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: Running Backs

Ah, the coveted prizes of fantasy football; running backs. There is a lot of glory in being the man who runs through eleven defenders, taking all the hits while dishing out punishment. However this combined with the following of general stats tends to overrate the importance of running backs relative to other positions. While I believe the top runners are indeed game-changing level players, many others at the position don’t have a complete game, offering one-dimensional skill sets. In my eyes, this devalues them relative to other positions who are playing more snaps while representing more than a decoy on every down.

NFL front offices seem to share this line of thinking, paying running backs less than most other positions, while spending fewer 1st round picks on them. Players such as the ones on this list are still coveted, but it can be very economical to find balancing skill sets in multiple players for less money. It’s also worth debating if scouting at the position is weaker than at other positions or if teams just realize they can get good prospects later in the draft; only three of the players on this list were taken in the 1st round, while the other seven were taken in the 2nd or 3rd round. Throw in the fact that the passing game is more valuable to an offense than the running game, and it’s not hard to see why teams are veering away from “bell cow” running backs towards tandems. As a result, this list is largely populated by great runners who also provide good value to the passing game.

Tier 1: LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles

1. McCoy: Shady McCoy is easily my favorite runner in the league, as he just seems impossible to tackle. Most backs try to run through you, not many can make a defender miss like Shady. NFL players are supposed to take hits, yet I have never seen this guy take a big hit. Somehow he is always able to react faster than his opponent, dodging the brunt of a hit, if not entirely. I think this bodes very well for his longevity, as it’s the accumulation of hits that truly wears down a running back. McCoy is consistently near the top of the league in missed tackles forced, resulting in career yard per carry average of 4.8. In addition to his elite running ability, he has exceptional hands and is a formidable receiver out of the backfield. His overall complete game gives him the #1 RB in the league ranking.

2. ADP: What is there to say about “All Day” that isn’t already common knowledge? He very well might be the best pure runner of the last few decades, combining elite strength with elite speed and quickness. It routinely takes two or more defenders to bring him down, with very few defenders capable of bringing him down one on one. When he tore his MCL and ACL in 2011, many feared it might take him awhile to get back to full speed. Just 8 months later he returned to the field, put together an MVP season, and came 9 yards short of breaking the NFL’s single season rushing record. As incredible of a runner as he is (perhaps the greatest ever) one has to wonder why his freakish athleticism doesn’t really translate to the rest of his game. His blocking is average at best, and he doesn’t seem to have any feel for running basic routes out of the backfield; he has just 527 yards receiving over the last 3 seasons combined. Based on how scary he is running the ball, it’s surprising to have him lower than #1. However, when you look at complete skill sets, and value added on every play, McCoy is the better player to me.

3. Charles: Extremely dangerous as a rusher and receiver. At the moment, he might be the league’s best home run threat, with the ability to go the distance on any play. His career yards per rush average is a whopping 5.6, actually brought down by last seasons meager 5.0! The hiring of head coach Andy Reid last season may have benefited no one more than Charles, as he put up career bests in total yards (1980) and touchdowns (19). That said, I am slightly more scared of Charles’ injury history than I am when it comes to the above two players. Ability to stay healthy is a skill, and so I have him lower than the McCoy and Peterson. It is worth noting that the difference in value between these three players is quite small, although McCoy and Charles are definitely better fits in a passing offense.

Tier 2: Eddie Lacy, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch

4. Lacy: I originally had Lacy in the above tier, but felt it was a bit too early to throw him in such a class. While Lacy already boasts a well rounded skill set, he has not established fear in his opponents as a home run hitter yet, something all of the above three have done. Lacy is a more physical runner, unleashing a beating on defenders every time he carries the ball. His forced missed tackles were right on par (56) with McCoy (57) and Peterson (58), while also impressing as a receiver and blocker. He seems like the most complete player on this list, but I need to see one more season out of him before I can bump him up to the top tier.

5. Forte: Before last season I wouldn’t really have thought about putting Forte this high. It had always been easy to notice him as a receiver (he has averaged 57 catches per year), but I never thought he was a special runner.  However as soon as I started watching 2013 preseason games, it was clear; Forte was faster. Maybe he had just been unhealthy before, in a better scheme with a new coach, or was now gelling with a vastly superior offensive line. Whatever the reason was, Forte put up an incredible 2013 season and brought stability to an offense that experienced injuries to it’s starting QB.

6. Lynch: Lynch is a case similar to Peterson; very impressive runner, but not so impressive at his other jobs. While it may not seem like a big deal, a balanced game is very crucial to staying on the field as a running back. If opposing teams know that your running back is no threat to catch a pass or block efficiently, it gives their defenses a lot of unseen flexibility. Lynch is solid in pass protection, but is barely average as a receiver. This might seem like a nitpick, but I have him this low almost solely because of his poor receiving skills. The guy broke 75 tackles last year, wouldn’t you like to see him catch more passes and get into more 1 on 1 situations with defensive backs?

Tier 3: Frank Gore, Reggie Bush, Demarco Murray, Gio Bernard

7. Gore

8. Bush

9. Murray

10. Bernard

Gore, Bush, and Murray are all very good players, but are unlikely to get better at this point in their careers. I keep waiting for Gore to regress, but the 49’ers have done a nice job, of limiting his snaps and getting the best performance out of him; he is still a very physical runner with great pass blocking skills while also contributing as a receiver. Reggie Bush may never have lived up to the billing of “the next Gale Sayers,” but he has firmly established himself as a dangerous rushing/receiving combo with incredible speed and quickness. DeMarco Murray has never had questions about his talent, boasting a great combination of speed, strength, and receiving skills. However every hit he takes seems likely to scare Cowboys fans, as he has missed time due to injury all three years in the league. Gio Bernard is the only young gun with a chance to rise on this list, and I think he is very likely to do just that. He has great quickness and strength to go along with good hands, and is a lock to become one of the leagues better running backs over the next few years.

Missed time or injured, but could bounce back: Arian Foster, C.J. Spiller, Shane Vereen

On the rise: Leveon Bell, Andre Ellington