Crossover Post Part 2: Zone Reads and Inside the Pylon Discuss Patriots-Saints

Following up on my answers to the Saints questions that were posted yesterday and ran on Inside the Pylon, we had some questions for Dave Archibald and Mark Schofield from ITP about the Patriots’ outlook for this preseason.

1. The Patriots had significant turnover in the secondary. Both starting cornerbacks from last year are gone, and aside from Devin McCourty, the secondary is full of unproven young players or veterans who weren’t cutting it with other teams. What’s the outlook here? What are your thoughts on the actual players, and who do you expect to end up being the key guys there?

Dave Archibald: Good question; this seems to be the biggest question mark with the defending champs. By all reports, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler is having a terrific camp and has all but locked down one of the starting spots. Opposite him will likely be one of the veterans: ex-Raider Tarell Brown, who is returning from injury, or ex-Eagle Bradley Fletcher, who was toasted in 2014 by a challenging group of wideouts . In the slot will be former Falcon Robert McClain or versatile vet Logan Ryan. The dark horse is seventh-round pick Darryl Roberts of Marshall, who started and played effectively in the preseason opener before leaving with injury. They have enough bodies that they’ll be fine most weeks, but they’re lacking an obvious physical match for bigger receivers like Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas, so they’ll have to be creative at times.

McCourty’s as solid as they come on the back end, and they have no shortage of options next to him at safety. Veteran Patrick Chung had a bounce-back year in 2014 and was especially effective in man-to-man coverage on tight ends, arguably a strong safety’s most important job in the modern NFL. Duron Harmon is a capable backup to McCourty and plays alongside him in passing situations, though he’s not much of a run defender. Second-round rookie Jordan Richards out of Stanford is apparently hitting the ground running in camp and might play a role, too.

New England played a ton of man-to-man coverage last season and it seems unlikely that will continue with this group. They might want to be able to use more zone against teams with effective running games, and that mentality shift was part of investing less in the cornerback group, letting Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk in the offseason.

Browner will be an interesting fit in New Orleans. He was up-and-down last year; he locked down everyone he covered in the Super Bowl but was benched in the second half against Indianapolis in the AFCCG. He’s physical, has tremendous wingspan to knock away passes, and he’s faster in a straight line than people think, but he really struggles with change-of-direction and quick guys. He’ll frustrate Mike Evans types but there will be other weeks you won’t want him on the field. I see him more as a unique role player who can be brilliant in the right matchups rather than a solid starter.

2. Related: What are your thoughts on the pass rush? Jabaal Sheard was one of my favorite low-profile signings this offseason, a productive complementary rusher who was forgotten playing out of position behind a $40 million contract and a #6 overall pick. What will his role be? Do you think Dominique Easley can come back healthy? Will the pass rush mitigate the secondary inexperience?

DA: When healthy, starting defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich rarely came off the field in 2014, so Sheard will let them get some rest if nothing else. Jones has been somewhat injury-prone so far in his career, so Sheard provides depth. I’m curious as to whether they can get all three in the lineup on a consistent basis. They tried Jones at 3-4 end early in the season and ultimately had to abandon it, partly due to injuries and partly because it wasn’t a strong fit for Jones.

Easley is one of the swing guys for this season – if he can stay healthy, he can be the disruptive inside rusher that the Patriots haven’t had since Richard Seymour’s heyday. Whether he can stay healthy is anyone’s guess, though.

Rookie fourth-rounder Trey Flowers out of Arkansas was a favorite of the draft Twitter community and had an impressive sack in the preseason opener, and they also drafted Geneo Grissom out of Oklahoma late in the third round. The pass rush should be quite a bit deeper than last year, when they had to get Akeem Ayers out of purgatory (or the Tennessee Titans) after Jones got hurt.

3. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are gone. LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray are back to compete for the power-back carries. Who wins, and what’s the rest of the running back rotation going to look like? Will James White or Travaris Cadet play a major role? I haven’t even mentioned Brandon Bolden or James Develin.

DA: This came up in a recent mailbag. They seemed to draft White expecting him to replace Vereen, and he had a fine preseason opener in the passing game, racking up yards after catch. The question is: can he pass protect well enough to keep Brady upright? That’s also a concern with Cadet, who wasn’t asked to block much with the Saints. Bolden is probably the best pass blocker in the group but was lacking as a receiving back when Vereen was hurt in 2013. If they can run the football more consistently, there might be more work for the power backs and less for the scatbacks.

4. What’s going on at receiver behind Edelman and LaFell? Is Aaron Dobson ready to assume a significant role? Are the rumors of Josh Boyce looking good in camp meaningful? Does it matter, as long as you have Tom Brady?

