barry chin/globe staff file
FOXBOROUGH — Brendan Daly has evaluated a variety of defensive linemen since he began coaching the position in the NFL in 2006.
Some possess a rich football knowledge, instinctual-type players who have a knack for making plays. Others are strong fundamentalists, which helps make up for what they lack in football acumen.
The outlier has a grasp of both smarts and skill, which is how Daly classifies Trey Flowers, and it explains why the Patriots defensive line coach was crushed when a shoulder injury shortened Flowers’s rookie season to one game in 2015 – the same year Daly was promoted from an assistant role.
“It was unfortunate he had to end up on IR that first year,” Daly recalled. “I was really disappointed. In retrospect, it gave him an opportunity to get ahead of offseason surgery. But he was one of the guys, you see him early, you see him young, you think, ‘Wow there’s really something here.’ For some guys, that comes to fruition, for some guys it doesn’t.”
Two years later, Flowers has transformed from a rookie bubbling with potential to the centerpiece of the Patriots defensive front. He has taken a step from last season, when he primarily played on the right end, and is now trusted to plug a variety of roles.
Consider the Patriots’ first defensive series against the Chargers in their 21-13 victory before the bye week. Flowers began on the left edge in an upright stance and dropped into coverage to defend the flat. On another play, he flipped to the right side to rush from a traditional three-point stance. Then, defending on third and 17, Flowers lined up over center Spencer Pulley and rushed quarterback Philip Rivers.
“Just to be able to handle that, you’ve got to be in the playbook, understand the scheme,” Flowers said. “You’ve just got to understand you’ve got to change your mentality if you’re inside or outside or standing up or hand in the dirt.
“It’s just a different type of mentality you’ve got to approach it with, but that’s what comes with taking on that role.”
Understanding the scheme has always come naturally to Flowers, whose football knowledge was evident even during his college days at Arkansas.
When Bret Bielema took over at Arkansas in 2013, Flowers, then a junior, stunned the new coach during a simple cognitive exercise.
“Before our games, we’d give our players tests,” said Bielema. “Most commonly among the defensive ends, when I’d draw the formation, they’d draw the ‘E’ where they were supposed to be aligned.
“Well, Trey would draw all 11 men and where they were supposed to be aligned. He took his football IQ to a different level.”
Flowers’s ability to diagnose blocking schemes, as well as his sound technical skills, have made him a go-to problem solver in the locker room.
Rookie Deatrich Wise, who also played at Arkansas with Flowers, picks his teammate’s brain regularly about certain coverages and the finer details of the Patriots defense.
“I think he’s helped me the same way,” said Wise. “It’s only different in the sense that he knows even more here than he did at Arkansas.”
Adam Butler, the rookie defensive lineman who has a locker next to Flowers’s, craves the technical tips.
Flowers is 6 feet 2 inches, 265 pounds, but can use his reach to create leverage against bigger opponents — a common technique among edge rushers. Flowers gets that extension better than most, which is why Butler, who as an interior lineman is less likely to rely on the technique, was so eager to adopt it.
“He’s just one of those guys who is in a class of his own,” Butler said. “Some of the stuff he does, I don’t want to say it’s unorthodox, but it’s unique to him because of his body frame. As soon as the ball is snapped, he’s playing with extension.
“Some of his stuff I try to learn and somewhat mimic. He knows his stuff just like [defensive coordinator Matt] Patricia knows it.”
After Flowers’s breakout 2016 season — he recorded seven sacks in the final nine games of the regular season and 2.5 in the Super Bowl, including a pivotal one in the fourth quarter that helped push the Falcons out of field goal range — the Patriots felt comfortable asking him to do more in the defense.
They did not re-sign Chris Long, who played the most snaps by a Patriots defensive lineman in 2016, or Jabaal Sheard, who played the fourth-most. A sequence of unexpected events diminished the Patriots’ depth on the edge.
Rob Ninkovich retired in June. Rookie Derek Rivers, drafted in the third round, tore an ACL in the preseason. Veteran Kony Ealy, who had been acquired last March in a trade, was cut Aug. 26.
Suddenly Flowers, who turned 24 in August, was the most experienced defensive end in the Patriots system.
“I understood I was taking on a role as the more experienced guy on the defensive line and in the defensive end room,” Flowers said. “I just understood I had to step into that role and be prepared for that and continued to work.”
A season-ending knee injury in Week 7 to linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who had transitioned to play the edge more this season, exasperated the Patriots’ depth issues.
“He’s got a lot on his plate this year,” Daly said of Flowers. “He’s handled that exceptionally, in my opinion.”
Through eight games, Flowers has been on the field for 482 snaps, just 81 shy of his total all of last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Flowers has dropped back in coverage on 33 snaps, seven more than he did all of last season.
“There’s an argument to be made as well he might be playing too many snaps,” Daly said. “I think that’s something you always look at and monitor.
“But he’s filling a number of roles which makes him really valuable on the field.”
The thinning defensive depth has put the Patriots in a precarious situation, but Flowers’s versatility has helped triage a variety of issues.
“Trey has a lot of experience or the most experience of our defensive linemen,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s also athletic and can handle a degree of versatility in our responsibilities. I’m not sure that’s always the best thing for him, but sometimes he’s the best we have at it.”
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