NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
It requires more than two starting defensive ends for a sustainable front to unsettle quarterbacks.
It requires an assembly.
And after a year in which Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich led all 4-3 defensive ends with 1,142 and 1,114 snaps apiece, according to Pro Football Focus, that was a reality the New England Patriots understood all too well.
New England’s collection of defensive ends remained a seldom-used one for the duration of 2013. There was the 34-year-old Andre Carter, who was re-signed in October and played in 11 games to register 196 snaps. There was 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette, who played in just five games and logged 14 defensive snaps.
Then there was rookie Michael Buchanan.
The 226th overall pick in April’s draft finished the preseason with a 2.5-sack performance versus the New York Giants on Aug. 29. And that significant flash in an insignificant game helped secure him a place on the 53-man roster, where he found himself as New England’s third-ranked end.
For short bursts, he looked the part. The long and lean, 6’6”, 255-pound “Bandit” broke loose to bring down two quarterbacks through the first month of the regular season. Through the first seven weeks, he played 98 snaps and notched an additional three tackles.
Yet as Carter returned in Week 8, Buchanan’s acclimation took a back seat.
Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia opted for the familiar veteran over the seventh-round flier. No longer was the Illinois product featured as a third end in New England’s speed sub-package front. No longer was he the primary substitute for Jones or Ninkovich in the base defense, either.
Buchanan shifted primarily to special teams and played only 25 defensive snaps the rest of the way. In those limited opportunities from Oct. 27 onward, he did not enter the defensive huddle for seven of eight regular-season contests. He was inactive for Week 15, but he did manage to pick up a fumble and collect five tackles before his year came to an end.
And by the time New England’s playoff run came to an end, its three reserve ends had just four sacks between them.
In contrast, Justin Francis, Trevor Scott and Jermaine Cunningham were able to rack up 8.5 sacks in 2012. In result, there is a distinct likelihood that New England’s defensive end depth chart will have a different look to it in 2014.
There is a distinct likelihood that New England will look to May’s draft class for reinforcements.
Carter, who is two years removed from a 10-sack campaign that ended in a torn quadriceps, is an unrestricted free agent. The 25-year-old Bequette, who hasn’t recorded a sack or tackle in his two seasons with the team, may soon not be part of the team. And the 23-year-old Buchanan, who has three years left on his contract, isn’t far from those lines.
He is standing on promising yet unsteady ground.
Because, in many ways, upside is promising yet unsteady.
In glimpses last season, Buchanan revealed his enamoring 4.44-second short-shuttle time as he burst off the snap. He revealed his 6.91-second three-cone speed as he bent the edge. He revealed his 4.78-second 40-time as he closed on the ball. And he revealed his length as his 34-inch arms wrapped around the quarterback.
He revealed all the athletic and physical characteristics the Patriots saw in him as a high-value, late-round selection. Yet as a player who looks the part of an “Elephant” but also runs like a deer, finding a medium between the two proved confounding.
It proved to be a wage between surge and inconsistency.
When on the field for third-down situations alongside Jones – who would kick in to the five-technique or defensive tackle in nickel personnel – Buchanan aligned in seven- or nine-technique with the option to stand up or lodge his hands on the ground.
He was responsive off the ball, running the arc with the flexibility and agility. And those unteachable tools went a long way towards testing the nimbleness of kick-sliding offensive tackles.
Buchanan challenged with speed, but from his small sample size during the regular season, he also showed an appetite for stepping into contact and knocking down the punch of blockers.
He wasn’t always able to disengage once his assignment had the inside arm. Nevertheless, he knew how to swipe his feet into the turn and accelerate through it.
On several conditions, he used last-second contact as a chance to jar laterally from the tight end or bookend, often bouncing 180 degrees around and behind the pocket.
He branded his mark at that juncture, jumping back into the pocket and colliding with the quarterback’s back shoulder.
There was downfield hesitation involved on both of Buchanan’s top plays from 2013, but that was the manner in which he attained both of his regular-season sacks.
Both cases exemplified Buchanan’s aggressiveness and relentlessness in pursuit.
Those adjectives can be a double-edged sword for defensive linemen.
When given the workload, Buchanan exemplified the willingness to make plays at all costs, whether it meant veering around the C-gap or knifing back through the B-gap to shed engagement. Yet, in a sense, that high-effort approach also left him susceptible to sacrificing the purpose of it.
Gap integrity was an issue for Buchanan during his inaugural year with the Patriots. It is an aspect of his game that made him a liability at times and likely contributed to Carter’s reemergence.
The lanky edge-defender showcased a tendency to overrun the quarterbacks or get powered away from them.
In consequence, he would finish plays with less control than he started them. And when signal-callers showcased the composure to identify an escape route, they were able to flush themselves up into the pocket or outside into the flat to some success.
This afforded blockers time to reposition against the grain from reactionary chasers like Buchanan. Their cause typically expanded the ball-carrier’s real estate to check down to the underneath, if not make plays with their feet.
Those flaws explained, at least in part, why Buchanan was limited to a mere 12 snaps versus the run all season.
One reason was his playing style, which can send him on an outside angle to an inside run, struggling to recover from an early misread. Another reason was his role, which was, at its peak, a situational pass-rusher.
A defining reason was natural leverage.
Buchanan’s narrow base and tall frame isn’t necessarily ideal for facing phone-booth offensive linemen who excel in close quarters. He can be the victim of cut blocks which send him to the turf. He can be exposed by powerful anchors which lift him upright out of his stance.
These forces can take him out of the play. More than likely, that was a scenario the Patriots coaching staff strove to avoid when possible, other than the 3rd-and-long draw.
Yet while these areas signal concern, they also signal room for growth.
As his collegiate film and September flares indicate, Buchanan has the potential to be more than a special-teamer in the NFL. He has demonstrated an ability to get into the backfield when on the field as a designated pass-rusher.
Doing so efficiently will keep him there.
He may not be there at this time. He may walk the line between promise and unsteadiness. Yet as the Patriots head into the draft with plans out of his control, No. 99 will have to harness what is.
After all, if there was ever an equalizer in a league driven by quarterbacks, it rests in the face of them.