With the Pats set to square off against Carolina on Friday night in the preseason dress rehearsal, we’re now less than three weeks away from football that actually matters!
There’s still much to be decided for many teams throughout the league before the season starts, the Pats included, and a lot can still change before final cuts are made on September 1. Everyone knows the third week of the preseason is usually when we see the most important action, and things could look a lot more clear after Brady & Co. wrap things up with the Panthers tomorrow night.
In truth, a lot has already changed for the Pats since the start of the summer, for better or worse, but perhaps the most encouraging thing we’ve seen so far is the fact that the overall pass-rush has looked pretty solid.
Even though the Pats finished tied for seventh in the league last year with 42 sacks, there might not be a more misleading statistic from 2017.
There were times last season when the team’s pass-rush looked downright awful, and it was one of the main reasons why they allowed the third-most passing yards in the league. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked the group as one of the very worst in the NFL at the end of 2017, before ranking them slightly higher at just 27 in this year’s preseason rankings.
It did start to improve a bit toward the end of the season, giving fans some hope – until the Super Bowl, that is. Never in my life have I seen such a pathetic output from a defensive front, which not only failed to put a lick of pressure on Nick Foles all night (0 sacks; 5 QB hits) but also allowed both LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi to EACH average over six yards per carry throughout the game. For as much as people want to get on the secondary and Bill’s decision not to play Butler, the lack of any impact up front was probably the main reason why Brady doesn’t have a sixth ring.
Fortunately, Bill made a conscious decision to try and improve the pass-rush this offseason by signing Adrian Clayborn just three days after free agency began. Clayborn, who had 9.5 sacks for Atlanta last season, looked great against the Eagles in the team’s preseason game last Thursday night. He finished with one sack but was one of the main reasons why the team was able to produce eight sacks in total by “dominating” the Eagles offensive line, as ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss put it, and creating opportunities for his fellow teammates on multiple plays.
The team also went out and acquired defensive tackle Danny Shelton to pair up with Malcolm Brown on the inside, and both are capable of creating some pressure from the middle of the line.
Trey Flowers also returns. After contributing 2.5 sacks as a rookie in the Super Bowl against Atlanta in 2016, Flowers was able to lock down one of the starting defensive end roles as a second-year player last year, finishing with seven sacks and a very impressive overall rating from Pro Football Focus:
The top graded defensive players from the 2015 NFL Draft this past season. pic.twitter.com/yLNWy09LbG
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 11, 2018
He was easily the best guy the team had in the defensive front last season, and Belichick wasn’t too shy about his feelings for Flowers when speaking with the media on Monday, discussing specifically the positive influence he’s already had on some of the younger players at the position (h/t Patriots Wire):
“Yeah Trey’s great… he does an outstanding job with his teammates at that position. He hasn’t had a lot of practice time this year but when he does, and the opportunities he has in meetings and things like that, he’s a great example for them. If they just watch what he does and do what he does, you couldn’t do much better than that.”
(Here’s to hoping the team actually re-signs Flowers, who is set to become a free agent after this season, rather than trading him away for pennies like they did with Chandler Jones, who only LED THE LEAGUE IN SACKS LAST SEASON. But I digress…)
There are also three second-year guys who should make a significant impact in 2018, two of whom will be seeing their first action on the field after missing their respective rookie seasons due to injury.
First, there’s Deatrich Wise, who last year was one of my favorite Pats rookies that I’d seen in a while. Every time he was on the field, he always seemed to be involved in the play. Even when he didn’t get an actual sack – of which he still finished with a solid five – he was always in the opposing quarterback’s face, and he plays with the unabashed confidence of an experienced vet. This kid’s a gamer, and I expect a HUGE leap from him in Year 2.
(HOT TAKE ALERT: Wise is my sneaky pick for this year’s Patriots defensive MVP.)
The two other sophomores I alluded to above are Derek Rivers and Keionta Davis.
Rivers was a highly-touted third-round pick in 2017 before tearing an ACL last summer, which forced him to miss his entire rookie season. After setting the Youngstown State sack record, though, the talent is definitely there and the team is reasonably excited about what he can bring to the table in 2018.
Davis is another former FCS standout that fell victim to a tough injury at a very inopportune time. Unlike Rivers, however, he was diagnosed with a bulging disk just before the 2017 draft, and he went undrafted altogether. Two weeks into training camp last summer, he was signed by the Pats, who stashed him away on the reserve list, allowing him time to heal before unleashing him this summer. The long wait paid off, as he has looked fantastic through two preseason games and has been one of the team’s best pass-rushers so far with 1.5 total sacks. He still needs to officially make the roster, but at this point it looks like a foregone conclusion.
Other players like Lawrence Guy and the group of linebackers we touched upon last week will be asked to chip in as well, but it’s going to need to be the guys mentioned above who get it done this year.
Regardless of just how much the pash-rush will improve in 2018, all I know is it sure as hell can’t get any worse.
(Like what you just read? Be sure to check out the previous four parts of “The 300s Previews the Patriots” series here.)