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Chief Thoughts: Notes and musings heading into the Patriots’ training camp

The dead season is almost over.

NFL: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins
How long do I have to wait before I can chuck this?
Andrew Innerarity-USA TODAY Sports

In an effort to sustain our passage through the twilight hours of the dead season, I thought I would post some musings on the New England Patriots’ roster. Personnel management is one of the most intriguing elements of football, in my opinion, so I wanted to initiate some discussion. Let’s get started.

Scheme or Talent?

For decades, scheme and talent have been presented as a mutually exclusive dichotomy. You were either a playmaker or a system player. Is the dichotomy accurate or a media oversimplification? I think the answer is both. Let me explain.

Every talent is a product of scheme. There is no NFL talent that has not benefited from coaching, the opponents’ weaknesses, play calling, happenstance, and teammate performance. Likewise, every single talent is required for a scheme. You could have the greatest game plan in NFL history and if the players do not execute that plan you will look like an idiot. In that sense the “system” moniker is a ridiculous label. On the other hand we can all recognize that some players are better than others. Certain players can more effectively execute a wider variety of things, or do it more consistently than others.

The question probably shouldn’t be defined as “system or not” it should be “to what extent is a player valuable in a system” (admittedly that isn’t quite as pithy). The follow up question would be “how difficult is it to replace the player’s value in the system?”

Let me provide an example. Stephon Gilmore benefits from the Patriots’ defensive scheme. Bill Belichick prefers to place his number one defensive back on the opposing team’s number two receiver and his number two on the team’s number one with safety help. That’s not to say Gilmore never spends time on an island against opposing number ones but he doesn’t, say, follow opposing top receivers week-in and week-out like Patrick Peterson has done at different moments of his career.

At the same time, Belichick would not put Gilmore on an island against the opposing number two if he was not confident in his ability to lock him down on a consistent basis. Some of Gilmore’s production may be the product of the scheme, but the scheme requires his considerable talent to work. A worse cornerback would not be able to maximize the benefits of Belichick’s plan to the extent that Gilmore does.

Furthermore, finding a cornerback of Gilmore’s caliber is difficult. Part of the reason that running backs have been devalued by so many statistics is that most of the studies suggest that it is fairly easy to replicate the maximization provided by most backs. There are a lot of running backs who can produce when the quarterback and offensive line are performing well. There are fewer corners who can consistently be placed on an island and help their team.

When Belichick makes personnel decisions I don’t think he cares how many systems a player could potentially succeed in. His only question is to what extent the player improves the scheme and how difficult it would be to find someone else who could do the same thing.

Tom Brady has made the Patriots offense one of the best in the NFL for over a decade. Who cares if he could perform in Green Bay’s scheme? He makes the one he’s in incredible. Brady doesn’t make the big out-of-structure plays but there isn’t a better in-structure quarterback in the NFL. His quick release, pre-snap command, accuracy and his incredible ability to consistently process under the most intense conditions elevates New England’s scheme to results it would simply never experience otherwise.

One of the reasons the Patriots have done so well is their ability to identify which players will maximize their system’s production. That’s the reason many players receive a performance boost when they come to New England. Belichick generally has a specific plan for how they will interact with the scheme. Likewise, he has had the confidence to move past players whose production he felt he could be replaced in the system: Belichick would rather spend $10 million on Michael Bennett than $17 million on Trey Flowers. That’s because he believes Bennett can replace enough of Flowers’ production in his scheme that he is better off spending that $7 million on someone else to maximize the scheme production in another area.

It’s the economic way to build your team and it is one of the reasons the Patriots have sustained success in a system designed to prevent it. It’s not about having the best guys. It’s about having the right guys. System player designation be damned.

Kyle Van Noy An Extension Candidate?

Keeping in mind the previous analysis it will be interesting to see if the Patriots sign an extension with Van Noy or re-sign him as a free agent next year. Obviously, a large part of that decision will be outside of New England’s control: what Van Noy is offered by other teams, which players happen to be available, how much it costs them to sign other players, all of these will factor into the decision.

One of the most effective wrinkles of the new dynasty defense under Belichick has been the hybrid linebacker/defensive end. Much in the way that Richard Seymour and Trey Flowers would play inside and outside on the defensive line, the DE/LB hybrid can play both on and behind the line. That has been the key to Belichick’s amoeba front which makes it difficult for quarterbacks to determine who is rushing.

There is a great shot from the last Super Bowl’s Sound FX where the camera pans to look at the Patriots front while Tony Romo comments that if he were playing quarterback he’d have no idea who was rushing. It was an excellent moment that highlighted how the Patriots were able to flip the script on their pass rush.

