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Welcome back for year 29 of the Eyes of the Guru column. Last summer, I started a new tradition with the EOTG, posting team-by-team rather than a division at a time. The goal here is to give our customers a more steady diet of information in smaller doses.
These teams have been covered so far:
Arizona | Atlanta | Baltimore | Carolina | Chicago | Cincinnati | Cleveland | Denver | Detroit | Green Bay | Houston | Indianapolis | Jacksonville | Kansas City | Las Vegas | LA Chargers | LA Rams | Minnesota | New England | New Orleans | NY Jets | Pittsburgh | San Francisco | Seattle | Tampa Bay | Tennessee
There is another step in the evolution of the column this year as well. I have talked about the need for positional realignment among edge defenders and interior defensive linemen for several years now, and the True Position format has finally arrived. Not every league host site has come to see the light, but many have. The rest are eventually sure to follow.
Going forward, I will be treating and labeling all edge defenders as defensive ends. This will include 4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers, and anyone else in the new hybrid schemes of today's NFL that makes a living by chasing quarterbacks off the edge. Likewise, the defensive tackle position will include all interior defensive linemen in 4-3 schemes and all down linemen in 3-4 alignments. As a result of this approach, we have eliminated the constant arguments and flip-flopping of positions among these players.
For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are generally not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
After almost two decades of virtual dominance, it has been nice to tune into NFL shows over the last couple of years, without having to hear about the Patriots every time. The break might be over soon, though. They may not have the next great quarterback in place, but the way this defense played last year, it's not going to take another Tom Brady to get them back in the thick of things.
The 2022 Patriots played outstanding defense. They allowed the seventh-fewest yards on the ground, the fourth-lowest yards per carry, and no one surrendered fewer rushing scores. New England gave up a lot of passing touchdowns. That was because no one could score against them on the ground rather than a reflection of any struggle versus the pass. The unit ranked eighth in yards per attempt, fifth in completion percentage, and 17th in passing yards. All that despite facing the seventh most attempts. The Patriots were even near the top in the most critical areas, allowing the tenth fewest points while posting the fourth most sacks (54) and the second most takeaways with 30.
As we would expect after such a successful campaign, the organization made no significant additions in free agency. They did, however, use their first three draft picks on a corner, defensive tackle, and Marte Mapu, whose position is yet to be defined.
The Patriots are one of the league's many multiple front defenses though they were in a 3-4 much, if not most, of the time last year. This organization has committed a ton of draft capital to the defense over the last four years. Of their first three picks in each of those drafts, nine of the twelve have been on defense, with five on linemen and edge defenders. They turned to free agency for one major addition to the defensive line in recent years. That was in 2021 when they hijacked Matt Judon from the Ravens. That move has worked out pretty well, also.
Judon was a good player for the Ravens. Over five years in Baltimore, he put up decent tackle totals with an average of roughly seven sacks a season. Judon's best production as a Raven was in 2019 when he was 41-11-9.5 and forced 4 fumbles. Over two seasons with New England, Judon has averaged 37-22-14, 2 turnovers, and 2 batted passes. With the 15.5 sacks from last year setting a new career standard.
The leap in production is a great example of the difference between Baltimore's two-gap approach with their defensive front and New England's aggressive, penetrate-and-disrupt style. When someone shows you who they are, believe them. Since coming to New England, Judon has proven to be one of the league's best edge defenders, both on the field and in the box scores. He turns 31 in August and is entering the fourth quarter of an excellent career, but still has a few years left. He is signed through the 2024 season, so at least two of those years will be with New England.
Josh Uche is my favorite edge sleeper heading into 2023. In covering previous teams, I've talked regularly about many young players at these positions needing a year or two of development before breaking out. Here is the perfect example. Uche saw very limited action as a rookie second-round pick in 2020, going 7-2-1 on 178 plays. In year two, he played a little more, totaling 10-2-3 with a takeaway on 242. He was not a starter in 2022, but by the end of the year had earned a significant role. It is what Uche did on his 291 snaps over the final ten games that has me excited.
