Presence and intimidation go a long way in professional football.
Particularly from the guys that roam the middle of the field, folks like safeties and linebackers – and they have to have tough sounding names, but with enough natural ability to rarely have to come off the field, players filled with passion and anger and dark malfeasance – and not necessarily in that order.
Plenty of all of that stuff in the Patriots’ linebacking corps, but just barely enough of the ability to stay on the field on passing downs – and that’s an issue.
In the Patriots attacking scheme, the linebackers are the fail-safe – The line is attacking the pocket and trying to reestablish the line of scrimmage, the corners are pressing and the safeties are defending their backside zones like rabid wolverines…and in the midst of that controlled chaos are the linebackers reacting to what’s unfolding in front of them as the result of the pressure.
If the line and secondary are successful in their endeavors, the linebackers are there to pick up the pieces of the offense’s broken play or gang tackle a hapless and trapped running back – and if they are not, the linebackers provide the second wave, picking up the back rolling out of the backfield and the tight end on a delayed release after chipping the defensive end.
Problem is, what the Patriots have currently are two aggressive run stuffers and an elite defensive end playing out of position, but not a fluid cover linebacker in the bunch…
…the names are NFL quality. Jerod Mayo, 2008 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, two-time Pro Bowl selection and member of the 2010 All Pro Team. Brandon Spikes, one of the best linebacker names in all of football, a two time national champion and two-time consensus All American linebacker at Florida.
Dont’a Hightower, another fantastic linebacker name. A huge specimen at 6′ 4″ and 270 pounds, and when ever one hears the name it conjures images of Bubba Smith in the Police Academy films…
…Mayo is the captain, a high-energy guy with decent coverage skills. Spikes is a downhill thumper that will knock the taste out of your mouth and provides comic relief when the Patriots force a turnover. Hightower is an incredible athlete and does do a nice job in coverage at times but is playing out of position as the strong side linebacker, and should be rushing the quarterback in the Patriots’ scheme, be it as a defensive end or as a pure rush linebacker.
So it’s not as if they were terrible. They made plays underneath, but none of them had the speed or coverage skills to consistently front tight ends or blow up the screen – and how many times did we see a tight end running loose in the intermediate zone or watch in horror as some greased lighting 3rd down back broke off long gainers on the bubble?
Repeatedly last season opposing quarterbacks were able to complete short to intermediate passes to their running backs, tight ends and slot receivers, causing much frustration as the Patriots’ defense was one of the worst 3rd down teams in the NFL…
…no sense is sugar coating that…it’s true, and while it was a team effort that failed to get them off the field on third down, it was the coverage capacity of the linebackers that caused the deficiency, particularly in the latter half of the season – because before Aqib Talib arrived on the scene and instantly heightened the ceiling in the secondary, the underwhelming results of the underneath coverages were masked by the equally poor play of the secondary.
Once the secondary gelled, the deficiencies in the coverages of the linebackers stuck out like a sore thumb. It is a small sample from which to make a judgment, but there is no denying that the Patriots do not have a linebacker with consistently good coverage skill, at least not good enough to make the opposing quarterback think twice about dinking and dunking the Patriots’ defense to death…
…and of course there are many things that play into that scenario, not just the coverage skills of the linebackers. One is the pass rush. If the quarterback has all day to look for a receiver, even Mark Sanchez could find one – and when he did, it was either a tight end or a running back and he rode those horses to the two best statistical games that he put together all of last season.
That in itself is enough to cause the team to seek improvement.
The need for a pure cover backer can not be overstated as it, along with building quality depth everywhere is the only thing preventing Belichick from having the Street Thug defense that helped the Patriots win titles…
…and isn’t that what it’s all about?
Alec Ogletree, OLB, Georgia (1st Round projection)
The growing trend of turning top shelf high school safeties into outside linebackers has it’s persona in Ogletree, who was the best player on a Georgia Bulldogs’ defense absolutely loaded with NFL talent.
At 6′ 3″and 240 pounds, he is athletic and very lengthy and arrives at his target with dark intentions and has a ton of special teams experience. In the pass rush, has great quickness and good straight line closing speed, so when he gains the edge, the quarterback usually pays. In pass coverage, he is a former safety – fluid, rangy defender with good recovery speed if he gets fooled.
He’s not much filling the hole in the running game full-time, but shows flashes of contributing to that end, something that can be brought out of him at the pro level…
…and of course his off field issues – he was arrested for DUI recently and was suspended for four games last season for violation of Georgia’s substance abuse policy – have caused his stock to drop, but the Patriots have a history bring out the best in pot heads, so there’s that.
Kahseem Greene, OLB/ILB, Rutgers (Late 1st, early 2nd round projection)
At 6′ 1″, Greene projects safety, but at 240 pounds, he possesses linebacker bulk. The same straight line speed and agility that would render him a marginal strong safety in the NFL makes him an absolute load at cover/rush ‘backer.
Athleticism is described as rare for an outside linebacker, his suddenness to the edge can make tackles and tight ends whiff, which is bad for whoever has the ball because Greene is an expert – ala Rob Ninkovich – at causing turnovers, always ripping violently at the ball on the way to the ground. He appears to have the patience of a Saint in regard to letting things develop in front of him, then attacking, counting on his speed to make up the extra split second.
The key with Greene to the Patriots is that he is as fluid as a defensive back in coverage , and if teamed with a nickle safety such as Adrian Wilson, the short middle becomes a very dangerous place for a receiver to make a living.
The only drawback to Greene – and perhaps why he would be available in the 2nd round, is that he is as chiseled as he is going to get without losing agility, and NFL teams may be a trifle wary of a grotesque broken ankle he suffered two seasons ago.
Corey Lemonier, OLB, Auburn (3rd Round projection)
Quick off the edge and the type of rusher than can only be contained for so long.
Nice blend of speed and power to penetrate the pocket and pressure the quarterback. Flashes raw power at the point of attack with a sharp punch. He has experience dropping in space and has been given coverage responsibilities. Never quits in his pursuit and is tough to stop, can only hope to slow him down.
A big dude, he’s almost comparable in size to Hightower, but much faster. Ferocious hitter and looks for the knockout blow. Will line up as a stand up linebacker and rush from different angles. His drawback is that he is still a raw prospect and discipline in containment and anticipating the snap count have landed him hot water with the coaching staff at Auburn…
…Lemonier would be an excellent developmental pick, just not sure that with his lack of draft picks that Belichick will want to use one on a project.
The Patriots linebackers are not terrible. Truth be told, they are a fearsome lot of run stuffing instigators who want to knock the chocolate out of folks, but in this era where offenses throw the ball up to twice as many times as they run it, defenses need to adapt.
The Patriots need to adapt.
Top reserve Dane Fletcher went down with a torn ACL in the preseason of 2012, and when he limped off the field, so did the best cover linebacker the team had.
Regardless of the health of Fletcher, who will be given every opportunity to win a starting job this summer, the Patriots are in desperate need of an upgrade in coverage amongst the linebackers. The pool for such in the free agent market is very shallow, so the upgrade must be made in the draft…and whether the team elects to try to trade down or stays put, the need has to be as a priority equivalent with finding a wide receiver.
The player that we’ve scouted that fits the Patriots scheme the best is Khaseem Greene from Rutgers, but if the Patriots remain in the first round and Ogletree falls to number 29 overall, it would be shocking to see the Patriots pass on perhaps the best linebacker on the draft.