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Ask PFW, Part I: Front seven, front and center

This week's mailbag kicks off with questions about New England's defensive scheme.


DL Gerard Warren. AP Photo

I'm very intrigued by the Pats' acquisition of Gerard Warren. My understanding is he is excellent against the run, but not much of a pass rusher, though he helps to collapse the pocket forcing the throw. What I'm wondering is if Warren will end up attracting double teams like Richard Seymour used to and make the pass rush easier for OLBs, and create more success for blitzing ILBs and DBs? If the Pats only keep six DLs, who is most likely odd man out from last years crew still on the team: Brace, Pryor, Wright? Is Brace a bust? If they keep seven, I have to believe we see a lot more 4-3 formations?
Don McIlvin

Hey!! Love what you all do! This off-season we signed Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis. Do you think they were wise signings or are those players past their prime?*Mark Zuber *

Hi, I would like to have your thoughts on Ron Brace. Since the departure of Jarvis Green, a lot has been said about the defensive line but I read nothing about Brace. Do you think that Brace could replace him in a similar role? Was he only drafted to be a DT in 4-3 schemes, or to replace Wilfork when he gets tired?
JC Blais

Warren and Lewis are certainly on the back ends of their careers, but remember, they were both first-rounders in the same draft as Seymour (2001). Though neither has had nearly as decorated a career as Seymour, Warren has been a starter everywhere he's played (Cleveland, Denver, Oakland) and Lewis, as we've pointed out numerous times on the Web and in the paper, has played his best football the past two years in Carolina.

So, I would agree that "intriguing" is an appropriate adjective to apply to this pair. We've yet to see them on the field in this system, of course, but I don't expect Warren to be the kind of force that Seymour was, insofar as his ability to attract double-teams and getting to the quarterback. I imagine he'll challenge a veteran like Mike Wright for a starting job, however. Lewis is see more as a role player, ala Jarvis Green – capable of starting in a pinch, but better suited as a situational reserve.

D-line will be one of the more competitive battles to watch this training camp. The aforementioned free agent signings, the departure of Green to Denver, plus the drafting of two rookies means there's certain to be some turnover from last year's Patriots roster at this position. Ron Brace, the second of New England's four 2009 second-round choices, is in a fight for his job, to be sure. He could wind up being the odd man out after a disappointing rookie campaign, losing out in the playing time department to overachieving sixth-rounder Myron Pryor last season.

If I were filling out the roster today, I'd take seven d-linemen, one more than last year, given my expectation that we'll be seeing a lot more 4-3 fronts from the Patriots in '10. On my active roster – at this moment – I'd have Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Wright, Gerard Warren, Pryor, Lewis, and one of this year's or last year's draft picks (Darryl Richard, Brandon Deaderick, Kade Weston, or Brace). Richard is a curiosity because he was a low-round pick who held on to a practice squad job the entire season. With a full year in the system, he may have an edge on this year's young additions.

Wilfork's, Ty Warren's, and probably Wright's jobs are safe, I my estimation, while the rest are up for grabs. Which is going to make this position so much fun to watch this summer.
Erik Scalavino

Hey guys, I was just wondering about a trade for Elvis Dumervil? I know he's still an RFA and the asking price is kind of high, but he would answer the pass rush question. What would you give up for him? Two firsts, a first and two seconds?Keith Henderson

Your assertion, Keith, that Dumervil "would answer the pass rush question" is specious.
First off, I agree that Dumervil's an excellent pass rusher … when that's all he has to do. Problem is, in Bill Belichick's read-and-react, two-gap defense, the outside linebacker is responsible for more than just going after the quarterback. That's why Bill is on this yearly, seemingly Quixotic quest to find the 6-4, 4.6 prototype and passes on the Everette Brown-, Jerry Hughes-type players who look more like 5-11 Dumervil or barely six-foot Dwight Freeney.

Left to their own devices in attacking, one-gap schemes, those smaller pass rushers can use their speed and leverage against bigger, slower tackles and tight ends to get to the QB or knife into the backfield to disrupt a running play. But in a Belichick system, the OLB is expected to hold his ground while diagnosing what the offense is doing before he makes his move. In that case, when a guy like Sebastian Vollmer is lead-blocking in the running game against significantly smaller competition like Dumervil … clearly, advantage Sea Bass.

That's why Belichick wants those big, fast, hard-to-find OLB beasts who can "set the edge" in the running game. By holding up at the line of scrimmage rather than being bowled over by the tackle, the Willie McGinests and Mike Vrabels of the world create an edge at the line of scrimmage that forces the running back to bounce outside to find daylight, where another defender, in theory, has time to get there and make the stop.

Now, as I mentioned above and as we've discussed throughout the offseason, we at PFW think (based on comments Bill made at the end of last season) that more four-man fronts are in this defense's future. That seems to have been validated, to some extent, by the inordinate number of pre-draft visits the Patriots reportedly had with d-line prospects, the drafting of two of them, and the signings of Warren and Lewis.

