After years of growing pains, Bill Belichick's defensive reconstruction is nearly complete. The New England Patriots, long known as a physical run-stuffing defense, have adapted with the times and transformed into a lighter, faster and more athletic bunch.
Health could change the picture midseason, but for now, the defense does not have any glaring holes. But the fact that the Pats are not in need of immediate reinforcements does not mean they should stop adding depth and planning for the future on defense.
Ohio State's Ryan Shazier may not fill an obvious positional need in 2014. However, for a Pats team in need of additional pass-rushers and coverage linebackers, Shazier is the proverbial stone that could kill both birds.
Shazier may or may not be available at pick No. 29, and the Pats should not necessarily trade up. But if he's still on the board, Shazier represents a long-term solution capable of filling multiple crucial roles and infusing the defense with additional versatility.
What Does Shazier Bring?
Shazier (6'1", 237 lbs.) possesses all the measurables the Patriots have leaned toward in recent front-seven selections such as Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. The ex-Buckeye was one of the combine's top performers, with the best vertical jump and broad jump and the fifth-best three-cone drill among linebackers.
Those physical traits manifest themselves in the form of smooth movements and excellent hip fluidity. Shazier was an ultraproductive three-down linebacker in Columbus, racking up 315 career tackles, and his combination of athleticism and versatility has garnered comparisons to one of the NFL's top "Will" linebackers:
Those Lavonte David comparisons are particularly enticing, as Shazier could become one of the league's top coverage linebackers almost immediately. With the ability to cover linebackers or running backs, Shazier is truly the ideal sub-package linebacker. The lateral movement and change-of-direction ability he demonstrates on film is uncommon for linebackers:
In addition, Shazier is a disruptive gap-shooter whose combination of an explosive first step and quick diagnostic ability makes him a dangerous edge defender. Last season, Shazier accrued seven sacks and a whopping 23.5 tackles for loss. Per Sports Reference, the latter mark was tied for second-most in the country.
Consequently, Shazier is a terror on blitzes. He's not a pure pass-rushing specimen who will readily defeat blockers one-on-one (more on that later), but when he is utilized in creative schemes, Shazier's speed and go-to dip move can result in disruptive pressure:
His penetrating style does not necessarily dovetail with the Patriots' conventional run defense, which focuses on interior two-gapping and containment on the outside, skills that involve engagement with blockers. Although Shazier is better in space, he is still agile enough to shed blockers and help in the run game. Combine that with his surprisingly powerful tackling for a player of his size, and Shazier (No. 10 in this clip) can certainly turn into an early-down asset:
Of course, while Shazier has a diverse skill set, he is essentially a pure outside linebacker. As such, Patriots fans might wonder about his place in the defensive lineup.
How Could Patriots Use Shazier?
It's true that Shazier does not have an obvious role in the Patriots linebacking corps. The starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins appears set in stone. Moreover, those three provide complementary skill sets that could theoretically cover New England in every situation.
Yes, the Patriots need extra linebacker depth behind the starters. But Pats followers might understandably balk at the idea of spending a first-round pick on an expected reserve. Thus, Shazier must find his way onto the field in various roles to justify a Day 1 selection.
The most obvious possibility is the Will linebacker position. Since New England's switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 system, Mayo has primarily occupied the position due to his superior agility. However, his movement skills allow him to move around the formation easily, meaning that the primary playmaking role should be open for Shazier.
Pats followers may protest moving Collins away from the Will role, especially considering the promise he showed in fulfilling the position at the end of 2013. However, NESN.com's Doug Kyed suggested Collins could also play defensive end in sub-packages, unlike Shazier, who has played almost exclusively from a two-point stance.
ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss seconded the notion of the Pats using Collins more in the pass rush this year. Collins almost exclusively dropped back into coverage last year because of New England's lack of viable coverage linebackers following Mayo's season-ending injury. When he did rush the passer, the Pats would sometimes line him up in a Wide 9 technique, though he rarely put his hand on the ground:
It's never a problem to have linebackers who can drop back into coverage and rush the passer with equal comfort. According to Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus, the Patriots rarely blitzed last season, as their 26.1 percent blitz percentage ranked 25th in the league. That low number is a reflection of the unit's lack of versatility, as one-dimensional run-stuffers such as Hightower and Brandon Spikes did not allow the coaching staff to fully tap into Collins' versatility.
Shazier could allow New England to spice up its play-calling variety. The Patriots have followed the league-wide trend of multiplicity in defenses, often utilizing 3-4 and 4-3 concepts within the same play. So even while public perception portrays the Pats as a 4-3 defense, they utilized the 3-4 quite frequently last season, often using Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich as outside linebackers:
Shazier and Collins might be better suited to fill those roles, as their coverage abilities could open up the playbook for more zone blitzes and allow more frequent front-seven substitutions. For all the fretting over not having a strong safety to cover tight ends, Shazier and Collins would essentially represent two extra oversized safeties.
Shazier will never totally fulfill his three-down potential unless he adds more toughness to his run defense. The most glaring deficiency in Shazier's film is how often he gets blocked out of running plays, often due to his own passivity rather than excellent blocking, as well as the occasional overrun:
Remember those Lavonte David comparisons? David possesses a nearly identical frame, at 6'1" and 233 pounds, but he is one of the league's top run defenders. As Pro Football Focus illustrates through its advanced statistics, David's true value lies in his all-around brilliance:
Shazier does resemble David in the passing game, but he does not play with anywhere near the same level of toughness in the run game. Watch how he knifes through the center's block attempt and then bats away the fullback to stop the running back for a big loss:
At the moment, Shazier does not play well when engaged with a lineman. Shazier does not necessarily need to add much bulk; by today's standards, his size is adequate for linebackers. Moreover, as his movement skills are his best trait, potentially compromising those traits by adding weight is not an option worth exploring.
One more note, albeit a much less pressing concern: Shazier's pass-rushing productivity typically stems from scheme rather than one-on-one victories. That's not necessarily a bad thing; he executes blitzes extremely well, and Bill Belichick would surely enjoy concocting creative methods to maximize Shazier's pass-rushing ability. Just do not expect him to develop a cavalcade of moves in his career.
Shazier looks like a classic competing case of drafting for best available player versus drafting for need. Shazier is not totally redundant, but, in terms of priorities, the need he fills likely falls behind tight end, defensive tackle and perhaps even interior offensive line depth.
However, the Patriots are in the enviable spot of being able to choose any route they want in this draft due to their combination of depth and youth at most positions. If New England wants to trade back and feast on the Day 2 depth, it can do that. Alternatively, if a first-round prospect entices the Patriots, they can trade up and still have enough chips to address other needs.
Based on the Patriots' track record, a Day 1 selection looks like less than a 50-50 proposition. This year's draft class has tremendous depth, especially into the second round, and it would not be surprising to see New England trade back to dip into that pool multiple times.
Nonetheless, there are prospects who represent exceptions to every best-laid plan. Shazier can contribute immediately in sub-packages and looks like a fairly safe bet to develop into a long-term starter. Some of New England's best first-round selections—Vince Wilfork and Nate Solder jump to mind—came at positions without obvious immediate needs.
The best organizations address needs before they arise. The Patriots are not desperate for a rookie savior anywhere, so Shazier would represent an opportunity to address multiple roles for the foreseeable future.