New England Patriots: Scout's notebook

Scout's notebook glossary

July, 18, 2012
After recently finalizing the 21-part Scout’s Notebook series, a reader suggested further explaining some of the terms used. Here are 10 of them, with further explanation:

ANCHOR: A term that was used in relation to both offensive linemen and linebackers, the anchor is a player’s ability to take on an opponent and not give ground. For example, when a left tackle is in pass protection, he anchors by planting his feet in the ground and not being pushed back further by a rusher.

BALL SKILLS: A player’s ability to make a play on the ball and the skills involved with either catching or defending it. As a receiver, ball skills refer to hands, adjustments on the ball, and leveraging defenders at the point of the catch. As a defender, ball skills refer to the ability to intercept passes, tip passes, dislodge the football from a ball carrier, and make plays on the ball when it is in the air.

FUNCTIONAL ATHLETICISM: We use physical tests like the 40-yard dash and 3-cone drill to measure a player’s raw athleticism, but it doesn’t always translate onto the field. How often does a guard actually run 40 yards in a straight line during an NFL play? Functional athleticism refers to how well a player makes use of his athleticism in relevant domains to his position. Although Tom Brady is a below average raw athlete by NFL standards, he has the footwork and poise to show strong pocket presence, suggesting he has enough functional athleticism to be elusive within the pocket.

GUNNER/VICE: A gunner serves as the outside player on the punt team (often a defensive back or wide receiver) who is able to release down the field immediately upon the snap. He is a primary coverage player for the punting team. The vice is the player (or often two players) charged with deterring a gunner from getting down the field. Vices are most often defensive backs.

POINT OF ATTACK: The point of attack is simply where an offensive and defensive player meet. For linemen, it’s where a block occurs. When a linebacker is tracking a running back, it’s where the two collide. All football players must be strong at the point of attack.

QUICKNESS VS. AGILITY: These are two of the primary facets to measuring athleticism, and although they are extremely similar, there is one primary differentiator: quickness refers to vertical movements (going forwards/backwards), while agility relates to lateral movements.

REACTIVE ATHLETICISM: The ability of a player to mirror the movements of an opponent. Defensive backs have to have strong reactive athleticism to keep up with receivers.

SET THE EDGE: This term has differing meanings on either side of the ball. On offense, setting the edge refers to the blocker to the play side who is responsible for sealing off a defender so that the running back can run around him and have a free lane to the perimeter. On defense, it refers to the defender who has the task of locking out his blocker and turning the play inside, thus reducing the field for the defense.

STACK AND SHED: As was discussed in the context of inside linebackers, one of their primary jobs is to take on blocks squarely (stack) and accordingly fight off the block to make a tackle (shed). Jerod Mayo is amongst the best in the NFL at stacking and shedding.

TWO-GAP: Defensive players have responsibilities for a gap (the area between two offensive linemen) that is specific to their defense. To two-gap is to play squared-up on a blocker and defend the gap on either side of his shoulder. A 3-4 defensive end often engages an offensive tackle, allowing him to defend the gaps to both his inside and outside. It is more typical for 3-4 defensive linemen to two-gap than 4-3 defensive linemen.

Scout's notebook: Specialists

July, 16, 2012
Stephen Gostkowski,Danny Aiken & Zoltan MeskoAP Photo/Mark HumphreyIn Danny Aiken, Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko, the Patriots have a young trio of specialists that has been successful in the early portions of their careers.
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, concludes a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

POSITION: Specialists (punters/kickers/snappers)

OVERVIEW: There are certain roles in sports that garner more attention for their failures than their successes; for punters, kickers, and long snappers, this often proves to be the case. A missed game-winning field goal often forces a kicker into a tailspin of fan backlash, and a botched punt or snap can lead to similar misery as well. But we should not shy away from the important positive contributions of these three players, as each has an integral role throughout the course of a game. Patriots fans learned from Adam Vinatieri how lethal a clutch kicker can be, and perhaps no team today relies on the booming power of their punter/kicker combo than the Raiders, who often turn to Shane Lechler and Sebastian Janikowski to swing momentum. Reliability from this trio is an edge for any NFL team.

DESIRED TRAITS: As it relates to kickers, it starts with reliability. Reliability stems from accuracy on his kicks, both kickoffs and field goals. One must evaluate his consistency in field goal range, and power. Because of the cut and dry aspect to field goals (made or missed), we can use statistics to understand a kicker’s baseline abilities. Other traits identified are his arsenal on kickoffs (squib kick, mortar kick, onsides kick, directional kick, and straight-line power). Power is derived from proper footwork and leg velocity.

For punters, reliability is again the key. A 70-yard arcing spiral punt followed by a 25-yard shank is not as useful as a pair of 45-yard punts in succession. A punter must be quick and efficient in his operation, be able to punt directionally and with good distance and hang-time. Although distance is integral, it’s important for a punter to put enough air into his kicks to give his team time to run up and cover. A punter who can handle kickoff and/or holding duties is an added benefit.

Long snappers have perhaps the least glamorous job in football, and one that leads to notoriety only upon a failure to execute. They must be accurate and consistent – former Patriot Lonie Paxton was one of the most accurate and consistent snappers of this era of football – both on short (field goal) and long (punt snaps). A snapper must have very good velocity and spiral on his snaps as well.

Snappers will also be called upon to block and cover on the punt team, so tackling ability along with athletic ability and strength must be gauged. A long snapper who can play in space is a major boon to a punt coverage team.

PATRIOTS TAKE: In Stephen Gostkowski, Zoltan Mesko and Danny Aiken, the Patriots have a young trio that has been successful in the early portions of their career.

