Prototypical Patriots: Best defensive tackle fits for Belichick’s defense originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
With his first 15 first-round picks as Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick used one third of those selections on defensive tackles. He’s taken 19 first-rounders in his time with the Patriots, and more than a quarter have been big boys along the defensive line (Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown).
Then last season, in a sign of how highly Belichick values players on the interior on that side of the ball, he traded away two fourth-round picks to move up in the second round and select Christian Barmore.
Would Belichick and his front office opt to go in a similar direction in 2022? Don’t rule it out. Even though Barmore, Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux remain in the mix … even though Henry Anderson, Daniel Ekuale and Byron Cowart are back for another year … Belichick could go back to doing what he’s comfortable doing early in the draft.
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But the question is, which type of defensive tackle will he be interested in? They come in all shapes and sizes when you analyze Belichick’s draft history.
Richard Seymour and Ty Warren were built like 3-4 defensive ends, with good length and weighing in at about 300 pounds.
Vince Wilfork and Malcom Brown, meanwhile, were built more like nose tackles. They checked in at closer to 320 pounds and had the power to hold up against double teams.
Then there was Dominique Easley, who weighed well under 300 pounds (288) and was a penetrating three-technique with great athleticism billed as a pass-rushing menace. Fourth-round picks from earlier in Belichick’s tenure, Jarvis Green (2002) and Dan Klecko (2003), also were deemed fits as lightly-built interior defenders.
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Here we’ll dig into all three body types in the 2022 NFL Draft class. We’ve got Warren types. We’ve got penetrators. We’ve got space-eaters.
Let’s get to digging …
Jordan Davis, Georgia, 6-foot-6, 341 pounds
A freak of nature and a future menace to opposing offensive lines, Davis is a fit in any scheme. His gargantuan frame would hold up if asked to two-gap in Bill Belichick’s defense and keep blockers off Patriots linebackers. (Something that could be useful given the shrinking nature of players at that position.) But he’s so unbelievably athletic — there’s an argument to be made that at his size he’s the best tester the combine has ever seen — it’s not difficult to envision him being an impact pass-rusher as well. There’s very little chance he slips to the Patriots at No. 21 unless the league has so devalued this position that it’s willing to pass on one of the rarest physical specimens in draft history.
Travis Jones, UConn, 6-foot-4, 327 pounds
If not for Davis blowing up his performance in Indianapolis, there would be far more buzz surrounding Jones. The UConn product isn’t quite as rare, but he ran a remarkable 4.92-second 40 time in Indy to go along with a very impressive 7.33-second three-cone drill. He dominated the competition at the Senior Bowl, making him a legitimate first-round candidate. He could be a monster two-gapper thanks to his length (34-inch arms) and explosiveness off the snap. This Huskies captain should be on our radar for the Patriots in the back half of the first round, especially given Belichick’s willingness to draft this position early.
John Ridgeway, Arkansas, 6-foot-5, 321 pounds
Though Ridgeway began as a small-school prospect at Illinois State, he burst onto the scene last season with a good year at Arkansas and an eye-opening performance at the Senior Bowl. Down in Mobile, Ala. he had several reps against one of the top guards in this year’s class, Memphis’ Dylan Parham, and was overpowering. He’s not going to possess the kind of NFL burst that will make him an impact pass-rusher at the next level. But if New England is looking for a nail-chewing space-eater early on Day 3, Ridgeway could be their guy.
Neil Farrell Jr., LSU, 6-foot-4, 330 pounds
Another massive body from the SEC, Farrell looks like an early-down specialist in the Patriots system. Particularly at a time when linebackers in Foxboro are getting smaller, having a giant in the middle to keep those ‘backers clean at the second level will be important. The issue for Farrell is that he posted only 18 bench reps with short (32-inch) arms. Does he take his craft seriously enough to spend the requisite time in the weight room? Even for the bigger bodies who make their way to Foxboro, conditioning matters. That may be a barrier to entry for Farrell, but he has plenty of SEC experience (22 starts, 50 games in five years) and the kind of frame the Patriots have taken in the past.
Noah Elliss, Idaho, 6-foot-4, 346 pounds
Elliss doesn’t have the arm length to stack and shed as well as some others in this class, but he knows what he is. And what he is is what the Patriots want from their nose tackles. He’s an immovable object at the point of attack thanks to his mass and lower-body strength. He has a significant injury history (tore his hamstring at the combine, tore his ACL in 2019), but his natural run-defending traits make him a fit here.
