NFL Scouting Combine

O’HARA: What we learned from the 2018 Combine

Posted Mar 5, 2018

Mike O’Hara takes a look at what we learned from the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine.

INDIANAPOLIS – Head coach Matt Patricia caused a bit of a ripple by not characterizing the scheme he’ll install for the Detroit Lions’ defense when asked about it in his first-ever Combine press conference.

The question put to Patricia was a follow up to general manager Bob Quinn’s answer when asked a few minutes earlier if he expects Patricia to run a 3-4 or a 4-3 base defense.

“That’s probably a better question for Matt,” Quinn answered.

Or maybe not.

“I always laugh at that every single time because it’s all relative, right?” Patricia said in response to the same question.

“If you guys study film and watch the trends of football, 90 percent of it isn’t even regular defense anymore,” he said. “It’s all sub (substitution packages), so trying to figure out what it is from there ... it’s a little bit different than just kind of a standard answer to a 4-3 or 3-4.”

What we had learned already in Quinn’s first two seasons as GM is that he lets the coach answer questions that are specifically in the coach’s domain.

And what we learned from Patricia’s response to the question about scheme – and I call it a “response” because it wasn’t really an answer – is that he’ll answer it in his own way. 

Which also means that one way to get a line on what Patricia might do in Detroit is to look up what he did as defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots.

Among the other things we learned at this year’s Combine: Putting the franchise tag on Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah means that proven pass rushers command a high price, and Ansah’s value to the Lions is greater than most people think; having the first and fourth picks in this year’s draft is a prize and a burden for the Cleveland Browns, and that it’s never too early to send out signals that trading season is on, as Browns GM John Dorsey did last week.

And I solve the Browns’ draft problem – which shouldn’t be a problem in the first place.

But first, Patricia’s defensive scheme – because it’s the first week of March and it’s vitally important to know.

Defense, by the numbers: I doubt if at this time last year Patricia envisioned that the defending Super Bowl champ Patriots would open the season against the Chiefs with a front seven that actually was a front five according to the normal positions played by the 11-man unit.

But by the numbers, that’s what it was, according to the starting lineups posted in the NFL’s official game book. A review of the first eight games of last season shows that the Patriots started their games with the following defensive schemes:

Week 1:  Three linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs to defend a Chiefs offense that opened the game with three tight ends, one receiver and one running back (and a quarterback and five linemen, of course).

For the record, the Chiefs ran one play on their first possession for a seven-yard gain by rookie running back Kareem Hunt, who lost the ball on a fumble. The Chiefs went on to win, 42-27.

Week 2: In a road win over the Saints, the Patriots started with four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs to counter an offense that opened with two receivers, a tight end, one running back and that NFL relic called a fullback.

Weeks 3-8: All six began with the Patriots in what qualifies as the standard 4-3 -- four defensive linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs.

Sub packages review: A Week 7 win over the Falcons is an example of how the Patriots – and all teams – do not finish games the way they start them, or how they line up in between.

Of four defensive ends used by the Patriots, three played more than 70 percent of the snaps. The fourth, starter Lewis Guy, played the fewest of the four – 26 snaps, or 46 percent.

None of the three defensive tackles used in the game played more than 49 percent of the snaps.

Bottom line: What defense can we expect Patricia to run?

Whatever it is 4-3, 3-4 or something else in special situations, there better be 11 men on the field or I think there will be serious consequences.

Ansah answer: Putting the franchise tag on defensive end Ziggy Ansah wasn’t only the right thing to do. It was the only logical option, unless the Lions and Ansah had agreed to a long-term contract.

The statistics show that Ansah is the Lions’ best pass rusher, and he’s also a force against the run.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ansah’s team-high 12 sacks last year – tied for eighth most in the league – came on 321 snaps against the pass. Anthony Zettel was second on the Lions with 6.5 sacks on 427 snaps against the pass. That’s half as many sacks on 106 more snaps.

No other Lion had more than 2.5 sacks

The franchise tag carries a heavy financial burden, but teams don’t pay it if they have better options. And for the Lions, there is no better option than Ansah.

Browns’ dilemma: GM John Dorsey said in his midweek Combine presser that the door is wide open, and the Browns are willing to trade.

The Browns are sitting in a good spot, with the first and fourth picks in the first round. Talk is cheap this early before the draft, and it’s doubtful if the Browns will trade either of their first two picks.

Word from the south shore of Lake Erie is that they are in a quandary over Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. He’s the best player in the draft, but the Browns want to draft a quarterback first  – most likely Sam Darnold of Southern Cal – to fill a need that’s haunted them for as long as anyone can remember.

They’d also like to use the fourth pick to take Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, a combination safety-cornerback who has been compared to Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott and could add an elite athlete to a good, young defense.

The rub: If Barkley’s still on the board – and he’d have to get by the Giants and Colts for that to happen – the Browns will get roasted for not taking Barkley. Their hope is that Barkley is off the board – to the Giants or Colts – before they make their second pick.

Problem solver: My second mock draft solves the Browns’ problem. They draft Barkley first overall and take a quarterback at No. 4.

Barkley’s the best player in the draft. Nobody can complain if they take him.