Gostkowski has big power and has panned out for the Patriots after taking over for Vinatieri, but hasn’t flexed the same big-game clutchness that Vinatieri owned. Mesko has a very good combination of distance, hang time, directional ability and consistency, while Aiken impressed as an undrafted rookie in 2011. This group is solid if not unspectacular on the whole.

Scout's notebook: Core special teamers

July, 15, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

After sorting through the offensive and defensive side of the ball, we turn our attention to special teams, with a look at both core special teamers today and the specialists (punters/kickers/long snappers) Monday.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Slater
Stew Milne/US PresswireMatthew Slater is a Patriots captain by virtue of his special teams excellence.
POSITION: Core Special Teams Player

OVERVIEW: Special teams, by the number of plays, makes up about 20 percent of any NFL game. One could argue, however, that the third phase of football is equally important as offense or defense, as a poor performance in the kicking game can doom an otherwise solid effort on a given Sunday.

When we speak about special teams, we refer to the punt, punt return, kickoff, and kickoff return teams as the four core units. These units require not just a successful kicker, punter or returner to operate, but also a fast, tough, reliable group of coverage players or blockers as well.

In identifying core special teams players, a handful of traits immediately comes to mind: speed, toughness, tackling ability, instincts, and elusiveness.

A core special teams player must be fast enough to get down the field when covering a kick, and up the field when charged with a task of blocking. He must be tough enough to fly down the field, knowing full well he will engage at full speed with another player, and must still be able to make a tackle when doing so. He must have the instincts to follow the flow of a kick while executing his assignment, and elusive enough (as a coverage player) to avoid would-be blockers when necessary.

Positions that tend to lend themselves to core special teams players include linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks (the tough ones), as well as running backs, fullbacks, tight ends, and wide receivers (again, the tough ones). The Patriots have boasted such premier core special teamers as Larry Izzo in the past, whose blend of the aforementioned traits made him an invaluable commodity to the team, despite his modest defensive contributions.

Players who do not serve in a starting role in the positions listed above often make their most substantial contributions on special teams. In fact, special teams contributions are a primary consideration of a head coach when deciding which of his 53 players to deactivate for games. Reserve-level players with minimal special teams contributions have a hard time making it onto the game day roster.

PATRIOTS TAKE: Measuring core special teams play by simply weaving in statistics about yards allowed/yards gained on punt and kickoff returns can be a bit misleading, because multiple factors go into such a play. That being said, the Patriots were solid in the kicking game in 2011, and should be improved heading into 2012 because of their increased speed across the roster.

The Patriots don’t project to rely heavily on their veteran wide receivers for special teams contributions, but should have a balanced mix of the other positions highlighted above as their front-line core special teamers.

In Matthew Slater, the Patriots have a fearless, speedy, reliable special teamer who is one of the best in all of football; he was a captain in 2011. Beyond Slater, other important core special teamers include Dane Fletcher, Devin McCourty, Julian Edelman and potentially Spencer Larsen, who has previously excelled in that phase.

As it stands, the team has the makings of another year of solid special teams play.

Scout's notebook: Safeties

July, 14, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

[+] EnlargePatrick Chung, Devin McCourty
AP Photo/David J. PhillipThe Pats are hoping Patrick Chung, left, can regain his top form.

OVERVIEW: As the last line of the defense, a safety – free or strong – plays an integral role in the execution of a given play call. To simplify the safety position, the goal is to keep everything in front of them while not sagging into such a deep drop that offenses can pick them apart underneath. The safety is a hybrid player who's capable enough to move in space and defend the pass while tough enough to step up and fill gaps against the run. In New England, the safety play in 2011 was affected by injuries to key starter Patrick Chung, and the team has worked hard this offseason to add a number of bodies who project to make an impact at safety. Patriots fans are used to steady rearguards on the defensive side of the football, with the likes of Lawyer Milloy and Rodney Harrison manning the deep half of the field for the team in the past. The team is working now to find consistency at the position heading into 2012.

DESIRED TRAITS: A safety is the ultimate two-phase player; he must be an impact player against both the run and the pass. That means, from a physical standpoint, he must have the core and base to hold up through a high volume of tackles, but also the athleticism to cover in the passing game.

A safety must be reactively athletic and able to work laterally and open his hips. He must have the body control to get depth in his backpedal without losing his vision of the quarterback, the fluidity to turn and run, and the speed to keep up with the receivers and make sure no one trails behind him. As a pass defender, his ball skills and man-to-man coverage skills must be good enough to hold up against athletic tight ends and bigger wide receivers. In Chung, the Patriots have an adept coverage man who has enough versatility to both defend seam-stretching tight ends and some slot receivers.

When it comes to defending the run, a safety must show tremendous toughness, grit and tackling ability. A safety will often find himself near the line of scrimmage, meaning he must be reliable to take down runners before they break to the second level. Safeties also make a number of tackles in the open field on the second or third level, further increasing the need for sound tackling form. A safety who is not willing or not able to take on the biggest and fastest running backs is a liability.

Safeties are quarterbacks in the secondary and must be strong leaders and communicators. This involves making his secondary aware of the down and distance on each and every play, having enough savvy to recognize when to adjust to an offensive formation pre-snap, and the smarts to understand the defensive concepts called by his coordinator. When in doubt, his teammates must be able to turn to the safety for answers.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: A safety is expected to be a core contributor in special teams, with the blend of speed, size and tackling ability to cover and hold up on kicks and punts. The Patriots received strong contributions from their safeties on special teams in 2011 (particularly Sergio Brown) and will need the same this season.