Phidarian Mathis, Alabama, 6-foot-4, 310 pounds
One of the best fits in this year’s draft class for the Patriots on the interior of the defensive line, Mathis is compared to Lawrence Guy by Pro Football Focus. He has ideal size to play as a versatile defender in the trenches for Belichick, even if he’s not a freaky athlete. He has length (almost 35-inch arms) and plenty of pop in his hands to jar opposing blockers. Plus, coming from Nick Saban’s system, you know he’ll be comfortable with the two-gap style of defense he’ll be asked to play in Foxboro.
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Thomas Booker, Stanford, 6-foot-3, 301 pounds
At 6-foot-3, 301 pounds, Booker may be a little on the light end but he could be a late-round option as a base 3-4 end in Belichick’s scheme. He impressed at the combine with a 4.94-second 40 and a very quick 1.69-second 10-yard split. He also has almost 11-inch hands that could help him control play in the trenches. He played all along the line for the Cardinal and blocked three extra points in his career, per the Athletic. Booker checks a number of intangible boxes as well as a two-time captain and a Campbell Trophy (aka the academic Heisman) finalist as an economics and communications double major at Stanford.
Eyioma Uwazurike, Iowa State, 6-foot-6, 316 pounds
Uwazurike’s length (over 35-inch arms, 85-inch wingspan) is off the charts, and his 23 reps of 225 pounds on the bench at his pro day, with those long levers, was impressive. He’s considered a high-effort player with good toughness and the versatility to play a variety of different techniques along the defensive line. He’s blocked multiple kicks as a member of the Cyclones, and even though this may not be his role in New England, he flashed real pass-rush potential at Iowa State with nine sacks last season.
Eric Johnson, Missouri State, 6-foot-4, 299 pounds
Low level of competition, sure. But he was stellar at the NFLPA game early in the offseason, and he earned a late invite to the Senior Bowl. His frenetic hands, long arms (34 inches) and quickness off the snap (4.86 40 time at his pro day) give him the look of an NFL talent. He played all sorts of different alignments as a collegian and has the confined-space explosiveness Belichick will appreciate. On Day 3, he seems like the kind of small-school flier the Patriots would be willing to take.
Jayden Peevy, Texas A&M, 6-foot-5, 308 pounds
Length, length, length. Sensing a trend here? Peevy has what cannot be taught with 35.5-inch arms and a ridiculous 85-inch wingspan. He’s not an athlete, but the Patriots are more apt to go with size over speed at this position — especially in the later rounds — and Peevy’s frame is rare. He’s blocked four kicks in his career, and he’s an annoyance to offensive linemen who can’t keep up with his motor. He’s far from refined, but Peevy has the physical tools and the demeanor that would be welcomed in New England.
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Perrion Winfrey, Oklahoma, 6-foot-4, 290 pounds
Because of a hamstring pull at the combine, it’s hard to know if Winfrey is the kind of athlete the Patriots would select at this spot to play a niche role (as they did with Easley back in 2014). But he had a very strong 2021 season for a program the Patriots respect (and from which they’ve recently drafted a couple of standouts), posting 5.5 sacks and 11.0 tackles for loss. Then he went to Mobile, Ala. and was one of the best players at the week of Senior Bowl practices, earning MVP honors in the game itself. As an unrelenting player in pursuit, his length (35-inch arms) help make him an effective tackler and the kind of penetrating defender the Patriots may want on the field in sub situations. He’s going to need some polish (nine penalties in the last two seasons), but he has the potential to be an impact player early in his pro career.
Matt Henningsen, Wisconsin, 6-foot-3, 289 pounds
This would be a later-round (or a post-draft) roll of the dice on a player with some really intriguing athletic traits. He clocked a blazing 7.19-second three-cone to go along with an eye-opening 37.5-inch vertical and a 1.75-second 10-yard split. He’ll be able to handle whatever is thrown at him behind the scenes in Foxboro, too, as he left Wisconsin with his master’s degree in engineering. A former walk-on who loves ball, has legitimate on-field twitchiness, and with a top-notch brain? Sounds like a Patriot.