Around the time most were learning how to ride a bike, Trey Flowers was getting to work. His grandfather started Flowers Construction 50 years ago, and by the time young Trey was finished with kindergarten, he was lending a hand to the family business during hot summers in Huntsville, Alabama. Trey’s father, Robert Flowers Jr., was 9 when the company opened in 1969. Before that, Robert spent his summers picking okra—their group would gather about a ton a day when everything went right. Robert understood the value of a day’s work, and his 10 children would too. At first, Trey’s role was limited to grabbing tools and running errands, but by 11, he was roofing as well as any other worker. “He was putting on shingles like a grown man,” Robert says. “I promise you that. When I say he was good, you could trust him to run the valleys and work around [pipes]. He could do all of that.”
Trey has three brothers. Growing up, his siblings occasionally needed a scolding, a reminder to get back in line and follow their father’s rules. Trey never did. “When it came his turn, he just did what daddy said,” Robert Flowers says. “Some of the siblings yanked him about that. ‘Oh, you just do what daddy say.’ But he just didn’t see no need of bucking the system.” Two decades later, as the 25-year-old Patriots defensive end prepares to play in his third straight Super Bowl, that disciplined, workmanlike demeanor still defines him. In an organization—and for a defensive-minded coach—that values following assignments and flexibility above all else, Flowers just might be the perfect defensive player. New England’s dynasty has been spurred by previous pass-rushing greats like Richard Seymour, Rob Ninkovich, and others whose sack totals belied their impact. Four years into his young career, Flowers has proved to be a deserving successor to that role.
Leading up to the 2015 draft, Flowers wasn’t considered anything more than a mid-round prospect. He’d been productive during his four years at Arkansas. He tallied 15.5 tackles for loss during his senior season, and his career mark of 47.5 is the second-highest in school history. But what some scouts perceived as limited athleticism hindered his draft stock. As most teams looked for the next Khalil Mack or Von Miller—explosive speed rushers off the edge—Flowers profiled as a stout run defender with a defined ceiling as a pass rusher. At 266 pounds, he ran a 4.93-second 40-yard dash at the combine. “Trey was not highly recruited out of high school,” says former Arkansas defensive line coach Rory Segrest. “He’s not the quickest guy. He’s not the biggest guy. He’s not the strongest guy. But at the same time, he just gets the job done.”
Before his time at Arkansas, Segrest spent four seasons in various coaching roles with the Eagles. He knew what NFL teams wanted in defensive linemen. Segrest had also known Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly for years. When Daly inquired about Flowers before the draft, Segrest assured him that whoever drafted Trey wouldn’t regret it. “I told [Daly] that Trey is gonna be one of those guys that regardless where he goes, he’s going to be in the NFL for a long period of time,” Segrest says. New England selected Flowers in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL draft, with the 101st pick.
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Looking back on the pre-draft process, Daly disputes the notion that Flowers didn’t initially stand out. “He does jump off the tape,” Daly says. “He jumps off the tape as a good football player.” That observation may sound staid, but Daly saw in Flowers’s college film the sort of defensive lineman that the Patriots had long coveted. Flowers was almost never out of position. He rarely took chances when the situation didn’t warrant it. Quite simply: He did his job. “You can definitely watch tape and understand that a guy knows how to play the game—where he’s supposed to be, what he’s supposed to be doing,” Daly says.
When Daly talks about Flowers now, he can’t help but get animated. Flowers’s combination of traits is a defensive line coach’s dream, and for anyone who understands the nuances of the DE position, it’s impossible not to appreciate. The word Daly mentions over and over is “leverage.” In every situation, Flowers manages to get where he wants to go, whether that’s hunkering down against the run or making a sudden, late burst to finish off a play. His body control and ability to stay anchored on the edge has turned him into one of the top run-defending defensive ends in football. The way Flowers uses his hands and throws his weight around in close quarters reminds Daly of players with wrestling backgrounds who he’s coached in the past. As a left defensive end, Flowers’s assignment against the run is typically to hold down the edge and cause plays to spill back to the inside. But when the moment calls for it, he also has the hands to toss a blocker into the gutter and finish plays on his own.
Flowers may lack the burst of other elite edge rushers, but he compensates with a rare blend of instincts and awareness. His best pass-rush move shares similarities with the maneuvers he uses while defending the run. Players like Von Miller or Dee Ford do all they can to set the agenda when getting after the quarterback. Their speed allows them to beat tackles to the edge before the offensive linemen can even blink. Flowers often takes a different approach. When he’s working one-on-one, he’s rarely in a hurry. Whereas most edge rushers would do all they can to keep a lineman’s hands off them, Flowers doesn’t mind—at least not at first. By initially engaging with the player across from him, Flowers has the chance to use his opponent’s weight and movements against him. He can feel the slightest lean in any direction, and the moment he does, a tackle goes flying, and Flowers is in the backfield. That snatch-and-pull move is Flowers’s go-to approach on the edge, and once again, Daly credits its effectiveness to an uncanny understanding of leverage.
Flowers may have tallied only 7.5 sacks in the regular season, but according to Pro Football Focus, he finished the year with 64 disrupted dropbacks. That was tied for 13th in the league, with players like Von Miller and Melvin Ingram—both of whom were deemed valuable enough to merit the franchise tag at some point over the past three years. Flowers has continued to make his presence felt as a pass rusher during the playoffs, by way of some of the subtler elements he brings to the Patriots defense. One of the aspects that Daly loves most about his young star is how well Flowers communicates. Daly doesn’t mean rousing speeches in the way some might when talking about players being vocal; it’s the way Flowers conveys certain concepts to his teammates or pipes up when he recognizes a check by the offensive line. That type of information-sharing has been vital for the Patriots in the postseason. New England has relied on line stunts and blitzes to create consistent pressure all year, but over the past two games, the Pats have used twists and line games to create confusion up front and get to the quarterback.
With 4:40 remaining in the second quarter of their divisional round matchup in New England, the Chargers faced a second-and-10 from their own 47-yard line. With his offense already at the line, quarterback Philip Rivers noticed an aspect of the defensive alignment that caused him to check the play. As the offense scrambled to alter its call, Flowers gestured to his fellow linemen and linebackers about how the Patriots had to adjust. Just as Rivers let go of the pass, Flowers took him to the ground, and the result was a deep incompletion.
Along with getting his teammates in the right position for all the Patriots’ trickery up front, Flowers is more than capable of finishing plays himself. Talented stunters often rely on a combination of timing and change-of-direction ability, and Flowers has plenty of both. He has a distinct feel for when and how an offensive lineman will move in almost any situation, and he consistently uses it to his advantage.
Highlights of Flowers are rarely eye-popping. He’s not going to toss offensive tackles with one arm like Mack or dip his shoulder to the ground and still manage to pulverize a quarterback like Miller. But when Flowers hits free agency this spring, there’s a chance that he will command a contract that isn’t far off from what the league’s best edge rushers have earned in recent years. As Daly says, Flowers checks just about every box a defensive coach could want, and it’s made him the ideal player for the Patriots’ plan on their way to the Super Bowl. Against a Rams offense that relies on using misdirection and play-action to take advantage of undisciplined defenders, he’s precisely the type of player that New England will need. “I don’t know who’s underrating [him],” Daly says, “but it’s not me. Some people might. But I love this guy.”