However, unless Bill has changed his mindset from read-and-react to attack, I don't see New England working out a trade for Dumervil.
Erik Scalavino

There's a lot of talk of the Pats switching from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3. I understand the difference in formation between the two, but what specific upside does one have over the other? Does Belichick prefer using a 3-4 base, or have the specific skill sets of his players simply made it the logical defense to use?
Clinton Kaneoka

I kind of addressed this in the previous answer, but I'll elaborate here. It's not that one formation is better than the other, it just comes down to the type of players you have. Belichick has historically preferred the 3-4, but keep in mind, he started in the NFL during an era when the 3-4 was the predominant defensive scheme. The pendulum swung to the 4-3 direction over the next generation, when attacking defenses became all the rage. But Belichick held fast to what he felt worked for him and the players he had at his disposal.

Perhaps Belichick believed he had more versatility by having an extra linebacker on the field, as opposed to a defensive lineman. A good linebacker can play forward and backward (i.e., get in the backfield or drop into pass coverage), whereas few d-linemen can do both effectively.

Ultimately, it matters not how you arrange the front seven, but what you ask them to do. Are they one-gapping or two-gapping? Are they shooting ahead at the snap to make a play or sitting back for a second or two? Teams like Pittsburgh play a 3-4, but they one-gap out of it, which allows them to have smaller OLBs like James Harrison. New England, conversely, is a two-gap 3-4. Must just be Belichick's personal preference.
Erik Scalavino

With all the changes happening in the front seven, what do you think the front could look like? Are Spikes or Cunningham going to be able to absorb enough of the defensive scheme to contribute early on? Who is playing DE opposite Ty Warren? Can Mike Wright take on that role? Banta-Cain is a lock at one OLB spot, but what are the options at the other side?
James P.

Again, we need to see these guys on the field together before we can answer with any certainty. At this point, all we can give you are expectations. If New England comes out with their base 3-4 to start the season, I'd expect to see Wilfork at the nose, flanked by Ty Warren and Mike Wright. I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt over the other Warren because of his experience advantage in this system. At inside linebacker, Jerod Mayo's a lock, with a job opening next to him. Essentially, two rookies are vying for playing time there: second-rounder Brandon Spikes and one of last year's thirds, Tyrone McKenzie, who spent all of '09 in IR. They could wind up rotating, at least in the beginning.

On the outside, Tully Banta-Cain will assume one end and Heaven knows who'll take the other. I hold out little hope for either Pierre Woods or Shawn Crable. Woods isn't suddenly going to get any better and Crable needs to stay healthy, for once. Jermaine Cunningham, the rookie, is more of a project, but might be forced to start just due to the need for a body on the field. Just like last summer, OLB remains the weak link in the Patriots 3-4.
Erik Scalavino

With the lack of pressure from the edge, do you think that with the arsenal of corners we have that there may be a steady attack of corner blitzes?Jesse Marquis

I hope not. If the Patriots are relying on cornerbacks to sack the quarterback, this team is done for. Every now and then, fine, send a corner when the offense least expects it. But a steady attack? Please. The secondary needs to focus on their primary task – covering opposing receivers. They still have a long way to go, in that regard.
Erik Scalavino

Hey writers at PFW, thanks for the insights you guys have. Can you please explain why the Patriots have not re-signed Logan Mankins? He is the best offensive lineman on the team. Brady is obviously top priority for the team's contract situation, but if Mankins isn't re-signed and replaced by a sub-par lineman, Brady could have another ACL/MCL tear.
Dave Sarro

Well, the Patriots have offered Mankins a contract this offseason. Granted, it's only a one-year RFA tender, but it's the most generous one available, at nearly $3.27 million. The priority, quite clearly, was to get Wilfork's deal done. They have that, and now Tom Brady finds himself in the final year of his contract. Perhaps the team is expecting Mankins to accept his tender and look for an extension later, after they've handled Brady's business.

Mankins, it appears, wants his issue dealt with now, especially seeing how much money the Saints gave to guard Jahri Evans (seven years, $56 million, with 19 large in the first year alone), a player of comparable ability to Mankins. That suddenly gives the Mankins camp a bargaining chip they didn't have before.

The Patriots still have the advantage, though. If Mankins doesn't sign his tender by June 15, the offer can be downgraded to 110-percent of his 2009 salary. That number computes to slightly more than $1.5 million, a more than 50-percent cut from his RFA tender. So, it would seem that the longer Mankins waits, the more he stands to lose, monetarily. Will Mankins hold out? It's possible, but my guess is he'll sign the tender at the last minute and play out the season while Evans gets his payday. Mankins will look for his – whether here or elsewhere – next offseason.

Oh, and for the record, a blitzing safety being blocked by a running back was what led to Brady's 2008 knee injury, not a lineman or linebacker, whom Mankins normally blocks.
Erik Scalavino

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