The Patriots had a clear mission statement from the outset of the offseason that was echoed publicly by inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo in February: get faster, everywhere.
After they were run off the field by the Bills on wildcard weekend, Mayo made a statement that was music to Patriots fans’ ears, “we’re going to look to get faster, more explosive, and put more playmakers on the field,” Mayo said about New England’s goals defensively this offseason.
Speaking for the first time since Bill Belichick tabbed him as the organization’s new Director of Player Personnel, Matt Groh nodded his head in agreement with Mayo’s sentiment.
“Without a doubt. We are looking to get faster everywhere,” Groh told CLNS Media on Friday. “It’s not just defense. It’s offense. It’s special teams. It’s not just linebacker. I think there are multiple ways to do that.”
Groh mentioned that one way the Patriots are improving their team speed defensively is by using players traditionally thought of as safeties as pseudo-linebackers.
“There’s going to be different players all across the league who are considered linebackers, whether they’re converting from a different position in college, safety to linebacker, and that’s certainly one way to get speed on the field is just using these guys differently,” Groh said.
“The caliber of athlete you can get from the size and speed these days, you can put these guys all over the place, and that’s certainly one way to increase the overall speed of the defense.”
Along those lines, New England already rostered hybrid safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips, two players with significant roles closer to the line of scrimmage and in the box.
Joining Dugger and Phillips is free-agent addition Jabrill Peppers. Peppers has a similar skillset and logged most of his snaps as a slot defender for Joe Judge’s Giants last season.
Bill Belichick has been at the forefront of the hybrid safety movement in the NFL over the last decade, starting with the emergence of former Patriot great Patrick Chung.
However, the league’s transition to prioritizing speed rather than size at linebacker is one area where the Patriots have seemingly fallen behind. While the rest of the NFL is moving towards smaller linebackers in the 225-240-pound range, New England rosters thumping linebackers such as Ja’Whaun Bentley, who is listed at 255 pounds on the team website.
To that end, Groh acknowledged that the college football pipeline is making it harder to find the old-school Patriots-style linebackers we are accustomed to seeing in New England.
“The game has changed from 20, 30, 40 years ago, and that player has also changed. There are not as many of those big linebackers. They don’t exist. Colleges want them smaller because they have to be able to adapt to the college game. You can’t just create those guys out of thin air, so it’s what the college game provides us,” Groh explained.
The need to forgo size for speed and athleticism could impact the Patriots’ draft plans right away.
For example, first-rounders Devin Lloyd (237 pounds) and Nakobe Dean (226 pounds) are impact playmakers who wouldn’t usually meet New England’s size thresholds at the position.
Although there are bigger linebackers on day two, such as Wisconsin’s Leo Chanel, the Patriots are understandably trying to keep up with the times all over the roster.
Hearing Groh and Mayo make those statements over the last few months is a breath of fresh air, but we’ll see if the team practices what they preach in two weeks at the NFL Draft.