North Carolina's Sylvester Williams would make great value for the Patriots in the 2nd round.

Potentially Patriots: Part three - The Right to bear Armsteads

Armond Armstead is an enigma.

Is he a defensive tackle or a defensive end?  Didn’t he have a freaking heart attack like two years ago?

One thing is for sure, if he performs for the New England Patriots in 2013 anything like what he did for the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League last season, he will be the answer to the questions regarding their interior pass rush.

Armond Armstead (96) earned CFL All Star status in his rookie season last year.

Problem is, until we see him on the field in the Patriots scheme, we just won’t know for certain.

And that’s the rub, isn’t it?  The Patriots look so incredible on paper that many expect them to be dominating in every phase of the game, seemingly forgetting that no matter who the Patriots are playing, they are always going to get their opponent’s best shot – and there’s no better team in the NFL at taking their opponent’s best shot and responding like a champion.

In that respect, New England coach Bill Belichick employs the style of a mean counter-puncher, and when his teams respond, moods tend to turn very ugly on the opposing sidelines.

So great care must be taken when one is inclined to criticize performance based on things like yardage and opponents’ completion percentage instead of the most important stat, which is wins…

…and points allowed is a favorable indicator as well – but many tend to be blinded by statistics, to the point that they lose sight of the fact that the Patriots are legitimate Title threats every season and are the best team on the field, every time they take the field.

Why?  Two words: Due Dilligence.

In picking up Armstead after the Argonauts cut him loose at his request, the Patriots have cashed in on their exhaustive research on obscure or minimally valued athletes, no matter the affliction that makes them such.  Armstead is a hybrid who projects as either a 5 technique (gap responsibility between the tackle and tight end) Defensive End in the 3-4 or a 3 technique (between the tackle and guard) Tackle in the 4-3 and would probably be used as an intriguing and powerful pass rusher from either position.

Given what we know about Armstead – a quick twitch interior gap perpetrator with impressive closing speed who arrives at the quarterback with dark intentions as well as a being a powerful bull rusher from the ends – and also what we perceive from his contract numbers, it is safe to assume that the former USC Trojan will be thrown into the mix just about anywhere, even as an outside linebacker…

…but does the presence of the 6′ 5″ 300 pound defensive tackle with a CFL All Star nod in his rookie year and a pain-killing medication induced heart attack on his resume void the idea that the Patriots must still seek a disruptive defensive tackle in free agency or the draft?

It is intriguing that tenured veterans John Abraham and Dwight Freeney came to Foxboro for a cup of coffee with Bill Belichick, then were sent packing without a mention of an offer – maybe in part that the Patriots like Armstead’s upside so much the they will consider him the hole plugger on the roster, though they have signed former Oakland Raider Tommy Kelly to bring in a solid interior pass rusher as part of the rotation and as a nice technique mentor for Armstead.

His highlight film from his one and only season in Canada makes him look like a cross between the two former Pro Bowl Tackles, just several years younger and not anywhere close to being as expensive…

…or perhaps it was just a matter that the two just didn’t figure in the mix for one reason or another, or maybe the Patriots are looking toward the draft to fill their needs along the line…

Most of the “Elite” defensive tackles will be off the board by the time Belichick gets his chance, but that’s ok because the player that best fits what the Patriots need from an interior pass rusher and pocket collapsing entity should be available in the second round.

Names like Floyd, Lotulelie and Richardson will definitely be gone by the 29th selection in the draft, but other names like Short, Jesse Williams and John Jenkins…well, their skill sets just aren’t compatable with what the Patriots need from the position, a bull rushing, pocket collapsing mammoth with high energy that could play all three downs if necessary – there are two players that fit the bill, with the lower rated of two being the best overall fit for the Patriots.

Johnathan Hankins DT, Ohio State (1st round projection)

Hankins has a wide frame with the natural size – 6′ 3″, 320 pounds – to carry a lot of weight.

Ohio State’s Johnathan Hankins has started every game for the past two seasons

He has excellent feet for the position with very good first step quickness and get-off burst to knife through the line of scrimmage and make plays in the backfield.  He demanded frequent double teams but as you would notice on film he redirects the play by intimidating girth alone.

Good lateral quickness and light feet combined with sheer brute strength makes him a factor no matter where he lines up.  Hankins has a consistent Bull rush up the middle, though the double teams limit his effectiveness.  His technique coming off the edge is scary, using swim and spin moves to leave the tackle grasping at air.  Coaches will have to keep on him regarding conditioning as he tends to wear down late in games, but generally was able to remain on the field and is durable, starting every game the past two years for the Buckeyes.

Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina (2nd round projection)

Williams is relatively new to football, so what skills he has will only become more and more pronounced, and having a defensive-minded coach like Belichick could turn him into an elite defensive tackle.

Like most tackles, he possesses a naturally large – 6′ 3″, 315 pounds – thick build.  That said, not many in this draft are able to harness the incredible power needed to generate a bull rush and to re-establish the line of scrimmage in the running game, coupled with what is described as a “Lethal” swim move – using either arm, or both – to collapse the pocket and disengage from his blocker in the passing game.

Very quick off the snap and varies his timing to confuse linemen into relaxing their stance – similar to the hesitation that Chandler Jones employs from his right end position – then uses an array of moves to explode past them to engage the running back or quarterback.  Routinely drew double teams in college and was versatile, lining up all over the line of scrimmage even on the edge to take advantage of excellent closing speed.

Add to all of this that he ran a five-second flat 40 at the combine and you have, well, just what the Patriots need from the position.

At this point the starting lineup is an assumed 4-3 base defense and would employ Jones on the right, Rob Ninkovich on the left and a rotation of situational tackles to work in tandem with Wilfork on the interior.

This pool of tackles in the rotation all bring different skills to the table, with Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love and Wilfork specializing in clogging the middle, Justin Francis and Marcus Forston providing stout backup options and talent such as Armstead, Cunningham and Linebacker Dont’a Hightower providing pass rushing options both inside and out, all three capable of spot starting duty.

Dont’a Hightower is included in this group due to his incredible versatility.  When watching film of him at Alabama, many of his backfield infiltrations came from attacking the middle by moving laterally from either as a down end or rush linebacker position, and his size (6′ 4″ 270 pounds) is ideally suited for defensive end…add to this that it’s likely that a top shelf rush/cover linebacker will be available at #29 and the possibilities are intriguing indeed.

From this perspective, the need for an interior rusher is not critical, as Cunningham and Francis showed skill rushing the quarterback from the tackle position last season, and when Armstead is added to the mix the Patriots’ defensive line is as stout as they come…

…and if Hightower is used more as a defensive end or as a 3-4 wide ghost rusher, utilizing his lateral agility to pick his holes along the line – something that the talented Armstead would excel at as part of a nickle package – the defensive line would be able to dictate to their opponents based on their ability to disguise multiple rush packages out of base sets.

This defense is going to be wicked and flat-out mean – like a pack of Junkyard Dogs – and it all starts up front with Wilfork as the anchor, surrounded by an athletic and versatile supporting cast…

Tags: Armond Armstead Buffalo Bills CFL Johnathan Hankins Miami Dolphins New England Patriots New York Jets North Carolina Tarheels Ohio State Buckeyes Sylvester Williams Toronto Argonauts USC Trojans

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