<
>

Jabaal Sheard fits Patriots mold well

When thinking of what the New England Patriots value in players, things like skill, size, toughness and versatility come to mind. Defensive end/outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard checks the box in each area, and because he had a down year in 2014 and might be a bargain in free agency, Sheard was our "top target" pick for the Patriots entering free agency.

The Patriots saw it similarly in signing him to a two-year, $11 million contract on Wednesday.

Here's our quick-hit breakdown:

Skill -- Sheard has 23 quarterback sacks in his first four seasons, although it should be noted his production in that area dipped each season. Part of that could have been adjusting to three different defensive coordinators in four years. In addition to rushing the passer, Sheard is an edge-setting presence in the run game.

Size -- At 6-foot-3 and 264 pounds, Sheard isn't as rangy as the 6-foot-5 Chandler Jones, but that's still a solid physical makeup for an end-of-the-line player in the team's scheme.

Toughness -- This is what drew us to Sheard coming out of the 2011 draft, as the University of Pittsburgh product had an element of toughness that stood out. He has missed just three games over four NFL seasons playing in the smash-mouth AFC North, so that toughness has carried over to the NFL.

Versatility -- Sheard is an end-of-the-line player, which means he'd be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment or a defensive end in a 4-3. In the various sub defenses the Patriots play (73.5 percent of the time in 2014), Sheard could factor in a number of spots.

The Patriots seemed to like Sheard coming out of college and could have taken him at the top of the second round that year, but instead went with cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Sheard went to the Browns four picks later, and in 2013, then-Cleveland general manager Michael Lombardi got to know Sheard, which is intel that likely played some type of role in New England's pursuit this year.

Nice pickup.