Two days ago, the New York Jets made a somewhat surprising move when they opted to decline the $1.0 million contract option in defensive tackle Mike Pennel’s deal. As a result of the decision, the veteran will become an unrestricted free agent once the market opens on March 13 — making him free to sign with any club, including one that will likely keep a close eye on him: the reigning world champion New England Patriots.
The Patriots could see some turnover along the interior of their own defensive line with both Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton headed towards free agency. Enter Pennel, who would bring some of the same attributes to the table as the two: at 6’4, 330 lbs, he is a big-bodied presence at the heart of the defensive line, capable to taking on double teams and controlling the point of attack in the two-gap scheme New England runs.
And even though Greg Schiano, who is expected to become the Patriots’ new defensive coordinator, used a one-gap system in the past, Pennel’s size and athletic abilities would make for an intriguing option in New England. After all, he has performed well against both the run and the pass in 2018 according to data compiled by advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus — with his run stopping abilities standing out in particular:
Pennel was already entering his fifth year in the NFL in 2018, but the former undrafted free agent had yet to break out, as he hadn’t posted a grade higher than 75.0 in his previous four years. Then, in his second season with the Jets, the interior defensive lineman excelled in run-stuffing and pass-rushing.
His 19 run stops were a career-high, and he made first contact on 23 running plays, which matched his career-high. As a result, Pennel graded out above 85.0 in six games on the year. Before 2018, he had just four such games in his entire career. Three of those games were against the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears, which rank third, seventh and 13th, respectively, in run-blocking.
Overall, Pennel finished the season with a career-best grade of 87.1, which tied him for 17th among all interior defensive linemen in the league. For comparison, the Patriots’ duo of Danny Shelton and Malcom Brown ended the season with grades of 78.8 and 64.4 — 27th and 85th among defensive tackles, respectively. But of course, neither PFF’s grades nor plain statistics are the end-all and be-all of analysis.
A look at the tape shows what makes the 27-year old a productive player, especially versus the ground game. The following play from the Patriots’ week 17 win over the Jets illustrates well what Pennel can bring to the table as an interior run stopper:
Aligning as a true nose tackle playing the 0-technique, Pennel (#98) was active with his hands on this play while also keeping a solid balance in the one-on-one matchup against Patriots left guard Joe Thuney (#62). This ultimately allowed him to disengage from Thuney’s blocking attempt and to take down running back Sony Michel (#26) after a modest gain of only one yard.
While this is the smallest possible illustration of Pennel’s abilities, it shows that he can bring value to a team as an interior penetrator especially against the run — exactly what New England would need in case the team decides against bringing Brown and Shelton back. And when listening to head coach Bill Belichick leading into the Patriots’ first meeting with the Jets last season, it appears as if his club making a run on him would not be surprising.
When asked about players with the body type of Pennel and the value they still have in today’s NFL, Belichick gave a long answer that might be an indication to the team’s plans with the ex-Jet available next month. “Let’s start with how many 330 guys are there out there? Now if you’re looking for 190-pound receivers, I mean, there’s eight bazillion of them. How many 330-pound guys are there? There’s just not that many of them. They’re always hard to find,” Belichick began his answer.
“For every guy that’s 330, there’s 20 that are 290. So, if you can find the 330 guys, or whatever the number is, that are as athletic and have the skill of guys that weigh 40 pounds less that play the same position, generally speaking, those guys are probably going to outperform the guys that are lesser,” New England’s head coach continued. “There’s not an unlimited supply of those guys, so if they have that kind of size and are athletic and have the skills then chances are they’re going to be playing for somebody.”
In Pennel’s case, it would not be a surprise if that somebody was Belichick himself next season. And adding him to a group consisting of well-rounded Lawrence Guy and pass-first interior defender Adam Butler would certainly make sense from the Patriots’ perspective. But of course, in the end it all comes down to money again and how the market for a soon-to-be 28-year old coming off the best year of his career will develop.