DA: Danny Amendola is the third guy; he was invisible most of the year but came on the playoffs. The fourth guy, whether it’s Dobson, Boyce, deep threat Bryan Tyms, or ex-Dolphin Brandon Gibson, isn’t going to play much barring injury. If anything, we’ll see more two wide receiver sets with the addition of tight end Scott Chandler, and even Amendola’s role will be reduced. Chandler won’t make anyone forget Aaron Hernandez, but paired with Rob Gronkowski he gives opponents twin tower tight ends to account for and try to match up against.

5. Speaking of, time to address the elephant in the room: We both know Deflategate is trumped-up nonsense, and this question may not even be relevant by press time, but: Is Jimmy Garoppolo ready to play if he has to? What are your thoughts on his development so far and do you think he’s the guy for the future?

Mark Schofield: New England’s front office saw enough from him to make Garoppolo their second round pick in the 2014 draft. Looking at his film from college and his limited playing time in the NFL there is a lot to like. He has solid arm talent, with the ability to work the football into narrow throwing lanes and drive the football downfield when he needs to with velocity. He is also an athletic quarterback, able to extend plays with his feet and pick up yardage on the ground. He also throws a tremendous deep ball with upper-level touch and accuracy.

But is he ready to play if pressed into action? Not entirely. He’s close, but there is still one issue that he needs to improve, and that is his response to pressure.

One of the major concerns about him coming out of college was his presence in the pocket. When pressured, he tended to get happy feet, take his eyes down and focus on the rush. We saw that in bunches last Friday night. In the face of pressure Garoppolo struggled to continue with plays and make his reads from the pocket. From a clean pocket he is ready, but you do not see clean pockets all the time in the NFL.

Lost in all of the Deflategate discussion is the effect this is having on Garoppolo’s development and preparation for the season. The longer this drags on – and the longer Tom Brady continues to take the majority of snaps in practice – the less time Garoppolo has to prepare for the season opener. Should Judge Berman uphold Brady’s suspension on the cusp of the season-opener, New England might find themselves in a bit of a bind when it comes to having their back-up ready to go.

As far as his long-term prospects, I think Garoppolo is – like Brett Hundley in Green Bay and Garrett Grayson in New Orleans – in a perfect position to develop, caddy and get ready for the day he takes over. Garoppolo has enough talent that I believe he is the QB of the future in New England, he just needs to continue improving in the pocket.

6. Aside from anyone I haven’t mentioned, who are you interested in watching on Saturday? Which young players and sleepers do you think could end up contributing significantly this season? Which position battles?

DA: The offensive line was the biggest weakness on the team for most of 2014, but it mostly fell into place once then-rookie Bryan Stork took over at center, with veterans Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell in the guard spots. Connolly retired in the offseason, and most are assuming that fourth-round pick Tre’ Jackson – like Stork, a product of Florida State’s legendary offensive line coach Rick Trickett – will start at right guard on day one. Wendell is battling for the left guard spot with another fourth-round pick in Shaq Mason, who was a terrific run blocker at Georgia Tech but barely ever pass blocked in their option offense. Sebastian Vollmer is one of the NFL’s best right tackles, and left tackle Nate Solder was solid down the stretch after a poor start to the year. Depth tackles Marcus Cannon and Cam Fleming are also players to watch; both got some work at guard last season, and Fleming mauled defenses as a sixth lineman in some run-heavy sets. I think the downside is the kind of up-and-down performance we saw in 2014, but there’s a chance if all the pieces come together that this could be one of the NFL’s better groups, taking pressure off Brady (/ Garoppolo) and a defense that figures to slip a bit. Of the projected starters, only Jackson played in the first preseason game, and Garoppolo took seven sacks behind a makeshift line. I’ll be looking for improved protection Saturday.

Interior line play on the other side of the ball also bears watching, as anchor Vince Wilfork is gone. Sealver Siliga filled in effectively when Wilfork was hurt in 2013, but can he shoulder the load for a full season? Will first-round pick Malcom Brown from Texas start on day one? Do they get contributions from veterans Alan Branch or Antonio Johnson, or do they not even make the team? Easley factors in here, too.

Looking forward to Saturday’s matchup!

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The Top 10: Edge Rushers

The defensive players that generally get the most glory are pass rushers and linebackers. Unfortunately this is because they are the only defensive positions that accumulate traditional counting stats; sacks and tackles. That said, edge rushers are among the most valuable defensive players on the field. In the case of 4-3 defenses, the edge rusher is labeled defensive end, while in a 3-4 they are termed outside linebackers. There are some differences in responsibilities between these two positions, but for the most part they represent the same asset; edge disruption. They will generally be matched up against opposing offensive tackles, needing to maintain their position against the run and beat their man when rushing the passer.

