Bill Belichick finally had to face facts. The New England Patriots defense was never going to be elite without a standout pass-rusher. Belichick and the suddenly big-spending Patriots solved the problem by agreeing to a bumper deal with free-agent edge-rusher Matt Judon on Monday.
The #Patriots are signing OLB Matt Judon to a four-year, $56 million contract including $32 million over the first two years, per source. A massive deal for the former #Ravens standout. 💰💰
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) March 15, 2021
The more jaded Patriots fans are probably already getting worried. They’ve seen this story turn into a nightmare before. Millions of dollars invested in an edge player who thrived in the Baltimore Ravens’ blitz-crazed schemes only to fall flat in New England’s more read-and-react system. That’s how it went for Adalius Thomas way back in 2007.
Belichick parted with $35 million to sign Thomas, who had brought the heat from all angles for Rex Ryan’s defense in Baltimore. Thomas never replicated the magic for the Patriots, despite starting for the 18-0 team defeated by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. He registered a mere 14.5 sacks during three seasons playing for Belichick.
Modern-day observers needn’t worry though. Judon won’t be another Thomas-style flop. In fact, the new arrival is the ideal scheme fit for what Belichick wants to do on defense. Judon has proved there’s more to his game than just blitzing from the outside.
Matt Judon has dropped into coverage on 27% of his pass snaps in his career, the 3rd-highest rate among edge defenders since 2016 (min. 1000 pass snaps).
Judon will fit right into the Patriots scheme, who drop edge defenders at the highest rate since 2016 (22%). pic.twitter.com/fbsFE5aYY9
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) March 15, 2021
The versatility to be an asset in coverage is a must for edge players under Belichick. He’ll think nothing of removing a member of the rush if it means jamming a dangerous slot receiver at the line, or if a prolific tight end hoping for a free run across the middle needs to be flattened. Belichick’s commitment to taking away an opponent’s best weapons, even at the expense of his own schematic preferences, is why he’s one of the sharpest defensive minds in NFL history.
That same Belichick blueprint can work against the Patriots though. He’s often tried to get by without standout pass-rushers, but it hasn’t always worked out. Losing 41-33 to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII is a prime example. The defeat owed as much to a lack of dominant edge players as to Belichick ditching cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Belichick has continued to believe scheming pressure and playing blanket coverage behind it is a winning formula. It was anything but in 2020 when the New England defense registered a mere 24 sacks and surrendered 22 touchdown passes. Chase Winovich led the way with just 5.5 quarterback takedowns.
To put those lowly numbers into perspective, Judon had six sacks playing under the franchise tag last season. The 28-year-old amassed 24.5 sacks during the three previous seasons. There’s nothing wrong with Judon’s ability to put pressure on the passer.
Matthew Judon will be missed in Baltimore pic.twitter.com/Pva5PSus6k
— Kevin Oestreicher (@koestreicher34) March 15, 2021
Judon won’t need to be the focal point of the Patriots’ pass rush. What he’ll add is another hybrid force Belichick can move all over the front seven to create mismatches. Judon’s combination with Winovich gives New England a pair of bookends. They will complement the interior menace of Deatrich Wise Jr., who has re-signed with the team.
Improving the talent and depth of his pass-rush rotation was just one piece of the puzzle for Belichick. He’s also splashed the cash to bring ultra-flexible defensive back, Jalen Mills, over from the Philadelphia Eagles. Mills is an aggressive cover man in a variety of spots, whose interception totals will surely be boosted by a more consistent pass rush.
New Patriot Jalen Mills is listed as a CB, but he played all over the secondary for the Eagles last season:
329 snaps in the box
236 at free safety
227 at wide corner
182 at slot corner
39 on the D-line
Versatility, versatility, versatility.
— Zack Cox (@ZackCoxNESN) March 15, 2021
New England needs a defense with big-play potential at both ends to help the franchise reclaim ownership of the AFC East. The resurgence of the Buffalo Bills and, to a lesser extent, the Miami Dolphins, has broken the Patriots’ stranglehold on the division. Both are led by mobile quarterbacks, Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa. Their dual-threat skills challenge defenses to maintain disciplined outside rush lanes and prevent escape from the pocket. Judon will be key to helping the Patriots make life more difficult for Allen and Tua.
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