Depth Off The Edge: Patriots DE‒OLB Jabaal Sheard

As the New England Patriots adapt to life without cornerback Darrelle Revis, the team landed its first significant addition of the offseason by signing free agent edge rusher Jabaal Sheard.

In an attempt to bolster their perimeter pass rush options out of multiple fronts, the Patriots inked the soon-to-be 26-year-old outside linebacker / defensive end to a two-year, $11 million contract with $5.5 million guaranteed. The 6-foot-3, 264-pound Jabaal Sheard heads to New England with experience as an end in a 4-3 defense and as a linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

Having led the Cleveland Browns in sacks three out of the last four seasons, Sheard will add much-needed depth along the Patriots front seven. In figuring out how large a role the former second-round pick can earn in New England, we roll the tape to see what he brings to the table.

Scheme Versatility

Selected 37th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, the former University of Pittsburgh standout made an immediate impact for the Browns. He racked up a team-leading 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles for defensive coordinator Dick Jauron’s 4-3 base defense, while earning a spot on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie team. Sheard continued to thrive as a defensive end in 2012, recording a team-high seven sacks.

A new head coach and coordinator arrived in 2013, and Sheard faced a shift in defensive philosophy. He switched positions, to outside linebacker, in Ray Horton’s multi-front 3-4 scheme. While Sheard saw his production – and snaps – drop off slightly, he still led the defense with 5.5 sacks despite missing three games with a sprained knee.

Another year, another coach and coordinator shakeup; this time, however, the 3-4 base defense remained intact under new head coach Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil. However, Sheard’s playing time did not.

With the Browns using a heavy rotation along the front seven, Sheard, who started every game when healthy his first three seasons, made only five starts in 2014 and his snap count percentage dipped from 70.5% in 2013 to 58.1%. The outside linebacker finished with a career low in sacks (2) and quarterback hurries (24).

Recent reports noted that Sheard may have played with a broken foot the final six weeks of the 2014 season – a possible reason his snap percentage dropped to 36% during that stretch.

Defending The Run

After struggling to stop the run his rookie campaign, Sheard made significant strides in this area as he matured. According to Pro Football Focus and their individual grading system*, the defender garnered positive ratings against the run in each of the last three years.

Furthermore, Sheard accounted for 8.9% of his team’s defensive run stops*, a percentage that topped all other outside linebackers. PFF defines stops as “when an offense fails to get … 40 percent of the required yards for another first down on first down … 60 percent of the required yards for a first down on second down … or a first down on third or fourth down.” A sure tackler, Sheard had only two missed tackles in 2014 according to PFF.

Backside Pursuit

Whether starting with a hand on the ground or hovering over the line of scrimmage from a two-point stance, Sheard uses excellent footwork and explosive off-the-ball quickness to crash down from the backside to cut off run plays:

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When left unblocked on the backside, Sheard has the ability to quickly torque his body and wrap tight around the corner before following through with a closing burst to the ball carrier on the play-side. More impressively, though, the defender employs nimble feet and fast hands to elude blockers in space when required.

While Sheard excels working in space against the run, he does not fare as well at the point of attack, specifically at defensive end in a non-wide technique alignment:

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Sheard has a difficult time escaping blocks when forced to engage, even against tight ends in one-on-ones. In the film reviewed, the defender was frequently uprooted – if not knocked to the ground – at the point of attack, and struggled to hold up against or split double-teams.

As an outside linebacker – aligned slightly off the line of scrimmage and wide of tackle and/or tight end – Sheard was more likely to win battles through quickness.

In Coverage

Sheard has limited experience dropping into coverage from defensive end and outside linebacker positions:

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The defender is athletic enough to fluidly drop into zone coverage off the snap and handle short areas effectively. He generally exhibits good awareness and discipline over the short middle and breaks quickly on plays in front of him with the ability to close fast and limit yards after catch.

But when pressed to cover more ground in the intermediate areas, Sheard proves less effective, failing to gain enough depth in his drop, as on the difficult assignment shown below:

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On other plays reviewed, Sheard struggled to smoothly change direction out of his backpedal when reacting to incoming throws to receivers behind him in the curl/hook zone area. Per PFF, Sheard dropped into pass coverage* slightly less than 5% of the time over his four seasons with the Browns – mainly as an outside linebacker. The defender did not log any true man coverage assignments in the games analyzed.