Tier 1: Robert Quinn, Von Miller

1. Quinn: I hate to put him this high, but that’s a reflection of just how dominant Quinn was last year against both the run and pass. He totaled 91 pass disruptions, leading the league in hurries (51) and QB hits (21) to go along with a paltry 19 sacks and 7 forced fumbles. Usually when a player is getting lucky, two or three of the above stat categories will be lacking. The fact that Quinn’s numbers are phenomenal across the board says quite a lot. He is a bit of a one year wonder, previously providing a speed rush and not much else. Additionally, he plays with one of the most talented defensive lines in the league. That said, he is only 24, and that talented defensive front just got even deeper; you can continue to expect only good things from Robert Quinn. While I expect the rest of the guys on this list to narrow the gap in 2014, 2013 is the reason he deserves the top spot.

2. Miller: Von had questions surrounding him last season after getting suspended for the first 6 games, but he got back to full speed pretty quickly once he was back on the field. He now has physical questions after tearing his ACL at the end of 2013, and has only played 9 snaps in the preseason thus far. That said, I expect him to return to form this season, which means unique quickness and acceleration for the position of an edge rusher. His burst off the snap and overall athleticism has been unmatched (till perhaps now with Jadeveon Clowney) by anyone in the NFL. He is a special player, and it was obvious from the first snap he played as a Bronco.

Tier 2: Cameron Jordan, Aldon Smith, Robert Mathis, Cameron Wake

3. Jordan: Another guy who was somewhat of an afterthought as a 1st round pick, Jordan was initially playing some interior defensive line. However 2013 saw new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan change up the whole defense, including moving Jordan to the position of an edge rusher. Jordan responded with a career year, notching 12.5 sacks to go along with a whopping 87 pass disruptions. Jordan has unique strength for an edge rusher, making him a daunting challenge for most pass protectors who are used to facing smaller speedier players. Throw in the fact that he’s only 25, and the future is very bright for Jordan.

4. Smith: Aldon Smith had a down 2013 due to off the field issues and a leave of absence. When he was on the field, he looked every bit the part of a budding star who can rush the passer at a high level while stuffing the run as well. His combination of size, strength, acceleration, and past performance make him seem extremely likely to keep improving his game. If he can clean up his life outside of football, the 49’ers should have a blue chip level edge rusher for many years to come.

5. Mathis: Mathis has always been a great two way defensive player, but before last season I doubt many people thought of him quickly when naming the league’s top defensive players. He had always held his own in a 4-3 defense, quietly performing well while his teammate Dwight Freeney soaked up most of the glory with his electric speed rushes. However last year, Chuch Pagano transitioned the Colts defense to a 3-4 alignment, moving Mathis to a stand up edge rushing position. At first I was skeptical of the change, Mathis has been great for a decade at 4-3 DE, why change a good thing? My concerns with Mathis were quickly alleviated in 2013, as he responded with the most dominant season of his career, recording 19.5 sacks and 75 QB disruptions. He is 33 and I am expecting some regression this year, but Mathis has never had a poor season in his career. Considering last season’s performance, I don’t expect that to change in 2014.

6. Wake: It’s hard to believe that Wake is 32 years old, as there is no one in the NFL who can match his speed off the edge. He is a scary opponent for the leagues slower footed offensive tackles, and easily beats the better ones for sacks often enough. He is nothing special against the run, but nobody can eliminate his pass rush, and we all know that is a more valuable asset. He is a unique case when considering his age and that he only came into the league at 27 years old, so it’s hard to project how many more years he can maintain this level of play. That said, he has not yet shown any signs of regression, so I expect him to remain in this tier for 2014.

Tier 3: Jared Allen, Demarcus Ware, Ryan Kerrigan, Tamba Hali, Clay Matthews

7. Allen

8. Ware

9. Hali

10. Matthews

This tier is mostly occupied by veteran players who experienced down years. Jared Allen did not light up the stat sheet as much as in years past, Demarcus Ware played on the worst defense of his career, and Matthews had an injury plagued year. That said, these players are all still far too talented to miss this list, and I think there are arguments to put all of them in the above tier; I expect all of them to bounce back with elite play this year. Allen and Ware have looked explosive in preseason and are in better team situations this year. Matthews is only 28 and has displayed enough toughness to expect a return to greatness. Considering they have all had top tier level performances as recent as 2012, I can’t leave them off this list. It’s a shame that Hali doesn’t get as much attention as his peers, as he is every bit as deserving of being on this list. Teammate Justin Houston may get more attention with splashier plays, but make no mistake, Hali is still the better player right now.

Just missed: Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson – I’m still kind of shocked that I left both these guys off the list, especially considering the season the Panthers defensive line just had. I felt that the 7th to 12th best edge rushers in the league were very close together, and I wouldn’t argue against switching up the order of any them. That said, I think the above guys are going to have slightly better seasons.

On the rise: Carlos Dunlap, Chandler Jones, Brian Robison

Hurt but could bounce back: Jason Pierre-Paul