoops, told Chris Price of WEEI that the defender was at his best as a "five-technique outside edge guy, whether he’s standing or with one hand down."
Belichick tried to use Chandler Jones as a five-technique defensive lineman (most generally the alignment of a 3-4 defensive end) throughout the 2014 season. While the disaster against Miami in week 1 will be highlighted, where Chandler played the game at five-technique and was targeted by the Dolphins, Jones lined up in that role with much more success over the rest of the season.
Grissom is still a raw product and will need time in the NFL before he's ready to start, but his potential and versatility is undeniable. Belichick sees a player who can pair rotate at any position on the defensive line, and can also drop back into coverage with similar success as Ayers. He's a jackknife that, like Ayers, can fill into any hole on the defense when called upon.
As the 2015 season develops, look for Grissom to have a rookie-season-Jamie-Collins-esque impact as he learns the system and develops a role.