Daily Focus: Impact of Sebastian Vollmer, Dion Lewis injuries on Patriots' offense
Editor’s note: Every day in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.
Impact of Sebastian Vollmer, Dion Lewis injuries: There were two pieces of bad news out of New England on Sunday. First, RB Dion Lewis will miss significant time due to knee surgery, and if that wasn’t bad enough, tackle Sebastian Vollmer could be headed to to the injured reserve list. Of the two, Vollmer is unquestionably the bigger loss; he’s played roughly 88 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps since being drafted in 2009. In that span he’s consistently graded well above-average in both pass protection and run blocking, although he’s coming off of a career-low grade in 2015, in part due to Nate Solder’s injury issues that forced him into a less-familiar LT spot for 678 of his 967 snaps (over his first six seasons prior to 2015, Vollmer lined up at LT on only 452 of more than 5,000 snaps).
Vollmer’s likely replacement is Marcus Cannon, who played more than 700 snaps last season, splitting time between both tackle spots, and he’s been running with New England’s first-team so far this preseason. Based on his performance over the last two years, the Patriots could be in for a rough year at RT; Cannon graded below-average in both facets over that span, with an overall grade that ranked 61st at the position in 2015. His pass protection has been a particular issue; he ranked 44th of 59 qualifying tackles in pass-blocking efficiency last season. It is notable, however, that Cannon has spent time at four different positions on the offensive line in recent seasons, so keeping him in the same spot could yield better results in 2016. A closer look at his 2015 performance also reveals that the bulk of his negative grade was concentrated in only a handful of poor games—most of the time, he was not the liability that his season grades would suggest.
At running back, Lewis’ absence shouldn’t be as significant, but he was still PFF’s 13th-highest-graded running back last season, with above-average marks as a rusher, receiver, and pass blocker. What particularly stood out was his unreal ability to make defenders miss. Lewis finished 2015 with an elusiveness rating that ranked first by a mile among RBs with at least 80 offensive touches; he forced 43 missed tackles in 83 touches. On the ground, he gained an average of 3.3 yards yards after contact per carry, which was only bested by Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. James White should be the main beneficiary of Lewis’s absence and figures to see a sizable increase in playing time. White didn’t offer much rushing production last season, with a 2.5-yard average on 22 carries, but he was among the league’s best backs in the passing game; only three players finished with a better receiving grade than White’s 91.9 mark.
How Henry Melton addition strengthens Broncos’ pass rush: The Broncos sent Vance Walker to injured reserve late last week and responded by signing former Buccaneer Henry Melton on Sunday. Walker was the team’s second-best defensive lineman based on last season’s grades, behind Derek Wolfe. His overall grade ranked 27th among interior defenders, and now his absence will test Denver’s defensive-line depth; among the players who stand to benefit include Jared Crick and rookie Adam Gostis (Georgia Tech). It will be interesting to see how Melton fits into that group, although his ideal role at this point is as a nickel pass rusher. Melton has graded below average in run defense every season he’s played, and had his worst year there last season—only three defensive tackles graded worse against the run. And while he was just average as a pass rusher (26 pressures in 329 rushes), you only need to look at his play in 2014 to see the potential upside there. That season, Melton earned the sixth-best pass-rush mark among NFL DTs, and still ranked in the top 12 among interior defenders when including 3-4 defensive ends, as well. If he can regain that form, this addition will make an already formidable Denver pass rush even more daunting.
Who will line up opposite Saints CB Delvin Breaux? Amid this weekend’s preseason games came the news that the Saints released cornerback Keenan Lewis, who had barely participated in training camp thus far while dealing with a lingering hip injury. Lewis played sparingly over his first three years before breaking out in 2012 with a solid season, which included a league-high 16 pass defenses. He followed with a career-year after signing with New Orleans in 2013, finishing the season with a top-20 coverage grade and passer rating allowed. That success didn’t continue, though, as he dropped off in 2014, grading below-average in both coverage and run defense, and last season injuries limited him to just 109 snaps across six games.
With Lewis gone, Delvin Breaux is the team’s No.1 option (if that wasn’t already clear, based on his 2015 season). Breaux had a rough start to the season, but bounced back with Pro-Bowl level play for much of year, and ended with an overall grade that ranked eighth at the position. There’s less certainty about who will line up across from Breaux, but perhaps the most interesting option is second-year player P.J. Williams, who missed the entire 2015 season and preseason. So far this year, the results have been about as promising as they can get in the preseason. Williams started both of the Saints’ games at outside corner, and has played more snaps (79) than any of the team’s other defensive backs. In that time, he’s compiled the 10th-best coverage grade among preseason CBs with three receptions allowed in six targets; opposing QBs have just a 61.1 passer rating on those throws.
Among the other players that will stand to see more time with Lewis’ release is Damian Swann, another member of the Saints’ 2015 draft class, who opened 2015 as the team’s nickel corner, but was limited to just 230 snaps due to concussion issues. Rookies Ken Crawley (Colorado) and De’Vante Harris (Texas A&M) have also seen ample time so far this preseason, although both players have graded slightly negatively in coverage.