With Derek Rivers going down in training camp this week with what was diagnosed as a torn ACL and sprained LCL, the Patriots will now go into the regular season with an edge defender unit that is arguably the worst positional unit on the roster. As of right now, the Patriots are projected to start Trey Flowers (3rd year) and Kony Ealy (4th year) on the edges, with the top backups being Deatrich Wise (1st year) and Geneo Grissom (3rd year). It’s a unit that lacks depth and experience.
The next question then becomes “how much do the Patriots need to rely on the 4th edge defender?” They never want it to come down to a 2013-2014 Patriots situation where Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones regularly played 95% of the defensive snaps. But a 2015 Patriots scenario seems reasonable given the youth of the players. In that year, Jones, Ninkovich, and Sheard played 79, 81, and 51 percent of the snaps respectively, while Geneo Grissom was a distant 4th at just 12%.
In the 2016 playoffs, we saw a pattern of mostly a 3 man rotation at edge defender. Chris Long was relegated to 3rd and longs and played just 32% of snaps in the postseason. Based on this data, it appears that the Patriots really only need to rely on a 4th edge defender on 3rd and longs and obvious passing situations. This 4th edge defender would play roughly 10-30% of defensive snaps.
The two best candidates to take over as the 4th edge defender instead of Grissom, who is mostly special teams only at this point, are both inside linebackers: Shea McClellin and Dont’a Hightower.
McClellin began his career as a 4-3 DE, but that alignment wasn’t without a whole lot of controversy. A quick riser in the pre-draft process, the Bears took him 19th overall, before Chandler Jones and Whitney Mercilus, despite Mel Kiper famously declaring on draft night that he thought that “no 4-3 team would draft him”. Kiper’s reservations about McClellin’s fit turned out to be correct: he was too small to play 4-3 DE on all 3 downs and eventually had to be moved to an off the ball linebacker position.
The Patriots employed McClellin at a multitude of positions last year, mostly as a zone coverage defender or as an on the line 3-4 OLB in the Patriots hybrid 5 man front. But they did use him as a 4-3 DE on a few 3rd and longs and he had some success.
This is a screengrab (apologize for the blurriness) from the week 3 game against the Texans. McClellin is going up against the left tackle on a 4 man rush and he demonstrates some of the same skills that made him a dangerous pass rusher at Boise State. He shows great technique by ripping the hands of the tackle and getting past him.
#74 Chris Clark eventually recovers to push McClellin past the QB, but the damage has been done. Osweiler is forced to get rid of the ball early and he overthrows his receiver, leading to a punt.
McClellin found himself as a pass rusher in a different alignment in the AFC Championship game. Matched up against Alejandro Villanueva in the hybrid 5 man front, McClellin once again beats his guy upfield and forces a hurried throw. As you can see by the time on the game clock, McClellin’s first move is extremely quick. He makes it 9 yards upfield in less than 3 seconds.
McClellin’s career highlight as a pass rusher will probably always be the game where he sacked Aaron Rodgers 3 times and left him with a broken collarbone in 2013, but as a 3rd down rusher, he very clearly has talent. He was the 5th best at generating pressure after week 12, albeit in a small sample size, and could be a very productive in-house replacement as an edge defender. He will have to beat tackles with his speed and his relative lack of strength means that he will have to beat his man with his first move, but as the screengrabs show, McClellin is more than capable of rushing a throw with that kind of pressure.
There is very little film on Hightower lined up as a pure edge defender, and basically none of him lining up against tackles. Hightower’s pressure is generated against interior O-Lineman and running backs, as Devonta Freeman learned back in February. I had to go back to his college tape to find Hightower against tackles. Hightower beat #62 Addison Lawrence (who made a few camps and was active for 1 game as an UDFA) inside with a swim move on this rush.
One of the many reasons why the Patriots have not yet featured Hightower as a 3rd down edge rusher is because he is too important to the defense inside. But with an experienced and savvy veteran in David Harris now manning the middle, would that make the Patriots consider it? They could line up Hightower on the edge on 3rd downs and still have their choice of Harris, Van Noy and McClellin available to play ILB and match up against TEs and RBs.
Hightower is listed at 265, 15 pounds more than McClellin and the same weight as Trey Flowers. The kind of speed/power/strength combination that Hightower possesses is rare and could be an asset on the edge. It isn’t a position he’s played since his days with Nick Saban, but it’s an intriguing option.
While the Patriots have had some success in the past picking up aging pass rushers on cheap short-term contracts with Mark Anderson, Andre Carter, Trevor Scott, and Chris Long, there is already a roster crunch to the point where there may only be 1 roster spot up for grabs on the 53 man roster. Signing an outside FA to fill the hole leaves the Patriots with the same issues.
Adding a guy like Dwight Freeney or Mario Williams sounds great on paper, but then you’re left with a specialist on the roster that doesn’t play special teams and only contributes on specific 3rd down scenarios. Bill Belichick prides his defensive players for being able to do multiple things and play multiple positions and schemes. It might be time for them to put that versatility to the test.