PATRIOTS TAKE: The most important key to the Patriots’ safety play in 2012 is the return to full health of Patrick Chung. Chung is their most gifted and, within their system, most experienced safety. His ability to stay on the field is paramount to the secondary’s success. If he can be penciled in as one starter, it remains to be seen who his partner will be. The leading candidate is veteran Steve Gregory, who signed a three-year pact this offseason to join the Patriots. Other potential starting candidates include second-round pick Tavon Wilson. James Ihedigbo, a recent re-signing, played extensively in 2011, but is probably best suited in a situational role. Fellow veteran Will Allen, who has played primarily as a corner in his career, worked at safety this offseason. Reserve options include Josh Barrett, Brown and sixth-round choice Nate Ebner, who will be a fascinating player to watch in training camp; his role at Ohio State was almost exclusively on special teams.

Scout's notebook: Slot cornerback

July, 13, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

[+] EnlargeCharles Woodson
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Packers' Charles Woodson is the prototypical "star" cornerback.
POSITION: Slot/Nickel Cornerback

OVERVIEW: By title, the slot/nickel cornerback, known as the “star” corner, is not a starter. In terms of his overall impact in today’s NFL and his value to a roster, he ought to be considered a starter – that’s how important he is to a defense. With passing offenses clicking at an all-time rate in today’s NFL, the need for not just two, but at least three capable cornerbacks is ever growing. Additionally, a star cornerback who can match up with the increasing number of effective slot receivers is invaluable. There are no indications that the NFL is heading toward a regression as it relates to passing offenses, meaning that the need for quality cornerbacks in a great quantity is likely to continue to increase.

DESIRED TRAITS: A star is going to work from the slot, which automatically decreases the amount of space that he will be responsible to cover. He has natural boundaries in the middle of the field and the perimeter receivers, and the slot is generally congested. While this lessens the premium on top-end speed among stars, it heightens the need for a very good reactive athlete with quick-twitch movements and the ability to trigger out of his backpedal. He’s going to work in tight spaces and face a number of cuts, zigs, zags and plants from his receiver; the star must be able to match these movements and not lose the trail of the offensive player.

Although schemes will vary from team to team and throughout the course of a game, a star cornerback must be able to handle press-man responsibilities. This involves being able to square up a receiver, keep his feet underneath him, and deliver a strike to impede a receiver’s ability to get into his stem. Stars can ill-afford to overextend themselves or “open the gate” for a receiver to blow by. Forceful but controlled jams do the trick.

A star must also be a willing tackler. He won't necessarily be an every-down run defender, but teams can still effectively run the football from their spread offensive formations, meaning a star must be ready to support and set the edge when needed.

Beyond run-stopping and pass-coverage tasks, a star is a player who can be used as an effective disguised blitzer. In Green Bay, savvy veteran Charles Woodson is a master of subtle disguise and execution of blitzes off the edge. A player who can creep toward the line of scrimmage while not showing his cards can catch an opposing offense off-guard.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Stars can play a variety of roles in the kicking game, both as returners of kicks and punts and members of the core special teams. Because of their speed and quickness, the tougher stars are often used as gunners and vices on the punt and punt-return teams.

PATRIOTS TAKE: As was mentioned during Thursday's installment of the Scout’s Notebook, the Patriots have work to do and much to prove in the secondary in 2012. As it relates to the star spot, the team seems to have a number of options to look at. The likely candidate to hold down this role given his skill set and track record is Kyle Arrington, a bright spot last season. Arrington has the requisite reactive athleticism and change of direction skills to challenge slot receivers, and is a reliable tackler. That will not preclude him from being a starter in base defense, as he will likely be that as well; rather, he would shift to the inside in sub situations. Beyond Arrington, the team could turn to veteran Will Allen, rookie Alfonzo Dennard or potentially second-year man Sterling Moore. The team will have to do some trimming in the secondary before the final roster cut down, and at that time we’ll have a stronger sense of how the defense will align.

Scout's notebook: Cornerbacks

July, 12, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

[+] EnlargeDevin McCourty
Winslow Townson/Getty ImagesThe Patriots are hoping Devin McCourty bounces back and finds more consistency this season.
POSITION: Cornerback

OVERVIEW: The NFL has become a passing league. Quarterbacks are throwing for more than 5,000 yards in a given season and shattering records along the way. That means the need for dependable cornerbacks has amped up, as these players are integral to a defense’s efforts to slow the high-octane passing offenses seen around the NFL, including the Patriots. Not only has the need for a quality cornerback increased, so too has the need for a greater quantity of cornerbacks on a roster, as teams routinely turn to what is known as their sub defense (which stems from the insertion of an additional defensive back in lieu of a linebacker or defensive lineman). Despite reaching the Super Bowl in 2011, the Patriots endured major difficulties at the cornerback position (and secondary as a whole), relinquishing the second-most yards in a single season in NFL history. The yardage total isn’t all on the secondary, but it’s clear that the team could stand to see a number of players step up in 2012.

DESIRED TRAITS: Examining first the physical build and mold of a cornerback, it’s important to find a player who has sufficient size to match up against the massive receivers starring in today’s NFL. A cornerback who is size-deficient (less than 5-10) must make up for it with the ball skills needed to be disruptive at the point of catch.

A cornerback does not need to be the fastest player on the field, but good speed in no way hurts his value. Moreover, he needs to be a very good reactive athlete, which means he is able to mirror the movements of the receiver he is covering. He must have good ability to backpedal, side-shuffle, turn his hips to run, and not make false steps in his transition. He will need to be able to stay with a receiver at the top of his routes; this requires quick and efficient footwork.

Although most cornerbacks will be noted for their pass defense merits, they must also be willing and able tacklers and run supporters. This comes from toughness and strong form, and their physicality will also show up as they work to jam receivers near the line of scrimmage. A cornerback who can reroute and use his leverage to gain an advantage over a receiver from the snap can tilt the play in his favor.

