Defensive end Chris Long announced that he will not return to the New England Patriots for a second season, but could DeMarcus Ware replace him?
Chris Long played in just six games in 2014 due to an ankle injury, and some wondered if he was washed up after recording just three sacks in the 2015 season. The New England Patriots signed him to a one-year, $2.375 million contract last offseason, hoping he would help replace some of the production lost by the Patriots decision to trade Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals.
While Long didn’t seem overly productive on the stat sheet with just 35 tackles and four sacks, he proved that he still has something to offer in this league. A former No. 2 overall pick, Long has always been equally adept at rushing the passer and defending the run, with the latter being especially important for a defensive lineman in New England.
Long aided a Patriots defense that surrendered just 3.9 yards per carry, and he ended up being one of the team’s most important players. Only Trey Flowers and Jabaal Sheard had more sacks than Long, but his ability to stay on the field proved to be more important than his mediocre sack totals. According to Pro Football Focus, impending free agent defensive tackle Alan Branch was the only defensive lineman on the Patriots to play more snaps than the former Virginia standout.
The Patriots probably made an effort to keep Long on another cheap, one-year deal, because his veteran presence and well-rounded skill-set proved to be beneficial. After all, PFF tabbed him with 52 coverage snaps, which is an unselfish total at the defensive end position.
Recently, Long wrote a post on Instagram thanking the Patriots and the fans for the Super Bowl run. However, he stated that he will not return to the Patriots for another season, because he is “itching” to do what he does best as a “competitor:”
A post shared by Chris Long ⚡️ (@laflamablanca95) on Mar 1, 2017 at 11:14am PST
The man deserves the utmost respect for this post. I read his comments as this: Long wants to spend more time getting after the quarterback, as opposed to being forced to wear a bunch of different hats, including dropping into coverage relatively frequently. For a season, Long gave the Patriots everything he had, doing whatever they asked him to do.
With Sheard also set to hit the free agent market, the Patriots have to think about replacing Long. Now, the Patriots do need to look at long-term pass rushing options, and they’ve been successful with high picks on edge defenders in the past. I mean, just look at Chandler Jones as a prime example of that.
However, Long proved to be an effective short-term option in the Patriots Super Bowl run last season, and they could find similar success with a veteran option. A player linked to the Patriots a few times this offseason is impending free agent DeMarcus Ware, who has had great success over the past few seasons with the Denver Broncos.
Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Chris Long (95) against the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
NFLSpinZone.com’s Randy Gurzi named the Patriots as one of five possible landing spots for Ware in free agency. Earlier in the offseason, The MMQB’s insider Albert Breer mentioned that Ware and Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers could be “in play” for New England. Breer cited the past signings of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at cornerback, in addition to the Long signing last year, as examples of the Patriots bringing in quality veteran players.
Ware’s had success as both an outside linebacker and defensive end in this league, and the distinction between edge rushers in three and four-man fronts isn’t as relevant as it used to be. That said, it is fair to wonder if Ware fits everything the Patriots would want out of a defensive end. He spent far less time in coverage than Von Miller, Shaquil Barrett, and Shane Ray did last season, and he isn’t as stout as Long against the run.
Although the Patriots were first in the league in points per game allowed on defense, some still criticize the team for not being strong enough on defense. Despite the excellent stats, they point to the level of competition the Patriots faced at quarterback during the regular season, as well as their weak pass rush. This didn’t prevent New England from winning it all, but as we saw last season with the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, all weaknesses must be shored up in order to maintain an elite level of play season-to-season. Of course, nobody understands this better than the Patriots.
Due to an injury, Ware played just ten games and recorded four sacks. That is, however, a better ratio than Long’s, and Ware had 7.5 sacks in the previous season. When he’s on the field, he’s still one of the NFL’s better pass rushers, and it’s easy to envision him being better than the pass rushers currently on the Patriots roster.
Because Ware has missed 11 games over the past two seasons, his price could be brought down, just as Long’s was in 2016. At 34, Ware is older than Long, but he might still be a better player. There’s an increased risk of Ware being “washed” if the Patriots sign him, but it doesn’t seem like he’s slowed down on the field.
Of the two pass rushing options proposed by Breer, I’d actually prefer Peppers for the Patriots due to his athleticism and superior numbers (18 sacks in the past two seasons). Ware can help the Patriots, but he would only make sense if he is willing—and able—to change his role or, less likely, if the Patriots are more interested in bringing in a pure pass rushing presence.