The New England Patriots signed former New York Jets LB David Harris to a 2-year deal worth up to $6.75 million and bolstered one of the few weak spots on the roster. Harris joins Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, and Jonathan Freeny at a linebacker position that looks to be better than what the team fielded in 2016.
While we still need to wait for more information on Harris’ contract, preliminary reports of $1.25 million guaranteed suggest that Harris is a roster lock. Only OL Robert Gallery (retired), DT Jonathan Fanene (did not accurately disclose prior injuries to team), DT Tommy Kelly (asked for release), WR Reggie Wayne (asked for release) received more than $400,000 guaranteed from the Patriots and were released that same offseason.
And with that in mind, we can try to assess Harris’ potential impact in the New England defense.
New England usually plays five defensive backs, so a six-man front is the new “base.” The starting four defensive backs of FS Devin McCourty, SS Patrick Chung, CB Malcolm Butler, and CB Stephon Gilmore will play every possible snap, while FS Duron will play against multiple tight end sets and the extra cornerback will be based upon the opposing receivers.
As former Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham noted earlier on Twitter, the Patriots moves on on defense all point to wards an increased reliance on a 3-man front, which aligns with the team’s decisions in 2016. Earlier this offseason, we shared how the 2016 Patriots integrated the Bear Front into their playbook to disrupt opposing rushing attacks by effectively having five players on the line of scrimmage. We could see more of this in 2017.
The Patriots’ Bear Front asked a typical edge player- like Trey Flowers or Chris Long- to play the four- or five-technique across from the tackle instead of on the edge of the line, joining the two starting defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown on the interior. This 3-man front is flanked by another edge player (Rob Ninkovich) and a strongside linebacker (Dont’a Hightower). The off-the-ball linebacker behind the line was usually Elandon Roberts or Kyle Van Noy.
The Patriots have added a typical beefier 3-man front defensive lineman in the 6’4, 305 pound Lawrence Guy to help with Branch, Brown, and Vincent Valentine, while veteran Kony Ealy and rookie Deatrich Wise Jr. should provide depth with Flowers as the extra interior lineman.
Fellow rookie Derek Rivers and possibly Ealy should help with Rob Ninkovich as the opposite edge player and the addition of David Harris could suggest that Shea McClellin could join them on the edge. Hightower, Van Noy, and McClellin all fit in as the strongside linebacker, while Harris will compete with Roberts and Freeny for time as the off-the-ball linebacker.
And with all of these combinations in mind, here’s my basic depth chart and structure of the Patriots defense heading into 2017.
Keep in mind that Flowers can always kick outside and that Ninkovich can move up to the line in order to form a 4-man front, with Hightower and Harris serving as the two off-the-ball linebacker. This is an incredibly versatile front six that can counter opposing packages and motions with relative ease.
This is a front that is extremely stout against the run without losing anything against the pass. Harris’ ability in coverage fixes possibly the biggest problem of the 2016 defense (that still ranked 1st in points allowed).
Hightower is the best overall linebacker, but he couldn’t be everywhere at once. Van Noy struggled with his tackling against the run, while Roberts struggled in coverage. It’s pretty clear that the Patriots linebackers were leaving more yards on the field than the other positional groups, highlighted by a postseason run giving up 10 receptions for 73 yards to Texans running backs, 7 receptions for 51 yards to Steelers RB DeAngelo Williams, and 5 receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown to the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots could mask one linebacker’s flaw with Hightower, but that just open up another to be exploited. Now Hightower can play alongside another all-around linebacker in Harris to patch up any holes in the defense, while Van Noy and Roberts will still have plenty of chances to prove their value to the team- and if either of those players beat out Harris for a starting job, then that just means the Patriots defense will be even better.