Like a pitcher in baseball, a cornerback must have a short memory. This, combined with grit and confidence, is perhaps the most important trait toward a player’s success. He can have any physical skills a coach desires, but an inability to shake off one bad play will only lead to further struggles. A cornerback will find himself in man coverage against an offense’s best player at times; backing down from such a challenge is not an option. It can be difficult to gauge from the exterior, but it appeared as though Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty struggled with confidence after a slow start in 2011.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Cornerbacks can play a variety of roles in the kicking game, both as returners of kicks and punts and members of the core special teams. Because of their speed and quickness, the tougher cornerbacks are often used as gunners and vices on the punt and punt return teams.

PATRIOTS TAKE: Make no mistake about it, the Patriots struggled versus the pass in 2011. That can be traced to a number of factors, but the team looks to turn the tide in 2012. Along the starting front, three players – Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling – figure to play major roles. McCourty must prove he is more the player of 2010 than 2011, while Arrington will look to build off his seven interceptions from 2011 – tied for most in the NFL. Dowling, meanwhile, must prove he can stay healthy, as he missed nearly all of 2011. Reason for optimism about Dowling stems from his impressive performance versus Brandon Marshall in the 2011 season opener, particularly his ability to play physical football in the red zone. Behind those three, the Patriots have added a pair of veterans in Marquice Cole and Will Allen who could be used in a slot/reserve role (Allen may also platoon at safety). The team also has a pair of intriguing young players in second-year man and AFC Championship Game hero Sterling Moore and rookie draft choice Alfonzo Dennard. Moore may also play a dual role with safety responsibilities, while Dennard flashed impressive ball skills in offseason workouts. This group has more talent in it than the results of 2011 would suggest, and needs to avoid a repeat performance in 2012.

Scout's notebook: 4-3 ILBs

July, 11, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

[+] EnlargeBrandon Spikes
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesPatriots LB Brandon Spikes figures to be in the middle of things one way or another in 2012.
POSITION: Inside Linebacker (4-3)

OVERVIEW: Regardless of whether a team opts to run a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, a consistent plug must be present in the middle of the huddle: a quarterbacking middle linebacker. In a 4-3, which the Patriots project to run in 2012, there are a number of candidates to hold down the fort in the middle, including captain Jerod Mayo. The 4-3 middle linebacker has become synonymous with a leadership role on defense, as he typically serves as the line of communication from sideline to huddle. He will also be involved in almost every play, and is responsible to handle a bevy of tasks as both a run and pass defender. In short, a 4-3 middle linebacker is a central cog in this defense, and must be a reliable pillar.

DESIRED TRAITS: Imperative traits for a 4-3 inside linebacker start with football intelligence, communication skills and tackling ability. A middle linebacker must be entirely in tune with the defensive calls, understand the scheme around him, and be able to dissect the offense’s plan as it evolves.

He also must be able to communicate, and not just the defensive call in the huddle. He must be active during the pre-snap shuffling that often takes place in the NFL, and be able to identify what the offense is showing him and what it might mean as it relates to a play call. A middle linebacker will help to identify the side of strength in the offensive formation, and will be in part responsible to communicate defensive checks (this is a collective effort as well).

A middle linebacker will find himself largely involved with the bulk of the plays that he is in for; that means an ability to tackle is paramount. We’ve stressed the importance of tackling throughout our linebacker portion of the scouting series, and it most certainly applies to middle linebackers. They must wrap-up, drive, and power through every tackle opportunity they receive.

From an athleticism standpoint, a middle linebacker must be functional. That is to say that regardless of what his time and metrics in various athletic tests suggest, he must prove on the field that he can roam sideline-to-sideline, drop into coverage (a middle linebacker is a pivotal middle-of-the-field player in Cover-2), and sniff plays out and bring runners down in the backfield. Laterally, he must be able to move without losing vision of the play in front of him and keep his head up while sorting through traffic; that requires terrific body control.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Linebackers are a staple on special teams, with the toughness, speed, strength, tackling ability and instincts to participate on all four core special teams units.

PATRIOTS TAKE: As was discussed in the 3-4 inside linebacker entry, the Patriots have three solid linebacker candidates who could project to play a starting role on the inside. Besides Mayo, both Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower exhibit many of the necessary skills needed to man the middle of a defense. For now, it remains unclear how the team will align within its base defense, but the three aforementioned players give New England both depth and front-line ability. Each offers a compelling package to start at the middle linebacker position.

Scout's notebook: 3-4 ILBs

July, 10, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

POSITION: Inside Linebacker (3-4)

[+] EnlargeMayo
Geoff Burke/US PresswireJerod Mayo is is one of the best stack-and-shed linebackers in the NFL.
OVERVIEW: Much like an offense needs a strong signal caller to find success, a defense needs a quarterback in the middle of the huddle to direct all of the moving pieces. This is, in its essence, the primary job of an inside linebacker, both in a 3-4 and a 4-3. But focusing on a 3-4, where there are actually two inside linebackers, one finds that the two work in tandem to fortify the second level of the middle of the defense. When discussing 3-4 inside linebackers, there are really two separate positions: both a strongside player (the “Mike”) and a weakside player (the “Will”). The Mike is a downhill player who is charged with taking on blocks and freeing up space for over-the-top tacklers to operate. The Will is a more of a free-range player who is accountable to make a number of tackles with the space freed up by his Mike. Additionally, based on the direction of a given running play, a Will can also be the primary player to take on blocks, leaving the Mike to adopt the free-range role and move in space to make tackles. These two players are not always easy to identify, but are always hypercritical to a defense.

