The New England Patriots rebuilt the cornerback position on their roster. At defensive end, they simply need to reload.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are firmly entrenched as the team's two starters on the ends of the line, but the Patriots' bullpen is lacking good relievers who can "pinch hit" when the situation calls for it.
The market was quick to develop for some of the top free-agent pass-rushers: Defensive end Julius Peppers signed with the Green Bay Packers a few days after free agency opened; outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware was snapped up quickly by the Denver Broncos after being released by the Dallas Cowboys.
There are still plenty of options available.
Jones and Ninkovich are carrying too heavy a load in terms of snap count. Each played more than 1,100 snaps and greater than 96 percent of the defensive snaps.
Their lack of depth is the source of the issue. Aside from Jones, who was the 21st overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Patriots have not been able to develop talent at defensive end.
|Patriots defensive end projects, 2010-2013|
|Player||Year acquired||Round||Years w/ Patriots||2013 snaps|
|Source: ProFootballFocus.com (highlight = still w/ team)|
Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis have already fallen to the wayside. Jake Bequette's 43 career snaps amount to just seven snaps more than the fewest taken by Ninkovich in 2013 (limited by injury to 36 snaps against the Pittsburgh Steelers). Michael Buchanan was playing a marginal role in the defense until the Patriots went out and signed veteran defensive end Andre Carter off the street.
The Patriots' inability to build through the draft at defensive end has left them in need.
The quick-fix options are dwindling, especially if veteran defensive end Jared Allen accepts a deal to join the Seattle Seahawks. Allen had previously expressed a desire to go somewhere he could be a key contributor, which would seem to disqualify New England, where he would be part of a rotation.
Even if Allen is no longer an option, there are still some intriguing possibilities available.
|Remaining pass-rushers on the open market|
|Player||Height||Weight||Pass rush snaps (2013)||Snap %||Pressures||QB Hu||QB Ht||QB Sk|
|Shaun Phillips||6'3"||255 lbs.||561||70.5||53||36||4||13|
|Robert Ayers||6'3"||274 lbs.||402||49.4||52||40||7||5|
|Anthony Spencer*||6'3"||262 lbs.||318||92||40||27||2||11|
|Source: ProFootballFocus.com (* = 2012, injured Week 2 2013)|
Two former Broncos pass-rushers are on the open market. Shaun Phillips spent nine years with the San Diego Chargers before signing with division rival Denver in 2013. He played 930 snaps (70.5 percent of Denver's defensive total) and his starting experience became crucial when the Broncos were without star outside linebacker Von Miller (six games due to suspension, four due to injury) in 2013.
The other Broncos edge-rusher is Robert Ayers, who was a first-round pick by the Broncos in 2009, when Josh McDaniels was heading the operation. Ayers never put together a breakout season—that's to be expected of a first-round pass-rushing talent—but he logged a career-high 5.5 sacks in 2013 as a part-time player. He ranked 10th among all 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Anthony Spencer was an outside linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, but at 6'3" and 262 pounds, he has the size of a defensive end in the Patriots' 4-3 front. He could come at a discount as a result of an ACL injury that could prevent him from being ready for training camp, according to Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com.
The Patriots just spent a first-round pick on Jones in 2012 and just gave Ninkovich a three-year, $15 million extension during the 2013 season. It may seem redundant to add another pass-rusher with a high pick, but anything is possible.
One option would be Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy. The pick would make sense from at least one perspective: Ealy recorded a 6.83-second finish in the three-cone drill, which was the fastest for any defensive end at the scouting combine. The three-cone drill has classically been a favorite of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
Those combine performances can be misleading sometimes, but not for Ealy. He has a natural bend around the corner and an effective outside-inside counter move that show off his quick feet. Critics will mention his lack of ideal bulk, which makes him prone to being knocked off the ball in the running game, but he did show the ability to anchor against the run at times.
He was considered small at 250 pounds in school, but he weighed in at 273 pounds at the scouting combine, so he could be filling out that 6'4" frame. He also has freakishly long arms at 34.5".
Auburn defensive end Dee Ford is another option, and one the Patriots are reportedly doing their homework on, according to Dan Kadar of SB Nation:
Ford doesn't possess the ideal frame for a defensive end, like Ealy: He measured in at 6'2" and 253 pounds, with 32.875" arms. He could still add some bulk, but his leaner build can lead to him getting washed out against the run when a blocker gets into his pads, but his burst off the snap makes it hard for offensive tackles to get their hands on him in the first place.
Ealy and Ford are both fits, but Jones is the only 4-3 defensive end Belichick has ever drafted in the first round (Richard Seymour and Ty Warren were both drafted to play end in the 3-4).
If the Patriots are going to look outside the first round for a pass-rusher, one option could be Scott Crichton from Oregon State. Crichton logged 16.5 sacks from 2012 through 2013, 16th-most in the country. His 36.5 tackles-for-loss were 10th in the country in that same span.
He made a slew of big plays in Oregon State's bowl game against Boise State, logging three tackles for loss and a sack. He has the power to fight through blocks and the burst to get into the backfield in a hurry. He's a bit unrefined, though, and NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki thinks he would have been better suited returning for his senior season.
Another option could be Louisville defensive end Marcus Smith. Like Crichton, Smith was highly productive with 18.5 sacks from 2012 through 2013, ranking ninth in the country.
Smith doesn't have the ideal bulk for a 4-3 end at 251 pounds, but at 6'3" and with 34" arms, he has the length to make life difficult for offensive tackles and the burst to beat blocks off the snap. He needs to develop some functional strength, though, so he can better shed blocks when an offensive lineman gets into his pads. The Patriots will probably like his versatility, too, as he played some 3-4 outside linebacker at Louisville and has marginal experience dropping into coverage.
Whether it's a free agent or a high pick to make an immediate impact, or a mid-round pick to groom into a contributor, the Patriots have options across the board.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases. Combine stats courtesy of NFL.com's results tracker. Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.