Rushing The Passer

Lining up almost exclusively at left defensive end in a 4-3 front for the Browns his first two seasons, Sheard bounced back and forth between left and right outside linebacker out of a 3-4 base defense in his last two years. In the film reviewed, Sheard did not shift inside as an interior rusher.

Sheard accumulated 92 QB pressures* his first two seasons compared to 68 over the last two, but was slightly more efficient on a percentage basis during the latter period, successfully pressuring a QB on 10% of his pass rush attempts over 2013-2014 versus 9% over 2011-2012, according to PFF.

Footloose

As a pass rusher from any stance or technique, one of Sheard’s best physical attributes is his impressive footwork. In the play below, the defender first avoids a chip block from the releasing tight end before nimbly sidestepping the pulling guard on the play-action pass:

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Sheard consistently transitions from move to move without wasting steps or losing upfield momentum. He has the ability to slip blocks through finesse instead of taking them head on.

In addition to his fancy footwork, Sheard also displays exceptional stop-start agility and takes efficient pursuit angles:

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By smoothly changing direction, the defender can quickly pick up steam and close on a target even when initially fooled, such as on the play-action bootleg shown above.

Need For Speed

Sheard relies heavily on speed-based moves from the perimeter, both in the form of speed-bull rushes and shoulder dips:

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In certain one-on-ones, Sheard can flat-out fly past blockers, but generally leans on gaining speed from a wide angle before engaging with a power move.

On occasion, the defender falls off-balance when starting his bull rush, loses his target point by burying his head early and allows blockers to easily guide him to the ground:

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While Sheard flashed an overall solid speed-based bull rush move, he generally preferred to go around blockers using his quickness to the outside. Tackles with good athleticism and a lengthy wingspan gave him the most trouble, often able to force him wide and behind the QB when he tried to turn the corner. The defender rarely used a spin move in the film reviewed.

Swim Fan

Combining his quick first step and long-armed reach, Sheard exhibits a strong swim maneuver on moves to the inside:

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The swim move is a good change of pace that Sheard sets up extremely well by attacking the blocker with his first few steps before crossing over to the inside gap. When Sheard starts to telegraph or overuse the move, blockers react by rising up and latching on to his swim arm, slowing down his progress into the backfield.

Pass Rush Versatility

In the sequence below, Sheard shows off his versatility while pressuring the quarterback, disrupting the pocket from a two-point stance wide of the tackle and then from the defensive end position:

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A grinder in all facets with a high football IQ, Sheard plays each snap with non-stop effort and a willingness to fight past the whistle:

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On the play above, Sheard has a read rush, checking for the run first before pushing toward the pocket. The defender fights through the block with an inside rip move and proceeds to hit the QB causing an underthrow for an interception. Sheard picks himself off the ground, locates the ball and heads down field looking to block for his teammate.

Projected Fit

Patriots DE‒OLB Jabaal Sheard provides another high-quality, versatile edge defender who can not only put some heat on opposing quarterbacks, but also take some off of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.

With nearly 2,500 defensive snaps accumulated over the past two seasons (including playoffs), no outside linebacker/defensive end has been on the field more than the 31-year-old Ninkovich. Jones, who led the league in defensive snaps in 2013, would have matched his teammate in snap totals over the past two seasons if not for a six-week injury in 2014.

Sheard’s presence allows the Patriots flexibility in their nickel and dime defenses, whether using a rotation at defensive end to help keep players fresh or by kicking Jones inside as an interior rusher. Sheard could also see some time at outside linebacker since the team has occasionally used Jones as a 5-technique defensive end out of 3-4 fronts.

Additionally, given Ninkovich’s age and Jones’s impending unrestricted free agency status after the 2015 season, Sheard provides a much-needed security blanket and plug-in starter for the 2016 defense.

For the immediate future, with Sheard on board and presumably healthy, head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia likely foresee the hybrid defender taking on a role similar to that of the recently departed Akeem Ayers – offering important depth behind incumbent starters and a potentially impactful pass rush weapon in sub-packages.

Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.

Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense,  how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.

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Video courtesy NFL Game Rewind.

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