Despite Quiet Year in Philly, Sopoaga Poised to Help Pats
The Patriots acquisition of Eagles nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga was met with skepticism from the Philadelphia media. Sopoaga hadn't made enough of an impact in his half-season in Philly to justify his three year, $12 million contract, leading many in the media to simply be happy (and, in some cases, surprised) that they could even get a fifth round pick for him.
Of course, it's always troubling when a player's past city is simply happy to get rid of him. However, it's also worth looking into the circumstances surrounding the player's tenure there. Remember, Buccaneers fans were ecstatic when the Patriots "did them a favor" by taking the troubled Aqib Talib off their hands last year.
In Sopoaga's case, his contract seemed to create unrealistic expectations in Philly. Sopoaga was brought in coming off a solid season as a starter for the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. As a nine-year veteran, Sopoaga was expected to bring veteran leadership and experience, badly needed for a young Philly team transitioning to a 3-4 defense, along with solid production.
By all accounts, the man known by his teammates as "Soap" did just that. From CSN Philly:
Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox, two of the team’s best linemen,
frequently credited Sopoaga’s instruction and business-like approach in
helping them transition from a one-gap defensive front to a hybrid
scheme that features a lot of two-gap.
Here's Sopoaga's replacement in the Eagles starting lineup, third round rookie Bennie Logan:
“I learned a lot from him. Just how to practice,
learning the defense, studying and keying offensive lineman and just
your approach to your game."
The better the Eagles young defensive linemen got, the more expendable Sopoaga and his $4 million a year salary became. The Eagles are clearly building for the future, despite what Chip Kelly might say, and have every reason to give the kids more snaps to see what they can do. This move made plenty of sense for them in that sense.
However, talk of Sopoaga being washed-up or a bust seems to be going a bit overboard. Philly media have cited Sopoaga's lack of production as a reason for his departure, but statistics are never a good indicator of a how well a nose tackle is playing. At 330 pounds, Sopoaga's job is to occupy gaps and blockers, making it easier for his linebackers to fly around and rack up tackles.
Is Sopoaga a $4 million a year player? No. Is he going to replicate the play of a healthy Vince Wilfork? Not even close. Fortunately, the Patriots aren't asking him to. Sopoaga is still very big and very strong, and he steps into a team in dire need of a player with that exact skill set. All Sopoaga has to do is play on early downs and hold up against the run. He doesn't need to rack up tackles or sacks. He doesn't need to stand out. All he has to do is not get driven back five yards on power runs the way Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have at times.
Since the Wilfork injury, teams have been determined to use the running game to dominate time of possession, keeping Tom Brady from getting into a rhythm in the process. If Sopoaga, coupled with a returning Tommy Kelly, can simply help the league's 31st worst rushing defense reach average levels, the Patriots will become a significantly better team. For that reason alone, Sopoaga has a chance to make an impact far beyond stat sheet.