DESIRED TRAITS: Although the roles of a Mike and Will are different, each will be accountable throughout the course of a game to perform the tasks of the other. As mentioned, one of those roles is to be the quarterback of the defense. That involves strong communication skills and a high level of on-field intelligence. Inside 'backers must understand the scheme in front of them and the coverage behind them; they are at the center of the defensive web.

Another primary job of the inside linebackers will be to step up and take on blocks with regularity. It must be determined what type of stack and shed ability a linebacker has; that is to say, how well does he take on a block, not give ground, and use his leverage to shed the block in order to make a play on the ball. Jerod Mayo, the Patriots top linebacker, is one of the preeminent stack and shed linebackers in all of football, with an excellent anchor and ability to work off of blocks.

As is always paramount in linebacker evaluation, it must be determined how well a 3-4 inside linebacker tackles. Inside linebackers are often the leading tacklers on their defense. They’ll be in the action on almost every running play, and must be reliable wrap-up tacklers who are athletic enough to work in space. That involves sideline-to-sideline range and above average instincts.

Inside linebackers will also take on coverage responsibilities in the passing game. With the ever-evolving role of the tight end, linebackers are being stretched further down the field, heightening the need for a player that can gain depth in his back pedal and open his hips into deep space. In Dont’a Hightower, who did a little bit of everything at Alabama, the team appears to have added another player who can contribute on three downs, be it as a coverage player or a pass rusher.

No linebacker can man the middle without a load of toughness, and that is something that is exhibited in the way he takes on blocks, drives through tackles, and works through traffic on an every down basis.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Linebackers are pivotal members of all core special teams, with the toughness, speed, instincts and tackling ability to contribute on punt, punt return, kickoff, and kickoff return.

PATRIOTS TAKE: The Patriots may not play much 3-4 defense in 2012, but they have the inside linebacking pieces to do so should they so choose. In Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Hightower, the team has three starting caliber players. How those three are used in the team’s projected 4-3 scheme will be extremely interesting to follow. Behind them, the Patriots have a host of others who could be used as back up inside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme, including, Bobby Carpenter, Dane Fletcher and even Jeff Tarpinian (who would be on the lighter side in terms of build). The team has added athleticism to its linebacking core this offseason with Carpenter and Hightower.

Scout's notebook: 4-3 OLBs

July, 9, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

[+] EnlargeDonta Hightower
Stew Milne/US PresswireDont'a Hightower is seen as being able to impact the Patriots defense right away.
POSITION: Outside linebacker (4-3)

OVERVIEW: On the surface, it may seem that an outside linebacker is an outside linebacker, with little deviation in terms of skill sets and responsibilities. As it turns out, that's not so much the case, as we profiled the 3-4 outside linebacker Sunday before turning our attention to a 4-3 outside linebacker, whose role and physical skills don’t necessarily mirror that of a 3-4 scheme player. A 4-3 linebacker, for starters, normally aligns off of the line of scrimmage, in what is known as a bubble formation (roughly 3-5 yards off the ball). It also involves a different type of player: While a 3-4 outside linebacker often makes his headlines with sacks, a 4-3 linebacker must be stronger moving sideline-to-sideline. Further diversifying the position is the fact that a strongside outside linebacker in a 4-3 and a weakside outside linebacker in a 4-3 adopt different roles. The strongside player aligns to the side of the offense’s strength (i.e. to the tight end side), and is a block-taking edge-setter. The weakside linebacker, by comparison, is often responsible for scraping over the top of the play in front of him and cleaning up on tackles, while also maintaining leverage to prevent cutback runs.

DESIRED TRAITS: All three linebackers in a 4-3 scheme are going to be accountable to make a bevy of tackles, meaning the first trait to be observed in an outside linebacker is his ability to wrap, fit and drive through tackles. An average or even slightly unreliable tackler is not a good thing for a defense, and linebackers must be dependable on an every-down basis.

Additionally, a 4-3 outside linebacker must have the range and lateral agility to move sideline to sideline. This involves open his hips, running sideways, and at times side-shuffling while engaged in a block. His ability to string plays outside and close the gap on perimeter runs is paramount.

As is also the case with all linebackers, it must be determined how much of an anchor an outside linebacker has -- as in, can he engage a blocker, not give ground and shed the blocker in order to make a tackle? If a 4-3 outside linebacker is not a bigger player (it’s not uncommon to see them in the form of 230 pounds), he must have unique athleticism to work around blocks while not taking himself out of the play.

All linebackers are responsible to play pass coverage, but outside linebackers in a 4-3 need to have both reactive athleticism to match receivers in man coverage, and instincts and smarts to play zone. Playing man involves the ability to work backward, an understanding of leverage, and the physicality to jam at the line of scrimmage. Zone play involves finding his spot, keeping leverage on the quarterback, and having the anticipation skills to drive on the ball.

Weakside linebackers in particular need to be fast, as their duties will often involve working from the far side of the field right into the thick of the action. An inability to be a factor on a slow-developing play away from his alignment will render a weakside outside backer ineffective.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Linebackers are accountable to be core special teams players, with the toughness, speed, instincts and tackling ability to stand out in the kicking game.

PATRIOTS TAKE: In drafting Dont'a Hightower at No. 25 overall, the Patriots found a player whom many viewed as a great fit for the team’s defensive principles. What is less clear, however, is what role precisely he will play and how that could affect Brandon Spikes. With Rob Ninkovich having moved to a role that seems to involve aligning most commonly as a defensive end, the door has been opened for a potential trio of Spikes, Hightower and captain Jerod Mayo as the starters. Hightower and Mayo, given their versatility and athleticism, would seem like more natural fits as weakside linebackers in favor in Spikes. Beyond those three, other outside linebackers of note are veteran Bobby Carpenter (whom Bill Belichick spoke positively of this offseason) and youngsters Dane Fletcher and Jeff Tarpinian, each of whom played both a defensive and special teams role in 2011. Linebacker is a position that appears will be sorted out more comprehensively during training camp when the pads come on, but the Patriots have three solid contributors who will likely lead the way.

