Daily Focus: Patriots' defense can shoulder load during Tom Brady's suspension
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.
In the news story that just won’t die, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals has landed a blow to Tom Brady’s chances of having his four-game suspension over “Deflategate” overturned. The court denied the petition to rehear the case, meaning Brady’s last shot—should he elect to try and take it that far—is the Supreme Court.
If we assume that Brady will in fact be suspended for the first four weeks of the season, the job of starting QB will be Jimmy Garoppolo’s to lose, but instead of focusing on what little game-experience he has so far in his career, let’s look at another group that will have to shoulder an increased burden—the New England defense.
Last season, the Patriots boasted one of the NFL’s best defenses, with only the Broncos’ all-time great unit amassing a higher overall PFF grade. New England graded positively in every area PFF measures, including penalties, and also owned the league’s second-highest-graded special-teams unit.
We can expect the offense to struggle going from Brady to Garoppolo, and for the moment, the magnitude of that drop is an unknown. Whatever its size, though, we know the defense will need to play its best football to pick up the slack.
On paper, the Patriots’ defense again looks like an eclectic, but talented, mix of youth, journeymen, aged veterans, and solid, underrated players. Jabaal Sheard had an outstanding year in 2015 for New England, his first for the franchise, notching 58 total pressures despite only playing 566 snaps on defense. The franchise has moved on from Dominique Easley and Chandler Jones, but Trey Flowers was a dominant player in his final college season and could be a dark horse to step in and replace that kind of production.
Chris Long came over from the Rams this offseason and has a history of being able to generate pressure, even if he hasn’t always played the run with the same conviction. At this stage in his career, he could provide a useful sub-package pass-rush presence, however.
Behind the defensive front, the Patriots have some of the league’s best linebackers in Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, and the secondary is young and talented. Malcolm Butler is emerging as a very good young corner that the team trusts to track opposing receivers, and rookie Cyrus Jones is an interesting, undersized CB that can play in any defensive scheme and really make an impact on the short and underneath game.
Who steps up to fill Desmond Bryant’s shoes? As football nears, that means we’re getting to the stage of losing players to injury already. Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Desmond Bryant has been lost for the year already by tearing his pectoral muscle, which will require surgery to repair.
Bryant led the team in sacks last year, splitting time along the Browns’ line between inside and outside. He played as both a defensive tackle in sub-packages and as an edge-rusher lined up outside the tackle. Rookie Carl Nassib (Penn State) probably takes the lion’s share of the edge snaps, and could prove more than capable of taking advantage of the opportunity. Last season in college, he earned the seventh-highest pass-rush grade in the draft class, and notched 56 total QB pressures (16 sacks). The Browns drafted other edge-rushers in Emmanuel Ogbah (Oklahoma State) and Joe Schobert (Wisconsin), but they are smaller players likely to have a defined edge presence already. Nassib is a bigger rusher used to playing with his hand in the ground, and is a more likely candidate to replace Bryant’s snaps in that area.
Larger roles will already be expected from Xavier Cooper and John Hughes, but the one member of the rotation from a year ago not currently on the roster is Randy Starks, who played well for Cleveland despite getting on in years and is currently a free agent. The Browns could do a lot worse than re-signing Starks as a quick, short-term fix.
The other option would be to move Danny Shelton around a little, freeing him up from being purely a nose tackle and allow him to use his quickness to play as a sub-package 3-tech in a way he would likely excel at.
Deals unlikely for Wilkerson, Johnson, and Jeffery: Three talented players currently franchise-tagged without long-term deals look likely to play this season under the tag rather than receive big-money extensions, and each makes some sense because of the risk or question marks attached to them:
- Rams CB Trumaine Johnson had an excellent 2015, but it represents just the second good season of his four-year career, and featured some poor games. Johnson has the ability to be a big-time corner, but games like the final one of the season, in which he surrendered 145 yards to a bad San Francisco receiving corps, likely give the front office some pause.
- Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson is an excellent and versatile defensive lineman, but New York looks to have pinned its resources more on Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams, leaving Wilkerson as expendable, or at least as a player the franchise doesn’t want to commit big-money to, especially coming off a broken leg. The team may feel better off getting one more year out of him under the franchise tag, and then moving on.
- Bears WR Alshon Jeffery was certainly playing at an elite level last season—when he was on the field. Jeffery played only 516 snaps and nine games in 2015, and it was by far the best football of his career. The Bears want to see him replicate those levels over an extended period before they hand him a contract that would likely make him one of the best-paid receivers in the game.