Prototypical Patriots: Powerful defensive tackles from the SEC abound

Prototypical Patriots: Powerful defensive tackles from the SEC abound

For over a year now, Jerod Mayo has taken to our Quick Slants set and told anyone who will listen that the Patriots don't really play a 3-4 or a 4-3 anymore.

PHIL PERRY'S PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS DRAFT PREVIEW

The best way to describe what they do with their front-seven is as a "2-5," Mayo says, meaning the team has five athletic pieces -- interchangeable pieces, at times -- surrounding a pair of beefy space-eaters. 

Last season it was Alan Branch and Malcom Brown who saw the majority of the time in the middle, with rookie Vincent Valentine working his way into the rotation at times. In 2015, Akiem Hicks was in the tackle equation as was Sealver Siliga. In 2014, Vince Wilfork was critical mass on the interior.

What do they all have in common? All are at least 320 pounds, and Brown and Valentine -- New England's two most recent draft picks at the position -- are listed at that exact number. All have the capability to anchor down, two-gap, and funnel plays to their teammates behind them. 

The Patriots have dipped into the pool of lighter penetrating tackles in the past, with 2014 first-rounder Dominique Easley being the most obvious example. But Easley, for a variety of reasons, is now playing elsewhere. Same goes for last year's training-camp darling Anthony Johnson. 

With defensive ends on last year's roster who could rush from the interior like Trey Flowers and Jabaal Sheard, the need for the smaller, penetrating tackles seemed superfluous. Flowers was a revelation inside, turning himself into one of the most productive interior rushers in the league during the second half of last season. 

Who knows? Maybe because some of the depth at defensive end has thinned this offseason the Patriots will be back in the market for a pass-rushing tackle to help lighten the load. Or maybe free-agent addition Lawrence Guy (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) is that guy.

In general, though, when looking for interior defensive linemen who can make an impact on first and second down the motto for the Patriots seems to be "the bigger, the better."

There are plenty of big bodies in this year's draft class to choose from, and below are a handful who seem like the fits for what Bill Belichick wants in New England.

This is the fifth installment of a 12-part pre-draft series where we're looking into Prototypical Patriots at a variety of positions. To catch up on our first few cracks at this, head here for boundary cornershere for slot cornershere for linebackers, and here for safeties.

Dalvin Tomlinson, Alabama, 6-foot-3, 310 pounds: One of several Nick Saban pupils who will make their way to the NFL at the end of the month, Tomlinson is one of the best run defenders in the class and showed an improved ability to get to the quarterback last season. His long arms (33.5 inches) help him hold his ground on the interior and play bigger than his size. He doesn't reach the 320-pound threshold mentioned above, but his playing strength should allow him to hold up against double-teams at the next level. If the Patriots don't make their first pick until the third round at No. 72 overall, Tomlinson may still be there for them. 

Jaleel Johnson, Iowa, 6-foot-3, 316 pounds: Explosive off the line of scrimmage and in possession of a motor that never stops running, Johnson embarrassed interior offensive linemen for coach on his way to quarterbacks. He had eight sacks and 27 quarterback hurries last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Though he looks too eager to get up the field at times, he may be able to be coached into a more versatile three-down player who can two-gap on first and second downs and then tear up the field in passing situations. Brown learned to temper his instincts to get into opposing backfields on a snap-to-snap basis during his rookie season, and maybe Johnson, who played under Belichick's friend Kirk Ferentz, could do the same.

DJ Jones, Ole Miss, 6-foot-1, 319 pounds: Speaking of Brown -- the No. 32 overall pick in 2015 -- here's a player whose physical profile matches extremely closely to his. Brown entered the draft at 6-foot-2, 319 pounds with arms the same length as Jones' (32.5 inches) and hands a quarter-inch smaller than Jones' (10.25 inches). Their testing numbers are scary similar. Here's what Jones did at the combine (with Brown's combine numbers in parentheses): 5.04-second 40 (5.05), 25 bench reps (26), 28.5-inch vertical (29.5), 108-inch broad jump (98), 7.73-second three-cone (7.84), 4.65 20-yard shuttle (4.59). Jones' 40-yard dash, vertical and broad jump were better than those Vince Wilfork (6-foot-1, 323 pounds, 32.5-inch arms) posted at the combine in 2004, while Wilfork had a better three-cone, 20-yard shuttle and bench. Jones is projected to be a later-round selection because he wasn't as productive as perhaps he should have been (two sacks, three tackles for loss last season), but his combination of size and athleticism could make him an intriguing fit for the Patriots interior on Day 2 or 3. 