Scout's notebook: 3-4 OLBs

July, 8, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

[+] EnlargeChandler Jones
Stew Milne/US PresswireWhile Chandler Jones may start as a situational defender, he could have the higher upside long term.
POSITION: Outside linebackers (3-4)

OVERVIEW: The importance of sacks as a statistic is one that varies depending on whom you talk to; some view it as a metric to measure elite pass rushers, others view it as an overrated way to define a player as a game-changer. The 3-4 outside linebacker position is one that features players who become stars in part because of their high sack totals, with the likes of DeMarcus Ware and Clay Matthews topping the list. But more goes into being a successful 3-4 outside linebacker than an ability to rush the quarterback – he is responsible to be an edge-setting player who can defend the run and operate in space as an occasional pass defender.

DESIRED TRAITS: In being an edge-setter, a 3-4 outside linebacker must have the length to leverage defenders and the strength and athleticism to perform from the edge. A player with long arms and functional strength can lock out on a tight end or tackle on the outside of the line to create a boundary for the offense to have to work within. Longtime Patriot Mike Vrabel was sensational at setting the edge by using tremendous hand placement and leverage to square-in the play in front of him.

A 3-4 outside linebacker must have enough proactive athleticism to generate pressure against the passer, as well as enough reactive athleticism to be accountable in coverage. As a pass rusher, it must be determined how a 3-4 outside linebacker makes his moves; speed, quickness, technique, power and other methods work – it varies from player to player.

Although 3-4 outside linebackers will not always be used as coverage players, throughout the course of the game they’ll need to work into a backpedal or open their hips underneath routes to buzz into coverage. Finding players with fluidity through their midsection and body control to move in space while keeping an eye on the play in front of them is critical.

As is the case with Ware and Matthews, top 3-4 outside linebackers are explosive. They are explosive off the ball and explosive to close the gap in space. Rarely does either of those players miss an opportunity to corral a quarterback or runner in short spaces. A 3-4 outside linebacker who can explode off the edge forces an offensive tackle to work quickly to get out of his stance.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: A 3-4 outside linebacker can play on all four core special teams, as well as on field goal block. Given their combination of length and athleticism, they can be particularly adept coverage players on the punt and kickoff teams.

PATRIOTS TAKE: The Patriots have essentially moved away from a reliance on a 3-4 front, although the team has a number of players who would project as outside linebackers in such a scheme. Veteran Trevor Scott is a sturdy, tough presence, while top draft choice Chandler Jones looks to have the necessary explosiveness to be a dynamic player on the edge (we’ll see if that will come to fruition as he aligns as a defensive end in 2012).

Other candidates who could play 3-4 outside linebacker on the current roster include Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham.

Scout's notebook: 4-3 defensive tackles

July, 7, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

[+] EnlargeVince Wilfork, Kyle Love
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliWith Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love, the Patriots have a pair of run-stuffing space-eaters who tag-teamed for a rock solid 2011.
POSITION: Defensive Tackle (4-3)

OVERVIEW: As the Patriots continue to roll out more four-man fronts, the role of the defensive tackle will further be highlighted. In previous years, the Patriots have relied upon a middle-anchor nose tackle to set the defense in motion, a role Vince Wilfork has held for much of his career. The team now often ushers out two big bodies in the middle who work in unison to hunker down on the defensive line. The defensive tackle can serve in a variety of roles, with some defenses relying upon gap-shooters to generate vertical pressure to disrupt offensive concepts (longtime Patriots rival Tony Dungy often turned to such a concept). Other defensive tackles are called upon to hold the point of attack at the line of scrimmage, similar to a 3-4 nose tackle. As a result of the difference in schemes and duties of defensive tackles, production can vary quite a bit amongst the elite players.

DESIRED TRAITS: With an interior defensive lineman, size cannot be avoided. We mentioned it yesterday in the nose tackle overview, and it remains true for a defensive tackle – he needs to have girth.

But more than just size, a defensive tackle needs to have a sufficient first step to fire off the ball, re-set his base, and be able to engage a blocker. He must have enough strength and power through his core to not be knocked off of his center of gravity, and the hand placement to control his opponent. A defensive tackle needs to have the anchor to hold his ground, as well as the quickness – both laterally and vertically – to make an impact down the line and penetrate into the backfield.

From a pass-rushing standpoint, defensive tackles operate in a number of ways. Some are reliant upon strength and explosion to overpower their opponents, while others have the ability to use quickness off the snap to squeeze through gaps. Discovering how a defensive tackle generates pressure is critical.

One often-overlooked aspect of defensive tackle play is discipline. Defensive tackles work in the center of the action, and an inability to execute assignments due to a lack of discipline can disrupt the scheme played behind him. Execution and technique often correlate, which is one of the reasons why Wilfork – who has both the physical tools and sensational technique desired from a defensive tackle – has been so successful for many years.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Defensive tackles are most often used on field goal block, field goal protection, and occasionally as wedge-blockers on kickoff return (recent rule changes have decreased the role of wedges in kickoff return).

