For the better part of my young adult life, the New England Patriots have been devising and successfully executing new ways to ruin my life. They’ve leaned on their defense to hold the Bills to single digits in over a third of their contests in this millennium. They’ve used the kicking game to snag a pair of overtime victories in a calendar year. They’ve even used the Bills’ own special teams against them, turning a Leodis McKelvin fumble into a season-defining opening night tragedy. Mostly, however, the Patriots have assaulted my mind, body and spirit by instructing Tom Brady to throw early and often. The Pats’ new weapon in their War on Murphy? Rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld, and his performance in Week 1 will tell you a lot about how much or how little this year’s defense has improved right out of the gate.
For those unfamiliar with Sudfeld’s collegiate career, his undrafted status may be a bit perplexing. The rookie out of Nevada is a towering 6’7” and combines his powerful build with shocking speed and agility. He registered a 4.71 forty-yard dash and a 7.0 three-cone drill time at Nevada’s pro day. To put that in perspective, Bills rookie tight end Chris Gragg, who impressed with his elite athleticism at the combine, was nearly a full second slower than his larger counterpart in the cone drill. This is consistent with Sudfeld’s multi-talented athletic profile built as a high school letterman in tennis, track and field and basketball. He used that athleticism to catch 45 balls for 598 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior at Nevada in 2012 with only a single drop. Such prolific numbers and elite athletic ability are rarely associated with the term “undrafted,” so what gives?
Well, for starters, Sudfeld put up the afforementioned numbers as a 23-year old sixth-year senior with a grand total of two receptions during the entirety of his lengthy college career prior to that campaign. Now at 24, he enters the NFL an exceptionally-old aged rookie with significant shoulder, knee, wrist, leg and ankle injuries on his rap sheet. These are less red flags and more gigantic, glowing stop signs for most NFL franchises. All of the concerns involved with investing significant resources into Sudfeld are very real, but they will not spare the Bills defense from having to contend with him in Week 1 of his rookie year.
Buffalo’s defense made a jaw-dropping leap in their coverage against tight ends from 2011 to 2012. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), which measures performance on an adjusted per-play basis, the Bills climbed all the way from 22nd against the tight end in pass coverage to 2nd in 2012. In four meetings over those two seasons however, Patriots tight ends posted 30 receptions for 490 yards and seven touchdowns, scoring at least once in every game. During his time with the Jets, incoming defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s unit jumped from a putrid 27th in ’11 to a mediocre 14th in ’12. Any regression to that mean for the 2013 Bills would make the opposing tight end a defensive liability, and history suggests that will be especially true against New England.
Clearly, the caveat is that Zach Sudfeld is no Rob Gronkowski (Aaron Hernandez dropped a monster performance on the Bills on New Year’s Day 2012, but was inactive for the other three meetings). Sudfeld will be a force to be reckoned with in the passing game, albiet less of a destructive force than Gronk, but his biggest contribution will be in how he helps the Patriots continue playing to their strengths in the running game.
In 2012, New England ran wild against Buffalo, particularly in the Week 4 debacle at the Ralph where alleged football player Brandon Boulden pranced his way to 137 yards and the Pats racked up 247 on the ground in total. A key reason that Buffalo could not muster so much as a challenge to New England’s running backs is that they were paralyzed by fear of Tom Brady from a schematic standpoint, committing to the nickel package that provided only two linebackers to chip in against the run. While this is primarily a response to Brady’s prowess and his plethora of targets, the Patriots have gained a distinct advantage in their two tight end sets by employing their bookends as powerful blockers being marked by linebackers and safeties in deference to their receiving skills. Unfortunately for Bills fans, Sudfeld is more than cut out to fill this role. According to the NFL Draft Report’s Dave-Te’ Thomas, Sudfeld led FBS tight ends with a 94.69 blocking consistency grade in 2012 and served as the lead blocker in 24 touchdowns, including 19 rushing scores. Eleven of those tallies came between the tackles, an area Sudfeld figures to man in Hernandez’s absence.*
With the injury to Stephon Gilmore and the release of Bryan Scott, who often drew the assignment of covering the opposing tight end last year, the Bills are ill-equipped to contend with a Brady-led passing attack geared toward Sudfeld’s position. If he is able to make plays downfield in the passing game, fans can take solace in the poor match-up and hope for more success down the road. The true test of Sudfeld’s impact will be if he can serve as a key blocker in a running attack that absolutely brutalized Buffalo’s defense in 2012. If Pettine and company cannot work their way past an undrafted rookie in such a crucial role, there will be reason for legimate concern with this year’s defense, and Zach Sudfeld will become the newest name in a long line of Patriots trying to ruin my life.
*Doug Kyed, 8/21/13, nesn.com
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