New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has repeatedly pointed out that NFL players make the most significant growth in their development between Years One and Two in the league. Entering the 2020 season, Belichick’s team employs numerous candidates for that famous second-year jump — from first-round selection N’Keal Harry to undrafted free agents such as Jakobi Meyers and Jakob Johnson — but one stands out among them based on his rookie campaign: Chase Winovich.
Winovich arrived in New England as the 77th overall pick in the draft, and ended up seeing more playing time than any other member of the Patriots’ rookie class: he was on the field for 293 snaps on the defensive side of the ball (of 1,070; 27.4%) as well as 273 more on special teams (of 474; 57.6%). Along the way, the Michigan product proved himself a disruptive edge linebacker whose high motor and pass-rushing skills made him a valuable member of the best scoring defense in the NFL.
With that said, let’s take a closer look at Winovich’s tape from the 2019 season to see the foundation he has built and find out where he has room for growth entering his second year in the system.
As noted above, Winovich’s motor is one of his most impressive traits. As was the case during his time in college, he rarely takes plays off and continuously shows a tremendous effort when pursuing ball-carriers — be they quarterbacks dropping back to pass, or running backs and wide receiver trying to gain yards. The following collection of clips from Winovich’s rookie year illustrates just how hot his motor runs on a play-to-play basis:
Starting a #Patriots Potential Risers series investigating players whose roles could expand in 2020, kicking off with Chase Winovich.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 20, 2020
The motor he was known for as a Wolverine carried over to the NFL, showing tremendous effort in pursuit of anything carrying a football pic.twitter.com/wNFxhwzJRV
What can be seen on each of the clips is that Winovich (#50) stays active even when initially blocked or if the play is moving away from him. His outing against the Kansas City Chiefs (0:37) as a perfect illustration of this.
The youngster originally aligned in a two-point stance playing a wide-9 technique outside the Chiefs’ left tackle, but is on the opposite end of the play as it continues to unfold: Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (#15) moves to his right after sensing pressure from his blindside, throwing a short pass to running back Darwin Thompson (#34). Winovich is around 15 yards away from the ball-carrier at that point, but quickly closes to make the tackle from behind.
This effort was on display on a consistent basis during Winovich’s first season in the NFL, and helped him make up for some shortcomings in the size and athletic departments.
Winovich was primarily used as a pass rusher during his rookie season: of his 293 defensive snaps, 234 (79.9%) came in situations in which he was asked to attack the pocket on passing plays. While not necessarily nuanced in his role, the rookie did show an impressive array of moves in his primary area of usage — especially for a player with minimal experience going against professional offensive linemen.
As a lighter outside/edge linebacker, Winovich’s game is founded on his speed rush. This entails firing off the ball, raising the pad level so that offensive tackles are forced to shoot their hands, and then dipping underneath their blocking attempts to get around the edge. The first-year Patriot showed an ability to do that on a regular basis:
Chase Winovich was mostly a pass rusher as a rookie and showed an impressive array of moves.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 20, 2020
As a lighter OLB, his game is founded on his speed rush. This entails firing off the ball, raising pads so OTs shoot their hands, then dipping underneath the block to get around the edge pic.twitter.com/pZkrXJJsjO
While Winovich had inconsistent levels of success — his pass rush productivity of 7.0 tied him for 45th in the NFL among edge defenders, according to Pro Football Focus — he showed that he could handle bigger offensive tackle and challenge them with his speed and refined technique: he was repeatedly able to get low by using both his inside arm to keep a distance and his solid bend to get under them, and to move around the corner into the offensive backfield.
Winovich’s combination of size, speed and short-area quickness also allows him to excel on line games, with most of his production as a pass rusher coming while working off of teammates (defensive tackle Adam Butler needs to be mentioned here in particular):
Winovich's size, speed, and short area quickness allow him to excel on line games. Most of his production as a pass rusher came while working off of teammates, especially Adam Butler.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 20, 2020
Does a great job taking advantage of open alleys and getting skinny to slip through gaps pic.twitter.com/BXUkUJowBd
As can be seen, Winovich does a great job taking advantage of open alleys and getting skinny to slip through the gaps in the opposing offensive line. His ability to successfully execute stunts or make in-cuts without losing speed was one of the most impressive parts of his game: while often aligning as an end-of-the-line defender from the 7-technique out (primarily on the defensive right side of the formation), the rookie was able to oftentimes bring the heat up the middle by seeing openings and taking advantage of them.
The most impressive skill Winovich displayed as a pass rusher in 2019, however, was his ability to chain pass rushing moves together and pull others out of his bag in case the first one initially failed:
What stands out most to me about Winovich as a pass rusher is his ability to chain moves together and pull another move out of his bag when the first fails.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 20, 2020
My favorite is his bull-rip, which capitalized on his bull rush and balance around the edge pic.twitter.com/cgWR9LavHc
The move that stands out among his rushing arsenal is his bull-rip, which capitalizes on his bull rush and balance around the edge. The play against the Philadelphia Eagles featured above (0:17) shows this: Winovich, again aligning as a wide-9 defender, is originally trying to go around the outside shoulder of Eagles left tackle Jason Peters (#71). With the experienced Peters patiently mirroring him, however, Winovich decided to engage him straight up before using a left-arm rip-move to work the blocker’s leverage and momentum against him.
