While losing Kyle Van Noy was an obstacle to overcome this offseason, the New England Patriots are now excited to have young, promising youth competing for his spot. Both Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche -- who were selected by the Patriots on Day 2 of the 2020 NFL Draft -- are strong contenders to take on his role as an edge defender this upcoming season.
While this battle could end up being more than just a two person race, we all know the winner must be one who can replace Van Noy's role as the top pass-rusher on the team. While many players could have a valid argument for this spot, none might have higher credentials to fill it than the two rookies brought in this offseason. Uche, the athletic-specimen makes a strong case and could be a different look than accustom to seeing. And Jennings offers a lot of what Van Noy offered, as he even drew comparisons to the now Miami Dolphin during the draft process.
Both rookies have superior talent, above any other candidate to take this job. Brandon Copeland, John Simon, Shilique Calhoun all do not measure up to these two youngsters talent-wise. The question is whether the youngsters will be ready to put their talent on display come Week 1, and which one will be more ready than the other.
Understanding the Shoes to Fill
When Van Noy and his role are referenced, the true meaning of that Van Noy mold is a kind of do-it all type, hybrid linebacker, who may not be a talented pass rusher like a Von Miller or Khalil Mack, however, can sift through the garbage, create pressure, perform stunts and blitzes with nice timing and spacing, and make plays in the run game as well.
Along with that, Van Noy was also pretty good in pass coverage. While it was not his strongest suit, he could hold his own and have good moments in that aspect as well.
When running a 3-4 defense like the Patriots do, you are going to want your left edge defender to be able to put pressure on the quarterback and be one of the best pass-rushers on the team. In a system that is set up to have the pressure generally stem from the outside linebackers (ie edge defenders), instead of the more edge-setting, run-conscious defensive line.
This is the official checklist for the applicants pursuing Van Noy's old role:
- Can do a little bit of everything
- Can sift through blocks and find his way to the ball
- Can create quick pressure with a strong get off
- Understands timing and spacing in order to execute Bill Belichick's creative stunts and blitzes
- Can make plays in the run game
- Has potential to be or already is the team's top pass-rusher, if not second best
- Can hold their own in coverage
Who Fits That Role Best?
While New England could show some different looks in the secondary this season, the front seven should likely hold the same basic concepts that they adopted last season. Especially after they found so much success last season and really created a lot of pressure with a group of defenders that really are not premiere, big name stars on the front seven. There will certainly be some looks that differ from last year's plan that trickle in during certain situations, however, for the most part, the scheme should stay relatively unchanged.
When talking about who fits that role best and whose skills translate best to that spot on day one, I think that guy is Jennings. While Uche presents more upside in the long run and could end up with an even more storied career than Jennings, he still needs to sure up his attack plan as a pass-rusher and refine his technique before having a significant impact.
Jennings is the kind of guy who is very Van Noy-esque as a pass-rusher. He demonstrates a strong understanding of spacing and timing and positioning. He makes plays in the pass and run game by using stunts or sifting through the garbage. He faired well bending around the edge on several high quality tackles at Alabama, which makes me think that his rushing skills and technique could be even better than Van Noy's.
Jennings shows that he has a quick jump off the ball. Which is something that Uche has, however, Jennings is, in my view, superior at. He sets a hard edge as well, bumping ballcarriers back inside. He also had some good moments in pass coverage and had two impressive interceptions in his college career (which is the same amount Van Noy had in his four years with the Patriots).
Giving Uche a Chance
Uche has as much of a shot to earn this job as Jennings does. However, starting Uche, especially when he will have a big learning curve, will likely result in a scheme change for New England.
Uche does not perform in the same fashion that Jennings or Van Noy does. In fact, he plays it very differently, as his athleticism and his physical traits are the prized possession for him. Both Van Noy and Jennings are not known so much for their athleticism. In fact, it might be a trait that actually hinders both of their developments.
Even if a different direction was where the coaching staff wanted to go with this position, Uche just has so much left to put in place before his first start. Again, while his upside seems higher, he is not as ready to be thrown into the fire. The athletic freak still has technical aspects of his game to refine before expecting to compete against high quality NFL tackles.
I think talent narrows the position battle down to two, those two being Uche and Jennings. However, when it comes down to preparedness, Jennings should easily win this battle, despite the fact that he is also a rookie.
This summer, watching these two battle it out will be a classic example of how some prospects need more development than others. Uche was more of an upside selection, but his impact will take more time to fully unravel. In the meantime, Jennings can provide the best blend of talent, fit, and preparedness. While he himself will have a big learning curve, he will likely spend a lot of time at the left edge defender spot, replacing Van Noy.