PATRIOTS TAKE: With Wilfork and Kyle Love, the Patriots have a pair of run-stuffing space-eaters who tag-teamed for a rock solid 2011. Beyond them, Gerard Warren adds sufficient depth, and a number of youngsters – including undrafted rookies Justin Francis and Marcus Forston – will look to establish a role in training camp. One factor that we’ll have our eyes on during the preseason will be how much Jonathan Fanene moves inside in sub situations. He appears to have the necessary size, strength and quickness to be disruptive from an interior role in passing situations. The Patriots look poised to be athletic and versatile across the defensive front this year, and the defensive tackle rotation appears strong already.

Scout's notebook: 3-4 nose tackles

July, 6, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

POSITION: Nose Tackle (3-4)

[+] EnlargeVince Wilfork
David Butler II/US PresswireVince Wilfork's combination of strength, athleticism and technique make him one of the top 3-4 nose tackles in the league.
OVERVIEW: Few positions on defense are more difficult to find front-line starters at than nose tackle, with only a handful of elite players at the position in the NFL today. A 3-4 nose tackle requires an athlete strong and large enough to consistently hammer up against double teams, while also one athletic and instinctive enough to play laterally and diagnose offensive plays. In New England, although the Patriots have largely moved away from a 3-4 defensive front, the team still has arguably the top 3-4 nose tackle in the NFL in Vince Wilfork. Wilfork, a gargantuan figure, has exceptional athletic ability and superb power and technique to be a two-gap controlling force in the middle of a defense. Finding a player like that is difficult, and it’s reflected in the low number of dominant nose tackles in the league today.

DESIRED TRAITS: The process of evaluating a nose tackle begins with finding a player who has the size needed to anchor the middle of a line. 275-pound nose tackles are no longer a regular occurrence in the NFL (and rarely have been); 300+ pounders fit the mold.

Beyond size, a nose tackle needs to be tough-minded. He’ll spend much of his time on the field absorbing contact and eating up space in lieu of shooting gaps and racking up statistics. Finding a player who can endure throughout the course of a game with multiple blockers on his case can be difficult.

At the point of attack, a nose tackle that can engage his blockers and lock his arms out to re-set the line of scrimmage and play ball from there is invaluable. Wilfork has mastered this, and is also capable of moving laterally to pursue down the line. A nose tackle doesn’t have to be an elite athlete, but one that can move down the line is a major plus.

From a pass rushing standpoint, nose tackles most often rely on their explosive power to push the pocket and disrupt its form. Wilfork, for example, has never been a major sack player (his 3.5 in 2011 were a career-high) but is nonetheless a pivotal rusher who can cause havoc against an offensive line. Nose tackles in a 3-4 scheme are also often taken out in passing situations, mitigating the need for them to possess a diverse arsenal of pass rushing skills.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Nose tackles will be used on both field goal protection and field goal block teams.

PATRIOTS TAKE: As has been discussed within this series, the Patriots project to rely mainly on four-man fronts in 2012. That being said, in Wilfork, they are well equipped at the nose tackle position, regardless of how much 3-4 defense they play.

Beyond Wilfork, both Kyle Love and Gerard Warren -- big bodies in their own right -- are capable to play the nose tackle spot if necessary. Warren is a sturdy veteran, while Love had a breakout year in 2011 and could continue to improve again this season.

Should the Patriots incorporate 3-4 defense this season, they look set at the nose tackle position.

Scout's notebook: 4-3 defensive ends

July, 5, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

POSITION: Defensive End (4-3)

[+] EnlargeAndre Carter
Brad Mills/US PresswireAndre Carter remains unsigned, but a return to the Patriots makes sense for both sides.
OVERVIEW: The premium placed on pass rushers in today’s NFL is surging, and that means that few positions on defense are as highly sought after as a capable defensive end. When we think of defensive ends within a 4-3 defensive scheme, we often bring about names such as Jared Allen, Jason Pierre-Paul, Julius Peppers and other top sack artists. But their roles extend beyond the ability to reach the passer, as they are still accountable run defenders as well. In New England, the Patriots picked up a pair of low-risk 4-3 defensive end investments prior to the start of the 2011 season that turned out to play major roles on their defense. Both Andre Carter and Mark Anderson accrued 10 regular season sacks, and Anderson turned his performance into a major raise in Buffalo. With what looks to be a continued transition to a reliance on more four-man fronts, the Patriots have invested in a number of players who fit the 4-3 defensive end mold.

DESIRED TRAITS: Keeping in mind that 4-3 defensive ends are not simply players with the ability to pursue the passer, it is important to identify a player with a combination of athleticism, strength and toughness who can be an edge setter on defense.

From an athleticism standpoint, teams target explosive players who can launch off the ball with a ferocious first step, as well as the short area quickness to work in tight spaces. Straight-line speed is measured to help understand a player’s ability to pursue down the line of scrimmage.

It’s important to capture not only how well a defensive end generates pressure, but also how he goes about getting to the quarterback. For some players, it’s speed, others quickness; the very best have an arsenal that includes a blend of athleticism, technique and smarts to create pressure. From what we learned about him during the pre-draft process, first-round pick Chandler Jones has dynamic athleticism off of the line of scrimmage. What we will learn more about is his technique as a rusher during training camp and the season.

As a run defender, it must be determined how strong of an anchor a defensive end has to take on blockers. He may face double teams, and those who can hold their ground and not be blown off the ball will succeed.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Given the athleticism of some defensive ends, they are able to play on all four core special teams and field goal block. A player like Jermaine Cunningham has been a special teams factor for the Patriots in his early career, and perhaps Jones could play some special teams as well in 2012 (depending on his defensive role).

