The Patriots have a habit of increasing players’ worth after stepping into New England.
In 2014, the Patriots acquired linebacker Akeem Ayers and a seventh-round pick from Tennessee in exchange for a sixth-round pick. Following his season with the Patriots, Ayers inked a two-year, $6 million deal. In 2015, the Patriots looked to the trade block for another asset in defensive tackle Akiem Hicks. The Patriots sent over tight end Michael Hoomanawanui to New Orleans in exchange for Hicks, and the 26-year-old turned his production in New England into a two-year, $10 million deal.
The Patriots didn’t have to trade away any assets to gain two former first-round picks this offseason, but rather they just had to spend a combined $4.5 million guaranteed. After the loss of Chandler Jones, New England chose to sign Chris Long, 31, to a one year contract to produce as a rotational edge rusher. Then, the Patriots looked for more support along the edge as well as at linebacker, signing Shea McClellin to a three year deal.
In Long’s case, he was once considered one of the better defensive ends in the league - racking up 41.5 sacks in four seasons (2010-2013). However, injuries and playing time contributed to a massive downfall for Long’s production as he played in just 41.8% of the (then) St. Louis Rams’ snaps last season, and he only recorded a measly four sacks in the past two seasons.
McClellin’s story is similar, but without much glory. Throughout his four seasons with the Chicago Bears, McClellin faced challenges at multiple positions. The defensive end that was drafted with the 19th overall pick was switched to outside linebacker and then to middle linebacker. He was never exceptionally strong at one position, yet his versatility intrigued Bill Belichick enough for him to offer McClellin a three-year, $9.05 million contract. In fact, Rich Hill recently marveled at McClellin’s versatility in a film review of McClellin’s impact on the first preseason game.
Both castaways were looking for new homes when they were brought to New England, and due to the way training camp has played out, both could have meaningful contributions to the 2016 New England Patriots.
We’ll start with McClellin.
The 27-year-old versatile defender couldn’t live up to his first-round status as McClellin was only able to sack the quarterback 7.5 times in four seasons with Chicago. McClellin failed to find a niche in Chicago’s system and he now looks for a spot on the Patriots that will fit his skill-set.
While the move initially pointed to McClellin contributing as the third linebacker, OTAs, minicamp, and training camp prove otherwise. Throughout the offseason, McClellin has spent his time with the defensive ends, but the first preseason game points to McClellin doing more than just rushing the passer.
McClellin is capable of being a zone defender, taking away the flats and making sure nothing gets outside of him. In this clip, McClellin showed that he would rush the passer, but at the snap, he dropped into zone coverage. McClellin diagnosed the screen, evaded a cut block, and contributed to the gang tackle.
McClellin allows Belichick and Matt Patricia to shake the defensive scheme up and helps bring in new personnel groups. He could be any one of the front four, a stand-up linebacker, or line up on the edge as the fifth man, as Rich pointed out. He allows Patricia to send Jamie Collins and/or Dont’a Hightower after the quarterback or to even blitz a defensive back out of the flats, which left the second level vulnerable with Jonathan Freeny last season.
With McClellin in the game, offensive coordinators have to respect his versatility. Although he was lackluster in Chicago, early signs indicate that McClellin will have more success with Patricia than he did with Chicago’s three different defensive coordinators during his time.
One of the main knocks on McClellin is that he often looked lost and was a liability as a linebacker. He was unable to solidify coverage in the center of the field, as seen by this clip.
This was one of my fav plays of the year: Poor Shea McClellin was so lost on this play https://t.co/FkohmaMtg2— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) March 17, 2016
However, McClellin likely will not be asked to contribute in this way with New England. He will be able to do what he is most comfortable with in his mind, rushing the passer, and if he’s used as a stand-up linebacker, he will have more support than he had in Chicago. With Collins and Hightower patrolling the middle of the field, McClellin could be used in many different areas. Also, the versatility of Patrick Chung will help McClellin get settled in on defense as Chung can provide coverage support as the third linebacker or robber defender.
McClellin is a much stronger option as the third linebacker than Freeny and also helps take the workload off of edge defenders Jabaal Sheard, Long, and now injured Rob Ninkovich.
Long is another important piece on the edge with Ninkovich injured and Jones off in Arizona.
As Long’s body wore down following his career year in 2011, he became unsuccessful while playing 70-80% of the Rams’ defensive snaps. Yet, as we saw with Sheard last season, Long will not be asked to be a three down defender in New England.
Sheard saw 53.5% of the team’s defensive snaps last season as the third defensive end, and he made the most of his limited time, producing eight sacks, 16 pressures, and four fumbles. Sheard became one of the most efficient edge rushers in the league last season, even with missing three games due to a nagging ankle injury.
With Long’s time managed as a rotational defensive end, Long can easily become an efficient pass rusher. He can be used as an edge rusher or even an interior rusher in pass rushing packages.
Long looks to have his power back that once made him a cornerstone in one of the most feared defensive lines. In Thursday’s preseason game, Long was consistently able to drive 2015 first-round pick Andrus Peat and collapse the pocket. Long made quick decisions and had a nose for the ball.
In this clip, Long drew an obvious hold after taking advantage of the inside that Peat left open. Long read Peat’s stance and recognized that the right guard was one-on-one with Trey Flowers, the decision to take the inside route was a simple one.
In his heyday with St. Louis, Long reached the quarterback in a variety of ways: with a speed rush, spin, or even a straight up bullrush. Then, last season, Long lost a step and failed to produce. But, if Long’s performance in week one of preseason is a sign of what is to come, Long is rejuvenated: Long found success inside, outside, and flowing to the ball.
With rising star Sheard on the opposing side, I expect Long to have success in cleaning up inside as the quarterback attempts to evade the rush.
With the plethora of edge rushers that New England’s roster holds, the 31-year-old has seemed to find the perfect place to increase his worth. Long will not be asked to become a workhorse; however, he will be asked to provide leadership and quality reps. Taking advantage what the offense gives and reading the play look to be be two strengths of Long in this upcoming season. Long will bring experience and a high football IQ to a young, developing unit.
The Long and McClellin signings make perfect sense for the Patriots. Both can contribute meaningful snaps and become valuable defenders on one of the deepest rosters that we’ve seen in a long time.
Following their downfalls with their past teams, Long and McClellin look destined for a promising year in New England’s defense.