The New England Patriots signed former Browns defensive lineman John Hughes III to little fanfare. The 6’2, 320 pound 5th year veteran was unable to crack a weak Browns roster and it felt like he was just another player in a long line of acquisitions inspired by former Browns general manager and Bill Belichick confidant Michael Lombardi.
“Mike has been a good source of information on a lot of levels but certainly players that he is familiar with, like guys that were on that team,” Belichick said about adding the 14th player from Lombardi’s 2013 Browns roster. “I mean he gives you insight into guys that you don't get if you're not there.”
So who is Hughes? Why did the Browns release him? What value does he add to the Patriots?
“John's an experienced player,” Belichick said this past week. “He has played a little bit inside and outside. We'll see how it goes with him. Again, I think he's a big guy with some skill, can run a little bit and has a good level of playing experience.”
Hughes was an overdrafted 3rd round pick in the 2012 draft- Hughes was apparently holding a draft party on day 3 before the the Browns took him on day 2- that has managed to stick through multiple coaching changes by the Browns.
He was drafted under head coach Pat Shurmur in 2012 and was going to play in the middle of Dick Jauron’s 4-3 defensive front. Per Pro Football Focus, the Browns used Hughes as a pass rusher, a clear weakness in his skill set, and played him too much (50+% of the snaps) and he was ineffective as a rookie.
In 2013, Shurmur was fired and head coach Rob Chudzinski and defensive coordinator Ray Horton ran a 3-4 defensive front inspired by legendary coach Dick LeBeau. This is the year with Lombardi at the helm. Horton used Hughes on running downs 91% of the time and Hughes “was one of the best run defenders” in 2013, ranking 7th in his position against the run. Horton’s defensive line is supposed to control the line of scrimmage, which aligns with Hughes’ skill set.
Chudzinski was fired after one year and in 2014, Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil implemented a different type of hybrid 3-4/4-3 defensive front, inspired by current Bills head coach Rex Ryan. This requires defensive linemen to flex between one- and two-gap responsibilities depending on the offense, but should have matched well with Hughes’ ability.
Unfortunately, Hughes only played 5 games in 2014 due to an array of injuries, including an injured hamstring and a knee injury that landed him on the injured reserve.
The Browns signed him to a 4-year extension prior to the 2015 season for an average of $3.6 million per season, with the expectation that he pick up where he finished the 2013 season.
In 2015, Hughes played in all 16 games as part of a seven-man defensive line rotation where every player played between 35% and 50% of the defensive snaps.
The Browns fired Pettine before the 2016 season and brought in the 4th head coach of Hughes’ young career in Hue Jackson, along with old friend defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Horton ran the defense during Hughes’ best season in 2013 so this felt like a perfect match, but a family issue forced Hughes out for a few weeks during the preseason and he lost his place in the depth chart.
The Browns have 2015 1st round pick Danny Shelton and 3rd round pick Xavier Cooper, and the new regime signed Gabe Wright, Stephen Paea, and Jamie Meder in free agency and drafted Carl Nassib and Tyrone Holmes. Hughes was the odd man out as the new regime decided to move forward with all new faces.
Hughes is at his best when he’s in a rotation that limits his snaps at 30-40% and when he can focus his attention against the run. He can play any position along the defensive line, but is most comfortable in between the tackles. He’s never going to be a pass rusher, so don’t expect an Akiem Hicks level of impact, but he can be a stout option against the run.
One thing you can't question about John Hughes is his effort. Even if he doesn't make the tackle, he's running to ball until whistle blows. pic.twitter.com/LHsSSpSMsz— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) September 29, 2016
Hughes is a high effort player that will always run to the ball and I’m sure that is what Lombardi remembers from their year together in 2013.
Hughes has had to battle through multiple regime changes and has been forced to play roles that don’t align with his skill set. He’s the exact type of player that the Patriots have been known to reclaim and turn into a successful role player over the past few seasons.
Look for the Patriots to use Hughes in a rotation with Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, and Vincent Valentine on first and second down and for Hughes to look right at home. Don’t expect a transcendent player, but Hughes should be an above-average #3 run stuffing defensive tackle.