PATRIOTS TAKE: When it comes to defensive ends, the Patriots have a unique mix of experience and youth, speed and size, and a load of potential for pass rushing production. On the veteran front, newcomers Jonathan Fanene and Trevor Scott could serve as both starters and mentors for the roulette of youngsters, and each has the ability to be pass rushers off of the edge. While he remains unsigned, it seems as though Andre Carter would be open to a Patriots return, and that the team would welcome him back. Bill Belichick described third-year player Jermaine Cunningham’s offseason as “great,” and he will look to bounce back after a quiet sophomore season. The player that has many excited is top draft choice Jones, whose supreme athleticism adds a new element to the Patriots’ front seven. Not to be overlooked is third-round choice Jake Bequette, who some have described as a polished product out of Arkansas. As it currently stands, the Patriots have talent, depth, and a lot of variety from their defensive ends as they head into 2012.

Scout's notebook: 3-4 defensive ends

July, 4, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaBill Belichick largely moved away from a 3-4 base defense last season.
POSITION: 3-4 Defensive End

OVERVIEW: Dating back to Bill Belichick’s second draft as the head coach of the Patriots, it’s clear that he has valued the 3-4 defensive end position in his construction of a winning roster. The Patriots selected Richard Seymour with the sixth overall pick in the 2001 draft, a move that was roundly criticized by some at the time. Seymour established himself as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in all of football, and many of the other players who draftniks believed were better fits for New England floundered as pros. Beyond Seymour, Belichick has stayed determined to finding quality 3-4 ends in the draft, including Ty Warren, Jarvis Green and a host of others. The position is by no means one of much notoriety on an individual statistics level, but is supremely important to building a dominant 3-4 front.

DESIRED TRAITS: The goal of a 3-4 defensive end in many schemes – including much of what the Patriots have done under Belichick – is to handle two-gap responsibilities. To accomplish this, a 3-4 defensive end must have the right build, base and technique. A 3-4 defensive end needs to have sufficient weight in his anchor so as not to be pushed back off of the line of scrimmage, as well as the length to be able to reach and engage his blocker, the strength to lock his arms out, and the instincts to read the play.

Those who are able to lock out and play with enough poise to watch the play develop, and then demonstrate the strength to shed their blocker and make a tackle are building block defensive ends within a 3-4 scheme.

As pass rusher, 3-4 ends typically do not rack up substantial sack totals. They are more often than not used to collapse the pocket in lieu of being speed/edge rushers, and coaches will stress that 3-4 defensive ends get their arms in passing lanes to add duress to a quarterback.

Although 3-4 ends are big bodies, they must be athletic enough to move laterally down the line of scrimmage to pursue plays. Additionally, they need to play with functional strength while moving down the line and not being driven off the ball. Finding that combination of traits is not always easy.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: 3-4 defensive ends will typically play on field goal block, and occasionally on the kickoff return team.

PATRIOTS TAKE: The Patriots largely moved away from three-man defensive fronts in 2011, and the roster reflects what looks like a continued reliance on four-man fronts in 2012. A handful of players, including nose tackle Vince Wilfork, would project to play in a 3-4 front as well. Ron Brace, a former second-round choice who enters a critical year in 2012, has the frame of a 3-4 defensive end, but has yet to consistently produce as a pro.

The Patriots look ready to play 4-3 and sub-defense primarily in 2012.

Scout's notebook: Centers

July, 3, 2012
(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)


[+] EnlargeDan Connolly
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliDan Connolly's three-year contract worth almost $10 million suggests he is viewed as the starting center going forward.
OVERVIEW: While offensive linemen are known most often for their size and strength, the center position is one that involves a steady mind on top of a burly pair of shoulders. Centers are at times in charge of making the protections calls at the line of scrimmage, and are an integral part to successfully navigating the proper play call on each snap. The position requires one who is able to think quickly on his toes while also do his job as a physical run blocker and reliable pass blocker. With the rise in passing around the league, the number of teams who regularly operate from a shotgun formation is dramatically increasing as well. Delivering an accurate shotgun snap may look like a simple task, but is far from it with pressure on the line.

DESIRED TRAITS: Intelligence can be difficult to decipher at times on film, but it’s a major part of the evaluation process of centers. A center must be intelligent enough to understand the play called in the huddle, identify the defensive alignment at the line of scrimmage, assign the appropriate protection/blocking scheme call, and subsequently execute his assignment.

Centers may not always be the biggest players, but they must be tough enough to hold up against nose tackles in the running game. That requires players with a powerful base who can at least tie up nose tackles, as well as a player who can move laterally and towards the second level on a perimeter run. Because nose tackles often rely on power and explosion over agility, a center needs to be able to anchor in his stance and hold his ground as a protector. He dictates the integrity of a pocket up the middle for a quarterback, and being driven back as a center is a quick way to force your quarterback into being sacked.

With the multitude of stunts and blitzes that centers will face throughout the course of a game, they must be able to move side-to-side and react to oncoming defenders.

The center position is one that involves a balance of smarts, strength and athleticism.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Centers will play on field goal protection units as well as on the kickoff return on occasion. As noted in the Guards overview, Dan Connolly nearly returned a kickoff for a score against Green Bay late in the 2010 regular season.

PATRIOTS TAKE: After losing longtime starting center Dan Koppen in the season opener against the Dolphins in 2011, it looked as though the Patriots may have had an issue on their hand. Fill-in Dan Connolly stepped up, however, and seamlessly transitioned into a very effective starter. Both players hit free agency this offseason, and both were retained. The financials of Connolly’s three-year contract (it’s worth almost $10 million) suggest he is viewed as the starter going forward, although it looks as though there will be a competition for the job in training camp. Connolly offers very good versatility with the ability to play guard as well, while Koppen has worked as a center throughout his career. The Patriots have two players who are starting-caliber players at an important position: that’s a major positive.