If you haven’t heard yet, the Patriots traded their best pass rusher, Chandler Jones, this offseason, and, therefore, they’re doomed. That would be the perception of many non-Patriots fans, but they must have not heard of edge rusher Jabaal Sheard.
Sheard was signed last season to a two-year, $11 million contract after consistently declining in Cleveland. Following the signing, Adam Schefter tweeted that an NFL source contacted him with a guarantee that Sheard would be a top five signing of the offseason. Boy, was he right.
After appearing in 13 games last season, and only starting one, Sheard made the most of his opportunities, racking up eight sacks - the second most of his career - and 58 pressures in just 566 defensive snaps. As a rotational defensive end, Sheard played well enough to earn the honor of being ranked in Pro Football Focus’ top 25 breakout players of 2015 and earned a grade of 88.6, near the likes of Muhammad Wilkerson and Cameron Jordan.
Sheard was included in 236 of the Patriots’ 440 unique defensive lineup combinations last season (54%). Also, out of the 229 combinations that allowed an average of zero, or less than zero, yards per rush, Sheard was involved in 148 of them (65%), according to NFL Game Statistics and Information System. With the Jones departure, in addition to the loss of pass-rushing DT Dominique Easley, Sheard will see significant time as a starter and will need to be the leading contributor to Jones’ lost production.
Through studying Sheard, it’s not tough to notice that he has all the tools to completely replace Jones’ production, and earn a big payday for himself in the offseason.
All footage courtesy of NFL Game Pass.
One of the most important traits of an edge rusher is explosiveness. We've seen rushers such as Von Miller use the trait to their advantage, blowing past offensive tackles in seconds. When creating the perfect edge rusher, explosiveness is likely the first trait that would be altered, and Sheard showed off his athleticism and explosiveness this past year.
In this clip, Sheard gets around the edge of former Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum, a player who was just one year removed from being ranked 67 in PFF’s top 101 players of 2014.
Sheard explodes off the line and with one swift knock of Beachum’s hands, he’s gone. Sheard reached the quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, in under three seconds. Roethlisberger has his back turned to Sheard, and as soon as Roethlisberger looked to his second read, Sheard was draped all over him.
Check out Sheard’s draft profile on NFL.com and here’s what you will see under weaknesses: "a step slow off the line and lacks the speed to be a true edge rusher."
This rush defies that logic as Sheard uses his 4.69 speed and his 33.5’ arms to gain leverage on Beachum and easily get the edge. With Sheard’s rare combination of explosiveness and power, he’ll become a player feared by all offensive lineman and quarterbacks in due time.
Versatility and Power:
If Bill Belichick had to choose his favorite trait ever, it would likely be versatility. Before coming to New England, Sheard had been involved in Cleveland’s 4-3 and 3-4 defensive schemes. Although Sheard was dramatically more successful in their 4-3 scheme, Belichick still took notice of the edge rusher’s versatility.
Sheard blessed us with two of his abnormal traits in this clip: versatility and power. Sheard uses another skill in his arsenal, and likely his best, a bullrush, to run through the right guard. The pure power of Sheard on this play is remarkable as he is able to run through a 300 pound man with ease.
Sheard was used often at interior defensive line in the Patriots’ NASCAR scheme. His large frame and powerful body allowed the Patriots to incorporate as many pass rushers as possible. Sheard never shied away from taking on mauling offensive guards. Even though seven of his eight sacks were a result of playing defensive end, Sheard created space for other rushers when at defensive tackle, notably clearing a path for Jones, who had a career season.
Sheard’s inside rushing ability was everything the Patriots wanted Jones to be on the inside. With Easley, their interior rushing specialist, constantly battling injuries, Sheard gave the Patriots options. Next season, it’s highly possible we see Sheard at defensive tackle with the likes of Rob Ninkovich and Chris Long on the edge for pure pass rush situations.
Setting the Edge:
Long time Patriot defensive end Ninkovich has perfected the art of setting the edge. With running backs being faster than ever, making sure the edge is defended is more important than ever. A good run defending end has a responsibility to force the rusher inside to the heart of the defense.
With the dangerous Buffalo Bills in town, it’s important to shut down their explosive quarterback, Tyrod Taylor. On this play, Taylor is performing a read-option with running back LeSean McCoy. Sheard is the read on this play, meaning that if Sheard crashes then Taylor will take the ball, and if Sheard stays home then Taylor will hand it off.
Sheard stays true to the edge, forcing the nifty, athletic quarterback to hand the ball off to McCoy. Then, Sheard pounces on the back, limiting the gain to a yard. Sheard could not have played this better. He noticed that there was little help after him on the edge, so he decided to let McCoy take his chances up the gut. When McCoy couldn’t find a rushing lane, he stayed close to his right tackle, and Sheard recorded the tackle.
Sheard was impressive against the run all season, establishing himself as one of the best run defending edge defenders in the league. With the Patriots facing McCoy, Lamar Miller, David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, and Todd Gurley this season, Sheard will have a chance to further his reputation.
Simply put, you cannot be an exceptional defender without being a good tackler (duh). An edge defender may be the last form of defense before an open field, so tackling is a pretty big deal. Sheard isn’t afraid to lay the wood with all of his 6’3, 265-pound body.
In this play of the Sunday Night Football battle against the Houston Texans, Sheard lines up as a 7-technique left defensive end. After the ball is snapped, he quickly shoots inside of the tight end for a clear shot at running back Chris Polk, AKA "Bang Bang, Chicken and Shrimp" (thank Hard Knocks for that).
As soon as Polk notices Sheard, it’s too late. Sheard hits the stout back low, wrapping and twisting his legs. After watching Sheard this past season, I feel that it is fair to compare him to a heat-seeking missile. Sheard has a nose for the ball and the tackling to match up with his constant pursuit.
We’ve been witnesses to some ungodly missed tackles throughout the years, such as the horrid MNF outing against the Carolina Panthers where Cam Newton scrambled in the backfield for what felt like forever, to gain about 20 yards. However, Sheard brings his speed, power, and wrap up ability to the table to limit rushing yards against.
All the factors are there for Sheard to have a career year in New England. With a team that has always proclaimed their "Next Man Up" mentality, Sheard will prove, once again, that Belichick has an eye for potential stars.
Ending thoughts: Proud to be writing for the great Pulpit community. With football season inching closer and closer, I can’t wait to share my content and thoughts with you fellow devoted Pats fans. Let’s keep the conversation going, and Go Pats!