The New England Patriots pass rushers have been in focus this offseason after multiple events changed the landscape. Chandler Jones was traded to the Cardinals, Rob Ninkovich suffered a triceps injury, Trey Flowers is back from the injured reserve, and Chris Long and Shea McClellin joined the roster.
Jabaal Sheard is looking to grow his role in his second season in a Patriots uniform, while Flowers had a statement game against the Saints. Head coach Bill Belichick took some time to highlight what Long brought to the table against New Orleans.
“Chris has good experience and instinctiveness,” Belichick said in Friday’s press conference, “and I think that showed up on a few plays last night; some of the bootlegs and the screen play that you mentioned probably go into that category, too.”
Ninkovich held the most experience at the position, but Long is now the veteran of the rotation. The young players like Flowers, Geneo Grissom, and Rufus Johnson will have to lean on him for advice.
Belichick thinks Long brings a unique skill set to the defense, too, because his style of play is a hybrid version of how his teammates play.
“I think there are some players in that [edge defender] group, like [Shea] McClellin, like [Rob] Ninkovich that are closer to linebackers than some of the other players,” Belichick said, “and then you have some of the other players, [Jabaal] Sheard, or [Trey] Flowers that are maybe not really linebackers at all, but could go inside more than you would want to put a player like McClellin or Ninkovich inside. I'm not saying they wouldn't go in there from time to time, but in any case I would say Chris is the type of player that would fall somewhere in the middle.
“I wouldn't put him with McClellin, but I wouldn't put him with Sheard, but he's somewhere in the middle there of we could use him in more coverage situations than some other guys. Maybe not quite like I said at the linebacker level, could use him inside, maybe not quite as big or have quite as much length as some other players, but the fact that he can do a lot of different things and has a good motor and a lot of experience and really good instincts.”
In other words, there are three types of edge defenders in the Patriots defense: the linebacker types, like Ninkovich and McClellin; the defensive linemen types, like Sheard, Flowers, Johnson, and Chandler Jones; and then the hybrids, like Long and, I assume, Grissom.
Long is going to help the youngsters find their footing in the NFL and I wouldn’t be surprised if he took Grissom under his wing. Belichick was giddy when he drafted Grissom in 2015, noting his versatility and ability to play every front seven spot on the line.
Flowers is clearly ahead of Grissom as an edge defender at this stage in their careers, but perhaps Long can make Grissom a valuable member of the defense.