Have the Patriots Quietly Built the NFL's Most Formidable Defensive Line?

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Have the Patriots Quietly Built the NFL's Most Formidable Defensive Line?
Steven Senne/Associated Press

When discussion turns to the NFL's best defensive lines, a number of suspects are mentioned.

There's the St. Louis Rams, who added disruptive tackle Aaron Donald to an already loaded front this year. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also upgraded, adding end Michael Johnson to a front that already included end Adrian Clayborn and tackle Gerald McCoy.

The Seattle Seahawks send a never-ending rotation of fresh players at opposing quarterbacks. The Buffalo Bills led the AFC with a franchise-record 57 sacks last year. The Carolina Panthers led the entire league with 60.

Well, don't look now, but the evil empire in Beantown has assembled quite the group of Stormtroopers on the defensive front.

Granted, at first glance, that may not appear to be the case. According to the metrics at Football Outsiders, the New England Patriots' defensive front was the third-worst in the league last year against the run. The team fared better against the pass, ranking ninth, and its 48 sacks ranked fifth in the league. Those numbers are good, sure, but not necessarily indicative of one of the league's best lines.

However, it's important to consider the circumstances that befell the Patriots last year. The defensive tackle position was gutted by injuries, with Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork both missing double-digit games.

With a full deck to play with this year, it will be an entirely different ballgame.

It all starts with third-year end Chandler Jones, who paced the team with 11.5 sacks last year. After showing promise early in his rookie season, Jones faded down the stretch in 2012 due to injuries.

Last year was another story.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), no 4-3 end played more snaps in 2013 than Jones. In addition to those 11.5 sacks, he also recorded 14 hits and 38 hurries, ranking in the top 15 among 4-3 ends in that regard.

ESPN's Mike Reiss thinks even more could be in store for Jones in 2014:

With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.

At the other end of the line, the Patriots have arguably the NFL's best strong-side end in ninth-year veteran Rob Ninkovich.

Only his batterymate (Jones) played more snaps among 4-3 ends last year than Ninkovich's 1,114. The end result was a staggering 91 tackles, eight sacks and the status of the NFL's best run-stuffing 4-3 defensive end per PFF.

There are question marks at tackle but a ton (both literally and figuratively) of talent as well. Kelly and Wilfork may not be spring chickens anymore, but the pair remain savvy veterans equally capable of stuffing the run and disrupting the pocket.

Second-year pro Chris Jones had his struggles after being thrown into the fire last year, but Jones also topped 50 tackles and posted six sacks.

With all that said, though, it's rookie Dominique Easley who could be the final piece in the puzzle.

Had Easley not torn his ACL last year at Florida, the 6'2", 288-pounder probably would have challenged Aaron Donald to be the first defensive tackle taken in the 2014 draft. In fact, Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated took things one step further:

The tape more than backs up the hype, and we'll get to that in a moment. The only thing that brings pause, of course, is that Easley suffered injuries to the ACLs in both knees through his collegiate career. Both injuries were non-contact in nature. Most analysts believe that had those injuries not happened, and Easley had been able to play at his collegiate level, he would have been a top-10 pick. I'd go a step further and say that if Easley had been injury-free at Florida, he might have been the first player taken overall; at the very least, the discussion regarding the best defensive player in this draft class would have been far more interesting.

Not only is Easley an incredibly disruptive 3-technique, but he's also more than able to rush the passer as a 3-4 end.

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And you know how much Darth Hoodie (head coach Bill Belichick, for the less snarky) loves his multiple fronts.

Add it all up and you have a line, on paper, that's as deep and talented as any in the NFL. That's without even mentioning reserves like veteran end Will Smith and Canadian phenom Armond Armstead.

Mind you, this doesn't mean that the Patriots' D-line is destined to lay siege to quarterbacks like Mehmed II and the Ottomans did Constantinople back in the day.

Way back in the day.

The team needs to get its tackles back on the field and keep them there. Asking Ninkovich and Jones to each play over 1,100 snaps again in 2014 is likely asking for trouble.

Still, it isn't going to be one shred easier for the Bills, New York Jets or Miami Dolphins to knock the Patriots off of their perch atop the AFC East this season, because the Pats have gotten significantly better on defense this year, and it all starts up front.

 

Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.

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