I personally believe that having two hybrids over one has significant value because it makes it easier to confuse offenses and also provides insurance for a critical component of the defense. That being said, linebacker hybrids are not as rare as coverage linebackers like Deion Jones, who just signed a massive contract extension with the Atlanta Falcons. The highlight of Van Noy’s career has come during this most recent post season run. While he previously flashed, this was the first time he was able to string a series of dominant games together.

Is that enough to make Belichick spend significant free agency dollars? Van Noy didn’t get the big second contract like Dont’a Hightower did. He’s going to be 29 next season. He has two Super Bowl rings on his hand. If I were Van Noy, I would take the biggest check I could find and run away with it. Is the biggest check going to come from the Patriots? It might. Van Noy has more value in Belichick’s scheme than others. He also has not had the consistent health issues that Hightower has.

However, Belichick has always had success with drafting, trading and coaching up linebackers. Van Noy isn’t going to command a massive free agent contract. He’s not good enough and his skills aren’t that unique. But he’s an above average starter with good character and playoff pedigree. He will get sizable offers. I also don’t see a trade coming unless it’s very provocative, like the first-round pick Brandin Cooks brought. As to whether the Patriots extend him or sign him in free agency, I’m honestly not sure.

Tom Brady’s Contract

This is the first time when a Tom Brady contract extension will actually possess some sort of intrigue. In the past, it’s just been foregone conclusion. A late summer extension is the most probable outcome but if the regular season starts without any news, the media attention is going to magnify significantly. If the Patriots do not sign a deal, however, it does not mean they won’t sign Brady. Drew Brees went into free agency and resigned with the New Orleans Saints. But an extension this summer that includes two years guaranteed would be a powerful indicator that the Patriots have faith in Brady. Anything less would indicate their plan is to play it year by year.

Can the Patriots finally break the draft?

The second Patriots dynasty was built on the back of the 2009-2013 drafts. That five-year stretch produced nine Pro Bowlers, six of which notched All-Pro nods, one Super Bowl MVP, and one first-ballot Hall of Famer. It also produced numerous valuable starters like Nate Solder and Patrick Chung. Unfortunately, the subsequent five drafts have not been nearly as successful: the Patriots have drafted zero Pro Bowlers from 2014-2018. There are some mitigating factors, though. New England was stripped of a first-round pick once, and traded another away. The one that was traded away was later recovered and used to draft Isiah Wynn, who subsequently went down with a season-ending injury.

The Patriots drafts have not been terrible, however. The Patriots’ interior offensive line is completely home-grown and James White and Trey Flowers both played major roles in winning championships. But the fact remains that the team’s draft record over those five years was mediocre at best. Will 2019 break the mold? Will previous picks finally break out and show they are more than they appear to be? At minimum, the Patriots better hope they invested wisely in Wynn and 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry. Both players were the top picks of their respective drafts and will be playing major starting minutes during the 2019 campaign.

The Patriots had above average capital in the last two drafts. It’s time for them to get a return on their investments.

Training Camp Keys

By far the most important story of camp will be the performance of Isiah Wynn. The record of good first-year tackles — this is technically Wynn’s sophomore season but it will still feature his first pro snaps — are not good. Ryan Ramczyk turned in a solid year his rookie season. Jack Conklin managed an All-Pro nod. They both played right tackle, though, and were very much the exception to the rule. Wynn was the top selection by the Patriots last year but was considered a guard by most NFL analysts. His draft pedigree and the immense importance of his position will place him in the most spotlight.

I am also very curious to see how rookie running back Damien Harris takes advantage of his snaps in the absence of Sony Michel. Supposedly, they had a much higher grade on him than his third-round pick indicates.

Another player who could potentially see meaningful snaps his rookie season is Joejuan Williams. The Patriots struggled against tight ends in 2019, a weakness that could give way to meaningful snaps if Williams can impress beforehand. He looked lost in minicamp, so it will be interesting to see how he performs under more thorough review. It’s worth noting that he lack of contact at minicamp neuters Williams’ strength as a physical press man corner. His spotlight most likely comes from precedence as he fits the mold of a second-round reach. The hope is that he will break that particular mold.

Chase Winovich is another interesting prospect. He was highly touted by sports statisticians and Pro Football Fcous ranked him as a top 25 talent in the draft. It will be interesting to see if he can earn starting time at the weakest positional group on defense.

The final player who will really have my eye is Derek Rivers. The former third-round draft pick, the team’s highest in 2017, is entering a make-or-break it season. I personally was a fan of his coming out of the draft, and he came on a little strong late last year, but he will need to do a lot more to prove himself worth of his draft selection.