The New England Patriots threw 3rd round rookie defensive tackle Vincent Valentine into the fire against the Carolina Panthers. While he didn’t emerge unscathed, he certainly held his own and commanded respect as a potential rotational option on the defensive line.
When the Patriots drafted the 6’4, 330 pound defensive tackle in the third round, we understood that he was a tremendously strong player and one of the two or three most athletic defensive tackles of the past decade. We also understood that Valentine was going to be a major work in progress.
Since the draft, well, Valentine has certainly progressed.
The Patriots used Valentine primarily on rushing downs, and played him next to sophomore phenom Malcom Brown (who looked excellent, by the way) with the first team defense. The Patriots subbed off both defensive tackles in favor of the smaller Anthony Johnson (who also looked excellent) on clear passing downs.
It’s very apparent that Valentine’s strength is, well, his raw strength.
Valentine draws the holding penalty from left tackle Michael Oher and still almost makes the stop. He spins out of the block, showing some creativity after Oher gets the initial advantage, while not giving up any ground. That anchor is seriously impressive and will quickly get him a spot on the field.
This next play is at the start of the 2nd half and Valentine, again, comes up an inch short of a major stop:
Valentine is matched up against a quality guard in Trai Turner- Turner is supposed to seal off Valentine in the same way that Patriots rookie guard Joe Thuney successfully does in this film breakdown- and perhaps could have made the play if linebacker Jonathan Freeny maintained outside leverage.
Of course, it’s hard to blame Freeny. He’s trying to shed Oher, who has a nice grab on him, and running to the outside would only play against his momentum. But perhaps a player like Shea McClellin or Dont’a Hightower could have held the edge here in a different universe and Valentine would have made the play.
As Valentine continues to gain more experience, I’m sure these near misses will convert into stops. He does a good job of wading through the trash in the trenches and staying on his feet, which is a trait the coaches have to like. He remains square to the line of scrimmage and is in position to help if the running back tries to cut back, like in this play:
This is strength and savvy to disengage and make the stop. Valentine uses this strength to contribute on passing downs, too.
Valentine bulls the left guard directly into Cam Newton’s lap, even while the running back throws a questionable block at his knee. Valentine deserves the credit for forcing Newton to make a bad throw.
Of course, Valentine’s strength can be used against him, as the Panthers learned in the second half:
Valentine is expecting to lean his weight on the opposition and the Panthers linemen use that imbalance to step back and use his momentum to toss him to the ground. Valentine won’t be susceptible to this move as much when he has better body control, but he needs to increase his awareness to become a more well rounded player.
A short memory helps, too, because on the very next play, Valentine did this:
For now, Valentine is still a work in progress, even if he is much further ahead than I would have expected. He provides a fantastic anchor in the run game and he really understands how to maintain leverage on the line of scrimmage so he can monitor two gaps. This sort of knowledge took Brown a quarter of the season to learn, so Valentine is far ahead of schedule.
I don’t think that Valentine will unseat Alan Branch just yet, but the Patriots have to be happy with where the rookie stands. He could even make veteran Terrance Knighton expendable.
But whatever happens this year, the Patriots look to have a dangerous duo in Brown and Valentine that should dominate opposing offensive lines for the rest of their rookie contracts.