New England Patriots: Top Position Battles on Defense Heading into Training Camp

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Oct 26, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (97) against Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns won 23-13. Mandatory Credit: Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

Last season the Patriots were very thin at defensive end/outside linebacker as starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were backed up untested sixth round draft pick Zach Moore and 2013 seventh round draft pick Michael Buchanan. When Chandler Jones injured his hip in week seven against the New York Jets the Patriots front office quickly realized that they had no viable replacement and had to make a trade to bring in Akeem Ayers from Tennessee.


While Ayers stepped in admirably and played better than anyone expected, he also played his way out of New England. With Jones back to health, Ayers struggled to receive regular playing time down the stretch and in the playoffs. He signed with St. Louis as a free agent as they offered more money and playing time than New England was willing to promise the versatile young linebacker.


Nov 1, 2014; Ames, IA, USA; Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Geneo Grissom (85) in action against the Iowa State Cyclones at Jack Trice Stadium. Oklahoma defeated Iowa State 59-14. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

To find young and inexpensive talent to fill in as depth, Bill Belichick and the Patriots front office used their third round compensatory pick on Geneo Grissom from Oklahoma. Grissom is a “tweener” who is too undersized at six-foot-three and 253 pounds to play 3-4 defensive end. However, he could thrive playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 in the NFL.


Grissom is extremely versatile–always a plus to Belichick–as he played defensive end, both one-technique and three-technique defensive tackle, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and even tight end during his collegiate career. With his long arms and leaping ability he has the wingspan to create impact plays tipping or knocking down passes.


Nov 22, 2014; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Ole Miss Rebels quarterback Ryan Buchanan (9) looks to pass under pressure from Arkansas Razorbacks defensive end Trey Flowers (86) during first half action at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Arkansas defeated Ole Miss 30-0. Mandatory Credit: Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

In the fourth round just a few picks later the Patriots added to their depth with defensive end Trey Flowers from Arkansas. Flowers may not be the athletic specimen that Grissom is but in college he jumped off the game tape as out-hustled and out-worked the offensive lineman across from him never taking a play off. In that regard, he already sounds like a perfect fit in New England.


Flowers had a second round/early third round draft grade and was stout against the run and improved as a pass rusher each season at Arkansas. At six-foot-two and 266 pounds Grissom plays bigger with long arms and power and has the ability to learn from the coaches and veterans in New England and continue to improve by adding more moves to his pass rushing repertoire.


While many NFL teams passed on Flowers because they were not be sure where he would fit (3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 defensive end), the Patriots jumped on a player with positional versatility and have themselves a pair of young defensive ends ready to contribute at a position sorely in need of depth.


Flowers will compete with third round draft pick Geneo Grissom for time behind starters Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, and free agent acquisition Jabaal Sheard. Sheard is an intriguing pick-up in free agency as he appeared to be a valuable player who was overlooked due to the near constant upheaval in the front office and coaching staff in Cleveland.


In 2013 Sheard appeared to be the breakout performer of the season in the first two games of the season for the Browns before he was slowed by a week three injury. Last year, the Browns coaches moved him all over the defense as part of a three-man rotation at outside linebacker. Sheard has shown an ability to stop the run and rush the passer as a 3-4 OLB. He should be pushing Ninkovich on the left side of the defense throughout training camp and the preseason.


Rob Ninkovich may still have a say in how much playing time Sheard and the two rookies are able to carve out this season. In the past three seasons Ninkovich has been an iron man as he led the defense in snaps played last year during the regular season with 1,040, was second to Chandler Jones in 2013 by playing 1,114 snaps, was third on the defense with 930 snaps played in 2012, and was fourth on the defense with 913 snaps played in 2011.


Ninkovich came to New England as a long-snapper initially and worked his way onto the special teams units and as a back-up linebacker before blossomed into a three-down player at OLB/DE. With the signing of Jabaal Sheard it appeared initially the veteran may become a salary cap casualty like so many Patriots players before him, but in a rare move the team actually reworked his deal to increase his pay above Sheard’s (increasing his cap number rather than cutting it) and rewarding the long-time, loyal run stuffer. Ninkovich led the team in sacks last season but he is primarily a technician who is strong against the run.


Despite his four fine seasons, Ninkovich faces competition at defensive end/outside linebacker unlike any he has faced in New England previously. He is competing with a young, premium free agent and two impressive rookies for playing time. No matter who ends up winning the job and how the workload is distributed, the competition this summer at training camp should be intense.