NFL football is finally upon us. Last week, the New England Patriots opened the preseason against Detroit. During their first preseason game, the Patriots defense recorded an impressive nine sacks. Obviously, we should never put too much emphasis on a preseason stat line. Especially one that involves beating up on the Lions’ offensive line. Still, after running our series previewing New England position by position, we outlined how their pass rush was a huge question mark entering 2019.
Their play in Detroit provided glimmers of hope. While many players contributed to the 9 sacks, three individuals deserve some further analysis; Chase Winovich, Jamie Collins, and Derek Rivers. These three guys gave the team the best chance at having every down, or close to every down, players that could provide a consistent pass rush. To run through the numbers quickly, Rivers collected two sacks, Winovich one and a half, and Collins notched one.
Let’s begin with the shiny new toy. We previously articulated how Winovich is the potential steal of the entire draft. Taken 77th overall in the third round, Winovich was the 29th ranked player on ProFootballFocus’s 2019 big board. From our prior article:
He comes to the Patriots off back-to-back seasons with grades over 90.0- the only such qualifying Power-5 player in the draft class to do so. Winovich is a highly athletic edge that posted a 1.57 10-yard split, 4.59 40-yard dash, and 6.94 3-cone shuttle at the combine while measuring 6’2″ and 256 pounds. His last two seasons saw him rack up 15 sacks, 28 quarterback hits, and 66 total pressures on just 687 pass rushing snaps. And he is not just a pass rusher, as Winovich ranked second in the draft class among his position in run-stop percentage last season.
Winovich’s athleticism gives credence to the idea that he can take snaps at linebacker. This potential positional versatility surely caught the eye of Belichick. This is also yet another example of Belichick tapping into a college program where he believes there is elite coaching.
About that athleticism. World, meet Mr. Winovich:
— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) August 9, 2019
Is there anything more you would want to see out of an edge prospect on one play? The get-off, speed-to-power, and flexibility to dip under the tackle while remaining on balance are all on display in that single, gorgeous sack. According to PFF, Winovich posted an 81.4 pass-rush grade in this game. He recorded four total pressures, including two sacks (by their count) and two hurries, on just 12 pass-rush snaps.
Mike Reiss had an interesting take regarding Collins’ strong preseason debut for New England:
Collins could be Chung 2.0 — an example of a player who fell out of favor in his first stint with the team but returns with a fresh slate and becomes a key cog.
Athleticism was never an issue with Collins; it was discipline. After he blew a gap assignment against the Bills in 2016 leading to a huge gain, Bill Belichick had had enough and shipped Collins to Cleveland.
Now Collins is back, and he will be an important part of the Patriots’ linebackers this season. Again from Reiss;
“Belichick said Collins had a ‘great spring’ after signing May 16, and that he believes ‘he’ll help our team.’
The most important way in which Collins can help the Patriots is by providing a pass rush. Against the Lions, Collins set up Tyrell Crosby with a stutter step, then exploded coast/dipped underneath him to record a sack. This echoes some big plays Collins had for New England during his first stint with the team and is an area where his contributions can make a huge impact in 2019.
Rivers is essentially a free lottery ticket. The 2017 third-round pick has spent his first two seasons marred by injuries. As a result, he has barely seen the field so far in his career.
Rivers was highly productive in college, leaving Youngstown State as the career sack leader with 41. He showed well at the Senior Bowl and tested well at the combine. In Indianapolis, Rivers ran a 4.61 40 yard dash, posted a 35″ vertical, a 10’3″ broad jump, 30 bench reps, and a 6.94 3-cone time, at 248 pounds.
If Rivers can’t carve out a niche or role for himself in 2019, there is a good chance New England moves on after this season. The cap savings won’t be much, but Belichick could end up viewing him as someone merely clogging up a roster spot.
This is why Rivers is a free lotto ticket. The team has already faired well without Rivers contributing. In each season with Rivers on the roster, the Patriots have won the AFC and emerged with one Lombardi trophy. Should Rivers finally return some of the promise he exhibited in college, it’s a free bonus for New England.
The result of integrating these three into the rotation is anyone’s best guess. In reality, we’re talking about a third-round rookie, a former castoff, and someone that has logged 97 snaps in two seasons. However, each provides their own reason to be cautiously optimistic of an improved pass rush in 2019. Such improvement is desperately needed by New England. Winovich isn’t a typical third-rounder, Collins has provided a pass rush for the team, and Rivers is a wildcard.
It’s a preseason game against a team with a poor offensive line, but at least for one night, this pass rush picked up exactly where they left off when winning the Super Bowl.
Jonathan Rosenberg is a writer for PFN covering the AFC East. You can find him @frosted_takes on Twitter.