In general, Winovich showed some tremendous reactionary skills as a pass rusher. When his speed rush took him past the quarterback or offensive tackles made it clear that going around them was no viable option, for example, he flashed a complimentary swipe move that put him in position to recover and come back downhill. He also was able to display good patience when not being accounted for as a rusher, and did not abandon his responsibilities.
While the vast majority of Winovich’s defensive snaps came in pass-rushing situations, he did see 53 (18.1%) as a run defender as well. Despite the limited sample size, he was hard to ignore in those opportunities: the third-round draft choice showed strong awareness, consistently was able to get his hands inside, and used them effectively to shed blocks. Despite not being the biggest or strongest edge defender, Winovich stood his ground well:
Less than 20% of Winovich's snaps came against the run, but he was hard to ignore in those opportunities.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 20, 2020
He showed strong awareness, consistently got hands inside, and used them effectively to shed blocks. I was surprised by how well he was able to stand his ground pic.twitter.com/QhQGkvJfTE
After singling out a play against Eagles left tackle Jason Peters in the previous section, let’s go back to this matchup with the nine-time Pro Bowler and take a closer look at Winovich’s run defense.
The play at 0:07 shows Winovich aligned in a two-point stance at the end of the line, with Philadelphia running a man-to-man run blocking scheme that pitted the two against each other. While Peters has almost 80 pounds on the young Patriot, Winovich held his own by playing with good leverage and technique: he had his hands within Peters’ frame at all time, squared him up, and was able to disengage once running back Miles Sanders (#26) approached him to make the play.
While this is just one example of Winovich’s run defense, he showed that he can successfully set a stout edge — something that is immensely important within the Patriots’ inside-out scheme.
Winovich’s usage as a coverage defender was limited to six snaps all year (2%), with three of them coming in the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, he still showed that he has the foundational athleticism to drop back into underneath zones and peel out to cover running backs in the flat if the play or the alignment asks him to do so:
Winovich wasn't used much in coverage, as you'd expect. But he has the athleticism to drop into underneath zones and peel out to cover backs in the flat pic.twitter.com/XbouO6MNXt— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 20, 2020
On the year, Winovich’s coverage responsibilities were targeted twice with him surrendering two catches for 17 yards. Heading into 2020 and with fellow edge defender Kyle Van Noy no longer on the roster, the Patriots might ask Winovich to take on increased coverage responsibilities alongside rookie defenders Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings: Van Noy played 92 coverage snaps last year, accounting for 10.5% of his total playing time.
It remains to be seen whether or not this truly materializes, but Winovich’s feel for coverage looked generally serviceable in 2019.
Like any great Patriots rookie, Winovich also made his presence felt in the kicking game. In total, he played more snaps in the game’s third phase than all but three men — Matthew Slater, Brandon Bolden and Nate Ebner — and also finished with a solid stat-line: Winovich racked up five tackles, one assist, and also scored a touchdown off a blocked punt by Bolden. Furthermore, he displayed his trademark high energy when in pursuit of the ball-carrier:
Like any great Patriots rookie, Winovich also made his presence felt on special teams.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 20, 2020
The long-haired wonder racked up 5 tackles, 1 assist, and a TD for his efforts and showed every ounce of his trademark energy in the kicking game pic.twitter.com/4TJ3EIOMeU
Despite the success he had on special teams in 2019, his role might change a bit heading into the new season: if he takes on an increased responsibility on the defensive side of the ball and as a top-two edge defender alongside John Simon, the Patriots might shy away from giving him that high a workload in the kicking game again. Winovich should still see regular action on coverage and return units, but probably will not finish among the top-four in snaps for the second year in a row.
Room for growth
As impressive as Winovich was during his first NFL campaign — he has a strong case for the Patriots’ Rookie of the Year title — he enters the 2020 with some substantial room for growth. The most obvious area in which he can get better is his power: Winovich being undersized for an edge defender showed up more than you would like when you watch his tape, after all, with his lack of raw strength resulting in failed rushes, oftentimes winding up on the ground and being overwhelmed by multiple blockers.
Winovich being undersized for an edge defender showed up more than you'd like when you watch his tape.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 20, 2020
His lack of raw strength can result in a failed rushe when his strikes don't land properly.
Also winds up on the ground a lot and can be overwhelmed by multiple blockers pic.twitter.com/k4VYMSgE35
The first play, from New England’s Week 9 loss against the Baltimore Ravens, shows some of Winovich’s shortcomings.
Playing his usual role as an edge linebacker over the left tackle — in this case the Ravens’ Ronnie Stanley (#79) — Winovich attempted to use his speed to get around the edge. Stanley employed his hands well to keep the young Patriot at a distance, however, and forced him to run the loop around the pocket. This, in turn, created a lane for quarterback Lamar Jackson (#8) to exploit. Had Winovich been able to better hold his ground against the first-team All-Pro, he might have been able to put pressure on Jackson or at the least keep him confined.
Winovich also needs to show that he can handle an increased role and workload: he effectively served as the Patriots’ number three outside linebacker in 2019 behind Kyle Van Noy and John Simon, but is expected to see more action with the former now a member of the Miami Dolphins. The early signs that he will take this change in stride and still be a consistent contributor even outside of his pass rushing role are encouraging, though.