FOXBOROUGH — Back in 2015, when Mike Vrabel was the linebackers coach for the Houston Texans, he traveled to the University of Arkansas to watch defensive lineman Trey Flowers at a pre-draft workout. Vrabel loved what he saw, and he got a feeling watching Flowers that a certain other coach would like the player, too.
“I knew when I went over there that this was a guy that Bill [Belichick] would target,” said Vrabel, now the head coach with the Tennes see Titans.
Vrabel was hoping the Texans would draft Flowers, but his instinct was right that there would be competition from the Patriots. New England selected Flowers in the fourth round that year, and although the Huntsville, Ala., native missed most of his rookie season because of an injury, he has since become one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
“His technique, his hands, he uses his length very well, he can bend. I could go on and on,” said Vrabel, whose team will face the Patriots on Sunday in Nashville. “I’ve liked him for a lot of years since I went and saw him at Arkansas, and it’s no surprise that Bill and that organization liked him as well.”
Vrabel — quiet at the start of a conversation via conference call on Wednesday but gushed, “Oh man, I loved Trey,” as soon as Flowers was mentioned — isn’t the first coach to reveal a player-crush on the versatile edge defender. “He’s not the big-name guy, but he’s the big-name guy among the coaching world,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said three weeks ago.
Flowers’s image isn’t on the side of the “Sunday Night Football” bus, and he’ll never sell as many jerseys as J.J. Watt or Von Miller. He has a quiet personality and, mostly because of the priorities of the Patriots defense, gets a low number of sacks relative to the amount of pressure he brings. He’ll become a bigger name once he hits the free agent market this offseason as one of the NFL’s best pass rushers.
Flowers, who led the Patriots in sacks and quarterback hits in each of the past two seasons, enters Week 10 as Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded edge defender. He has 32 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 7 quarterback hits, and 35 total pressures, the best number on the team and the one that best encapsulates what Flowers does for the Patriots.
“We call him ‘The Quiet Storm,’ ” said Patriots linebackers coach and defensive play-caller Brian Flores. “You don’t hear much from him, but he’s been a warrior for us and he’s played lights-out, really, since he’s gotten here. Everyone in the building respects him.”
Flowers’s other nickname in the locker room is “Technique.” His hand skills and understanding of how to create leverage with his length allow him to play anywhere on the defensive line, making him the kind of movable chess piece coaches love. Two weeks ago against the Bills, Flowers was effective setting the edge and funneling running back LeSean McCoy to the inside. Last week against the Packers, he mostly played on the interior and pressured quarterback Aaron Rodgers nine times before sharing a fourth-quarter sack with defensive end Adrian Clayborn.
That third-down play, which stopped a potential game-tying drive, exemplified some of Flowers’s best traits.
The Patriots had a four-man line with Flowers lined up as the defensive tackle on the right side of the defense. He was in a three-point stance on Green Bay left guard Lane Taylor’s outside shoulder. Clayborn was lined up in a four-point stance on the same side outside left tackle David Bakhtiari. On the play, Green Bay center Corey Linsley went to the opposite side to double-team defensive tackle Adam Butler with right guard Byron Bell.
That left Flowers one-on-one against the 6-foot-3-inch, 324-pound Taylor. Flowers is 6-2 and 265, but he beat Taylor so quickly he had time to get into Bakhtiari before the Packers tackle could block Clayborn. Clayborn twisted inside and had a straight shot at Rodgers, and Flowers only needed to disengage and turn around to get in on the sack as well.
The most impressive part of the play was how quickly Flowers beat Taylor, stabbing his left arm into Taylor’s right shoulder to knock him off balance, then clubbing his right arm into Taylor’s chest to finish the move and get around him. It was technique, strength, and instinct rolled into one moment.
“Trey has a really good feel for leverage and the weight distribution of the players,” Belichick said. “So, if the guy’s light, he can push him back. If a guy’s kind of leaning on him, he can get around him with his quickness. He uses his hands well, he plays on his feet, he has good balance, and he runs well. You know, he can run out and track guys down, make plays from the backside.”
Flowers can go from tracking guys down in space to lining up over the center or a guard not only because he’s exceptionally strong for a player his size but because he has the instinctual awareness of how to fight all those particular battles.
“He almost always makes the right decision on that, whether he’s outside or inside or on the right side or on the left side or whether we’re in a four-man line, a five-man line, a three-man line,” Belichick said. “He’s a very instinctive guy, has a lot of versatility, really can play anywhere across the line.”
So call Trey Flowers by any of his nicknames, but don’t forget to call him one of the best at his position, too.