From Illinois to the Patriots: The Utilization of Rookie Michael Buchanan

How could No. 99 Michael Buchanan stand apart with the New England Patriots? (Photo: Oliver Thomas)

NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas

Former University of Illinois pass-rusher Michael Buchanan was once projected as a third-round NFL draft selection. That projection was merely a projection, though. Instead of hearing his name called on April 25 or April 26, No. 99 had to wait until the afternoon of April 27 to see his name next to a team on the television screen.

That team was the New England Patriots, who took a flier on the 6’6”, 255-pounder during the seventh and final round of the draft, pick 226 overall.

Now given his late-round status, Buchanan is no lock to make New England’s 53-man roster. After all, he is one of eight men currently in training camp battling for a spot off the edge. And because of that, the 22-year-old will have to prove to head coach Bill Belichick that he’s worth retaining.

If he can resemble the productivity of his 2011 campaign, where he notched 64 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, the decision will be an easy one. If he can showcase his 4.78 40- time and 6.91 three-cone time at game speed, the decision will be even easier.

But for Buchanan — like all newcomers — it’s not about previous success or athletic measurables; it’s about finding a fit for the present and future.

With that in mind, where could Buchanan fit in New England’s multifaceted defensive front? In an effort to find out, I turned to to take note of where and how he was utilized during his days with the Fighting Illini.

4-3 Defensive End

Buchanan saw plenty of reps on the edge of the defensive line when at Illinois. Although most of  his triumphs came from turning the corner, Buchanan fought through gaps when he was designed to as well.

Versus Penn State on Sept. 29, 2012, he was designed to.

As the Nittany Lions functioned out of “11” personnel with a running back and a tight end, Buchanan bared down from the right end position in the 4-down sub-package defense.

As Penn state quarterback Matt McGloin took the snap from shotgun, Buchanan cut inside the B-gap of the line.

With the left tackle yielding his inside shoulder, Buchanan extended his arms, kept his pad level low and maintained leg drive.

The left tackle was left turned around as a result, while Buchanan was left to get in McGloin’s face.

Sensing the heat, McGloin fired the ball downfield to escape the sack. The pass ended in an incompletion — not a sack — but it was a win for the defense, nonetheless.

Buchanan did bench 22 reps of 225 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. But when compared to most 4-3 NFL defensive ends, he looks rather lean. Fortunately for him — and the Patriots — he’s not afraid to knife through the interior.

3-4 Defensive End

Buchanan never has been — and never will be — a natural 3-4 defensive end. Nevertheless, he still did manage to make plays from that spot during his time at Illinois.

Against Western Michigan on Sept. 1, 2012, Buchanan didn’t necessarily bulldoze the Broncos’ offensive line from the three-down defensive end spot. He did, however, come away with an impressive play of a different sort.

Facing a five-wide formation, Buchanan put his arm on the ground as a right end in the seven-technique.

After the ball was snapped, Buchanan bull rushed the B-gap of the line. Despite forging ahead, he maintained focus on quarterback Alex Carder’s eyes.

As Carder readied his throw, Buchanan pushed off his blocks and changed field. He dropped back, remaining square to the line of scrimmage.

Anticipating the release, Buchanan leaped up and used his 34-inch arms to bat down the ball and net an incomplete pass. Thud.

Buchanan showed well in a role not designed for him. He didn’t make the play from the five-technique, but he did read the quarterback. He did use his instincts. He did react rapidly and he did disrupt the throw.

During the third day of training camp practice on July 28, Buchanan told colleague James Christensen about the importance of using his long arms to his advantage.

He certainly did just that in 2012, recording five pass deflections as a senior.

3-4 Outside Linebacker

Most of Buchanan’s snaps came in the “Bandit” role under former Illinois defensive coordinator and interim head coach Vic Koenning. As a “Bandit,” Buchanan was essentially hybrid defensive end and linebacker who set the edge and rushed the passer.

He was proficient in those duties, too, making the most of the trio of down linemen abutting him. Case in point: Sept. 22, 2012 versus Louisiana Tech.

Buchanan stood up outside the Bulldogs’ left tackle. And with four wide receivers on the field, he didn’t hesitate to exploit the offense’s “10” personnel.

Off the snap, Buchanan used his lateral agility to run the arc around the outside shoulder of Louisiana Tech’s blindside blocker. With the other four offensive linemen engaged and the halfback out of the backfield, the C-gap was open.

Buchanan continued his pursuit, surpassing the tackle and finding the open runway towards quarterback Colby Cameron.

As Buchanan got within arm’s distance of Cameron, the quarterback’s primary concern was no longer the route-runners downfield; it was the silent burst of the defender right behind him.

Buchanan’s quick first step, explosion off the line, effective swim move and downhill speed make him a very dangerous “Bandit.” And seeing how the experienced starter is carved in a long, lanky mold, that’s likely where he’s best suited to play in the NFL right now.

That being said, college offensive linemen aren’t NFL offensive linemen. They’re not as athletic, they’re not as big and they’re not as strong. So for Buchanan, it will be about more than beating his man to the corner or redirecting through the guards; it will be about beating his man in the leverage battle and taking better paths to the ball-carrier.

Buchanan is long-armed. He displays good form and second effort. He’s not afraid to get physical, either. Yet due to his thin frame, the common belief is that he will need to add some girth in order to see extensive reps at defensive end.

There’s a lot to like about his versatility. He isn’t a stranger to setting up in three-man fronts, four-man fronts or off the line. That dexterity saw Buchanan practice with both defensive ends and linebackers through the beginning days of Patriots camp.

Nevertheless, he’s striving to find his niche. And as a seventh-round rookie, he’ll play wherever he’s asked to. In the NFL game, Buchanan may not be as much of a volatile presence in finishing plays. But at least he’s familiar with finishing plays.

And he’s familiar in doing so from a variety of positions.

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9 Responses to “From Illinois to the Patriots: The Utilization of Rookie Michael Buchanan”

  1. Ajm says:

    Love these, Oliver! My absolute favorite part of NEPD right now. Keep them coming!

  2. Rick says:

    Thanks for the breakdown. These help us to understand potential value.

  3. carlo strada says:

    I like this guy, this year i believe is gonna be a 3rd down edge rusher. But in a pair of years and adding some bulk on him he could be a starter 4-3 DE without a doubt. I project him as LDE on the opposite of chandler, since buchanan has some experience on covering TE s.

  4. Coach says:

    Good read. Any word on Francis? How’s he looking?

    • OliverThomas says:

      I was only able to attend the first two days of training camp, where the players were wearing shells and shorts. So it was difficult to see how he looked without full contact. I did see him working in the 4-3 with Marcus Forston, Joe Vellano and Jake Bequette.

  5. munchkin says:

    I’m sure you recognize how valuable these breakdowns are. Thanks

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