Finding the Edge: Could Patriots DE Jabaal Sheard Take Miami’s D-Line to the Next Level?

Cameron Wake and Andre Branch were a solid edge-rushing tandem for the Miami Dolphins last season with a combined 17 sacks. Wake was especially dangerous with 11.5 sacks to go along with 5 forced fumbles that warranted serious Comeback Player of the Year consideration. However, with Cameron Wake turning 35 and Andre Branch’s potential departure in free agency, moves need to be made to ensure that the Dolphins’ defense has a pass-rush in 2017 and beyond. One such potential acquisition could be the Patriots’ Jabaal Sheard. If Andre Branch leaves for greener pastures elsewhere, Sheard could fill the void immediately as an experienced pass-rusher.

Background:

Jabaal Sheard has been a solid situational pass-rusher in the two years since the Patriots acquired him after a four year stint with the Cleveland Browns. Sheard’s stats from 2016 don’t really leap off the page (31 tackles and 5 sacks), but he had virtually the same impact as Branch (49 tackles and 5.5 sacks) with about 2/3 of the snaps. Sheard also had 8 sacks and 4 forced fumbles in his first season as a Patriot in 2015.

As effective as he is in a rotation, Sheard has also displayed the ability to perform as a starter. In his first three seasons with the Browns, he totaled 21 sacks and 7 forced fumbles as the starting defensive end. While Sheard had a disappointing 2014 season that ultimately led Cleveland to forgo re-signing him, he has showed flashes of excellence in both Cleveland and New England. The biggest hurdle in ascertaining Sheard’s services will be his asking price, as young pass-rushers tend to be incredibly overvalued on the free agent market. Andre Branch offers the same set of issues. If Branch is determined to leave for a bigger paycheck, Sheard may be the team’s best option to improve their pass-rush through free agency without completely breaking the bank, as he should receive a contract that gives somewhere between $7-10 million per year. He would undoubtedly be pricey, but his performances in the past suggest both a higher floor and ceiling than Andre Branch.

Strengths:

Jabaal Sheard’s greatest asset is his arsenal of physical abilities. His strength and agility as an edge-rusher have made him a danger to less experienced or physically unimposing offensive lineman in both the ground game and the passing game. His 6’3 265 lb frame is not particularly special, but his body control and overall athletic attributes certainly are. His expert use of the bull-rush technique is proof of this concept, and he is especially impressive at putting offensive linemen on skates.

Sheard Bull Rush.gif

New England’s complicated defensive system has lined him up just about everywhere on the field an edge-rusher can be, and Sheard has had few issues on the line of scrimmage. He can line up as a pass-rushing defensive end outside of the offensive tackle or on the inside between the tackle and guard.

Sheard Interior Sack.gif

His abilities extend to the ground game as well, where his tracking and pursuit of the ball-carrier at the line of scrimmage complement his agility nicely. His thick build make him a stalwart in one-on-one situations near the line of scrimmage; running backs rarely break away when Sheard has them in his grasp.

Sheard v McCoy.gif

His speed is not great, and he often misses in space against quicker offensive players, but it is adequate in most running situations. This sack against Tyrod Taylor displayed that he had enough closing speed to make the play, but also shows that Sheard would have missed in the event that Taylor had more space to work with.

Sheard tracks Tyrod.gif

Finally, Jabaal Sheard is gifted with a high motor. Though a sudden benching midway through 2016 leaves us with some doubt of his motivation, his play on the field shows anything but that.

Sheard effort sack fumble.gif

Many of Sheard’s career sacks come from a simple drive to take down the quarterback – even in the intances where he is beat initially, held by an offensive lineman, or the play is broken down. His high motor, agility, strength, and consistency in most situations earned him the highest pro football focus grade on the Patriots’ defense in 2015. He was even the 4th highest-rated edge defender that season as well.

Weaknesses:

Most of Jabaal Sheard’s weaknesses come from the mental aspect of his game, which is troublesome for a player near the end of his prime athletic years. He rarely, if ever, gets the best of the league’s elite offensive lineman, as the bull-rush seems to be the only technique he likes to utilize. When faced with more powerful offensive lineman, his bull-rush in often rendered ineffective. So, without access to any finess-type maneuvers, he can be rendered punchless against the pass at times. His relative lack of burst off of the line of scrimmage also hurt him against elite quarterbacks that get the football out of their hands quicker.

He is also not technichally saavy in coverage, which the Patriots asked him to be from time to time. Take this play in which he was called for defensive holding for example:

Sheard Holding.gif

While edge-rushers in a 3-4 system are asked to do this more often than they are in a 4-3, it could still be a concern for a team that uses subpackages that rush 3 or place linebackers/defensive ends back in coverage. It seems that he is a much better fit in a 4-3 system as a defensive end than he is in a 3-4 as a linebacker.

Sheard is also often fooled on play action passes, draw plays, and other plays designed to fake defenders out. He also shows limited awareness if he loses track of the ball-carrier, making it difficult for him to regain focus at times. This play against the Indianapolis Colts where he is the last defender to start chasing Frank Gore is one of these times.

Last to turn around.gif

Finally, Sheard does come with some character concerns off of the field. His 2010 arrest for assault during his senior season is definitely the most significant, but it did come when Sheard was in college at the University of Pittsburgh. To me, the better indicators are the Browns’ unwillingness to sign him after 2014 and Bill Belichick’s decision to bench Sheard and take away his starting job in Week 11 of last season. Belichick underplayed it, but it is certainly a concern nonetheless. He is an above average talent as an edge-rusher, so I find it strange that he managed to alienate himself twice in the last three years.

The Skinny:

Overall, Jabaal Sheard is an interesting possibility for the Dolphins at the defensive end position. While his ceiling is somewhat capped due to his limited technical ability, he has a very safe floor as a situational pass-rusher. Additionally, his relatively limited use over the last two seasons as a rotational player give him an advantage over Andre Branch in regard to wear-and-tear. Sheard is also one of the premier run-defending edge-rushers in the league, and could complement Cameron Wake’s pass-rushing ability. If the Dolphins have a theoretical choice between Sheard and Branch, play on the field suggests that Sheard is the better option. Both Branch and Sheard are solid 27-year-old role players that can hold their own as starters. The primary difference between the two is upside, where Sheard seems to have a slight advantage. If Sheard can be had for anything less than $8 million per year, the Dolphins would be wise to at least kick the tires on him. There are certainly worse decisions than signing a proven pass-rusher in his prime that can vastly improve the Dolphins’ 30th ranked run defense.

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