Josh Augusta, Missouri, 6-foot-4, 347 pounds: While speaking about Branch last season, Belichick famously said, "Guys that weigh 350 pounds and are athletic and long like he is, I mean they don’t grow on trees. They’re hard to find." Augusta wasn't even considered a starter during his last season at Missouri, but his unique size and quick feet (he was used as a fullback at times by the Tigers) might make him worthy of a selection late on draft weekend. He weighed closer to 400 pounds last fall, but according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he was diagnosed with a thyroid issue in January but has shed weight since, which helped him post a 5.12-second 40 time (which some had clocked as a sub-5.0 time), a 28.5-inch vertical, a 108-inch broad jump and a 7.9-second three-cone at his pro day. Though he only played about 50 percent of his team's snaps the last two seasons, guys like him don't grow on trees. Branch, 32, signed a two-year extension this offseason.

Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, USC, 6-foot-1, 331 pounds: As strong and difficult to move as any defensive tackle in this draft class, whichever team takes him will have to be OK with the fact that they'll get very little from him as a pass-rusher. But as a two-gapping tackle on first and second-down? Someone with good balance who can easily shed single-blocks and make plays on running backs looking for daylight? You could do much worse than Tu'ikolovatu late. 

Josh Tupou, Colorado, 6-foot-3, 353 pounds: Another lane-clogger on the interior, Tupou had solid production last season (45 tackles, four tackles for loss) and he's shown he has the size and strength to be able to anchor against linemen at the next level. Athletically he's limited, but for a sixth or seventh-round selection, picking up a first and second-down specialist with his size might have some appeal. After being charged with assault following a fight at a house party, Tupou sat out the 2015 season.

Jarron Jones, Notre Dame, 6-foot-6, 316 pounds: Jones has great length (35.5-inch arms) and could play a variety of positions along the defensive line, but according to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, "scouts consider him unmotivated and question his football character." If you don't enjoy football and aren't prepared for the grind in New England, you won't last long -- and you might not even be on the Patriots' board. If he's misunderstood, that's something Irish coach Brian Kelly could explain to Belichick. Washington's Elijah Qualls (6-foot-1, 313) is another defensive tackle prospect with enticing physical ability who is thought be a boom-or-bust player, per Zierlein.

Branch on reduced role vs. Saints: "Ask Bill"

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Branch on reduced role vs. Saints: "Ask Bill"

FOXBORO - If Alan Branch is worried about his spot with the Patriots, he isn’t acting that way. A notorious slow starter, Branch played just six snaps in Sunday’s win at New Orleans. And to hear him talk, it’s business as usual.

“It’s not like you can practice 3 technique on a store clerk,” said Branch late Wednesday afternoon. When informed that he probably could if he wanted, Branch smiled and noted “you’d probably get arrested for that.”

All kidding aside, it was stark to see Branch’s ample behind stapled to the bench. He earned a two-year contract this offseason, and his presence on the interior has been critical to the defense’s success. But after getting pushed around a bit too often in that opening night loss to the Chiefs, Branch spent a lot more time watching then playing. Did he know that he wasn’t a big part of the plan?

“That’s another question you gotta ask Bill, man” said Branch. “That’s not something I can talk about.”

Branch has - at times - come off as nonchalant about the game. Wins, losses, big plays, no plays, none of it seems to change his demeanor. Knowing that, I asked him if he was frustrated by his lack of playing time.

“I mean every player wants to be on the field so it is what it is,” he responded. 

Does he think that he’ll be more involved Sunday against the Texans?

“I don’t know what they plan to do with me,” he said. “i just need to go in there and keep my head to the grindstone and work.”

That may be Bill Belichick’s plan: sitting the player to motivate him. It would also seem to be potentially the last resort, and with someone who clearly marches to the beat of his own drum, it’s unclear how he’ll respond.

Patriots-Texans practice report: Gronk sits out; Gilmore limited

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Patriots-Texans practice report: Gronk sits out; Gilmore limited

Wednesday's practice participation/injury report for Sunday's Patriots-Texans game:

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
RB Rex Burkhead (ribs)
OT Marcus Cannon (ankle/concussion)
TE Rob Gronkowski (groin)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
WR Danny Amendola (concussion/knee)
WR Phillip Dorsett (knee)
CB Stephon Gilmore (groin)
LB Dont'a Hightower (knee)
WR Chris Hogan (knee)
LB Elandon Roberts (thumb)
CB Eric Rowe (groin)
WR Matthew Slater (hamstring)
DT Vincent Valentine (knee)

HOUSTON TEXANS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
G Jeff Allen (ankle)
CB Kevin Johnson (knee)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
TE Stephen Anderson (concussion)
RB Alfred Blue (ankle)
WR Will Fuller V (shoulder)
CB Jonathan Joseph (shoulder)
G Xavier Su'a-Filo (knee)
DE J.J. Watt (finger)

FULL PARTICIPATION
CB Marcus Burley (knee)
T Chris Clark (wrist)
WR Bruce Ellington (concussion)
TE Ryan Griffin (concussion)