After seven weeks of the 2022 season, Uche had three solo tackles to his credit. Over the next eight contests, he was 20-4-11.5 with a pair of forced fumbles. He opened the year seeing about 16 snaps per game on average. Down the stretch, he was up to almost 30, including a few starts. Over an eight-game stretch, Uche had at least half a sack in seven contests, including three multi-sack outings. With production like that, Bill Belichick will find a way to get him on the field.
Uche is a bit undersized at 245 pounds, but that is not such a big factor for 3-4 edge guys that line up wide and work from a two-point stance. He will enter training camp as a projected starter, at least for those projectors that see the Patriots as a 3-4 team. Except for nickel situations, Uche may not see a lot of action in four-man fronts, but his snap count stands to get a significant boost in 2023, and it would not be a surprise if he collects more than 50% of the playing time. As well as he played down the stretch, imagine what Uche could do with another 250 or so opportunities.
Deatrich Wise had the best season of his six-year career in 2022. His 33 tackles, 25 assists, and 7.5 sacks were all career-bests for the 2017 fourth-round pick. At six foot five and 285 pounds, he is a versatile player that can stay on the field in any situation or play call. When the team is in a four-man front, Wise can work on the outside, offering a dependable anchor versus the run with a little pass-rush ability. In three-man fronts, he is capable of working the edge and will do so once in a while, but will usually slide into the five-technique role with his hand on the ground opposite the offensive tackle. Of the Patriots' first-level defenders, only Judon saw more snaps than Wise last year. While he is a good player and should continue to be a big contributor for the Patriots, last year's numbers are likely close to his ceiling.
New England has a trio of 310+ pound interior linemen that make things tough on offensive lines. Putting Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, and Christian Barmore on the field together on early downs will have a lot to do with the Patriots' continued success against the run. All three of these guys are powerful yet mobile and athletic big men with some IDP potential.
Godchaux doesn't pack much punch as a pass rusher, though he does have a sack in each of his two years with the team. He has, however, put up 65 and 63 combined stops in the last two seasons, making him worth a roster spot as a priority DT3 in most leagues that break out the positions.
Traditionally, Guy has also given us decent tackle totals with a sack or two. He had 40 solo stops and 19 assists in 2021 and would have exceeded the 50 combined mark again last year if not for missing three games. Guy is 31 years old and entering season 13, has a lot of miles on him. He could give us one more year with serviceable tackle numbers, but there is no upside beyond a DT3.
Barmore's numbers were minimal in 2022 but that was only because he missed eight games. Entering his third season, the 2021 first-round pick is set to take over the lead role at one of the five-technique tackle spots in three-man fronts. He can also play either tackle spot in four-man fronts. That versatility should add up to around 650 or so snaps in 2023, roughly double what he played last season. If you need a third tackle, Barmore is worthy of consideration, but the best move on all three of these guys might be to let them sit until they show us some production.
Rookie second-round pick Keion White should see some time in the interior rotation right away and will be groomed for a bigger role in the near future. Anfernee Jennings and Ronnie Perkins were third round-picks in 2020 and 2021, respectively. They are both in line for a chunk of the action as the top backups to Judon and Uche. Simply put, the Patriots defensive line is talented, deep, and should have a fair amount of IDP value.
- Edge Matthew Judon – Solid DE1 or excellent second starter
- Edge Josh Uche – High upside breakout candidate
- Edge Anfernee Jennings – Injury sleeper with limited potential
- Edge Ronnie Perkins – Injury sleeper
- DT Deatrich Wise Jr. – Good target as a second starter if he can be played as a tackle
- DT Davon Godchaux – Low end DT2
- DT Lawrence Guy Sr. – Possible depth in leagues starting two tackles
- DT Christian Barmore – Talented young player with DT2 potential
- DT Keion White – Dynasty watchlist
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