Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones provide a great starting point for the Patriots on the edge, but a pass-rushing presence like Dwight Freeney could find a role within a rotation in the front seven.
In fact, according to Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe, defensive end is one position the Patriots have been associated with in free agency:
The position I keep hearing most associated with the Patriots in free agency [...] is defensive end. According to league sources, the Patriots would have gotten in on Bengals end Michael Johnson, but he was wisely tagged by the Bengals.
[...] Even if Johnson hadn't been franchised, two personnel executives I talked to didn't think the Patriots would have had nearly enough money to land Johnson, which is why Colts end Dwight Freeney or some other veteran such as John Abraham of the Falcons might make more economic sense.
When it comes to veteran free-agent defensive ends, the New England Patriots have been down this path before.
It's a path that brings back memories of defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter becoming the first duo with double-digit sacks for the Patriots since 1987.
Speaking of which, there are a lot of similarities between Carter and Freeney. Both were mired in inconsistency for two years leading up to their free agency. Both were misused in the 3-4 defense. Both enjoyed great success as pass-rushers before their respective downturns.
Freeney, like Carter, would indicate that a four-man defensive line would continue to be the front of choice for the Patriots.
His 2012 season may not have been up to his old standard, but he still showed much of the skill set that made him a future Hall of Fame defensive end.
He was part of a big red-zone stop against the Houston Texans in Week 15. On 2nd-and-goal, he lined up with his hand in the dirt in the Wide 9 alignment, lined up outside All-Pro left tackle Duane Brown.
By his second step, Freeney nearly wins his matchup with Brown. If he doesn't at that point, he clearly wins it by the second frame, which shows Freeney with outside leverage and a straight shot at Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.
CBS analyst Dan Fouts had this to say of Freeney's sack:
Dwight Freeney [...] watch him come, and he's not paying any attention to the play-action fake. He's going after Schaub all the way and he gets home with the help of Cory Redding.
He has developed a reputation as that kind of player throughout his career. That reputation made him an easy target earlier on that same drive.
We see Freeney lined up in the Wide 9 again, but unlike the play mentioned above, which was a play-action fake, Texans running back Arian Foster gets the call.
Freeney rushes straight into the backfield, losing his gap and leaving a wide open lane for Foster to scamper to the second level of the defense.
The run only goes for six yards but only because linebacker Jerrell Freeman was able to chase the play down from behind.
This is obviously just a microcosm of Freeney as a player, but Bleacher Report's AFC South lead writer Nate Dunlevy provided some insight from a Colts perspective:
Dwight Freeney was slowed by a high-ankle sprain early in the year, but did come on late with Indianapolis. He only finished with five sacks, including three in his last five games as he regained strength.
Freeney was never a clean fit in the 3-4, as he spent most of the year rushing with his hand on the ground. On most downs, the Colts used him exactly as he always had been used.
He clearly has a lot to offer a team in terms of leadership and pure rushing ability. He's a perfect fit for any 4-3 team looking for a situational pass-rusher. In the right circumstance, it's easy to envision him hitting double-digit sacks again. Unfortunately that will be limited to a team looking for a hand-on-the-ground edge rusher.
In that sense, he is exactly what the Patriots lost when Mark Anderson went to the Buffalo Bills: great in a role as a specialist on passing downs, but at his best when not asked to step outside that role for too long.
Freeney has always been the type of defensive lineman who is more concerned with getting the sack than stopping the run, playing with a "stop the run on the way to the quarterback" mentality. In the right role, though, he could be a great addition to the Patriots defense.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.