Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are a solid edge rusher duo, regardless of scheme, but they had no depth behind them in 2013, which is why they played 1142 and 1114 snaps respectively, 1st and 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends in snaps played respectively. The Patriots added Akeem Ayers for depth purposes in 2014 when Chandler Jones got hurt and he did well in that role, but he left as a free agent so the Patriots had a need for another edge rusher, especially with Ninkovich going into his age 31 season and coming off the first season in which he graded out below average in 5 seasons as a starter.
Enter Jabaal Sheard. 5.5 million annually is a lot for a rotational player, but it’s a solid value for Sheard, especially considering it’s just a two-year deal and only 5.5 million is guaranteed. Sheard, a 2011 2nd round pick, has emerged as a solid edge rusher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and 16th ranked in 2014. However, this was a loaded free agent class for edge rushers so some above average player was going to get the short end of the stick with a deal like this. That happened to be Sheard and the Patriots are the beneficiaries, once again showing it pays to be patient in free agency.
The Patriots are widely assumed to be moving back to a 4-3 this season after the departure of Vince Wilfork. Bill Belichick is known for catering his scheme to his players and his defensive players fit a 4-3 better than a 3-4 right now. Sheard has experience playing in both a 4-3 and 3-4. He graded out below average in both of his seasons as a 4-3 defensive end, but those were also his first two seasons in the league, so he won’t necessarily struggle back in a 4-3 in New England. I believe they’ll find a creative way to use him. Perhaps they’ll move Rob Ninkovich back to the Von Miller type role as an outside linebacker in base packages who rushes the passer from the edge in sub packages. That would make Sheard a starter opposite Chandler Jones at defensive end in base packages and the bigger Jones could then rush the passer from the interior in sub packages.