Elise Amendola/Associated Press
If the return of one big body will help the offensive line, the return of two will make a night and day difference to the defensive front. Belichick will be ecstatic to welcome back Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.
While an ecstatic Belichick is tough to envisage, Wilfork's impact on the defense is not. The 6'2", 325-pound behemoth is the player who allows the Pats to seamlessly shift between 3-4, 4-3 and nickel looks.
Wilfork's place as Belichick's ultimate chess piece up front, will depend a lot on his health, following surgery to repair the torn Achilles that doomed his 2013 campaign after just four games.
Fortunately, the signs are positive that Wilfork has made good progress in his recovery, as Boston.com scribe Eric Frenz noted:
He showed signs of progress at the team's organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, making the transition from the players practicing in the bubble to those practicing with the rest of the team. Wilfork's ability to move all over the line will continue to be a huge asset to the Patriots' defensive front.
With Wilfork and Kelly, who is returning from an ACL injury, back in the middle, last season's 30th-ranked run defense won't be so generous this term.
But given the health status of this veteran pair, depth is sure to play an important role in New England's season. That's why the team drafted Dominique Easley with its top pick.
Easley is a different D-tackle to what the Patriots have been used to in recent seasons. He's got genuine athletic range and excellent initial quickness.
While Kelly and Wilfork will control gaps, Easley will split and dart through them. That is, of course, once he's healthy. The former Florida ace is also recovering from a torn ACL.
That could mean Belichick is once again reliant on no-name retreads such as Joe Vellano, Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga. It's the latter two who have the best chance of sticking around. Jones is a useful interior pass-rusher, while Siliga boasts the size to absorb multiple blockers.
Things look a little more settled outside the tackles. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are versatile rush ends who can flip-flop between a three-point stance or a standing alignment, depending on the defensive call.
Jones has awesome natural talent, but it would be nice to see him dominate games a little more often. Having some beef back in the middle will certainly help.
It will also help the Patriots to have a valuable situational pass-rusher in the form of veteran Will Smith. He offers key versatility that Belichick will love to exploit, per Ben Volin of The Boston Globe:
Smith also has good positional versatility, having played 4-3 defensive end, 3-4 defensive end, and 3-4 outside linebacker. He mostly lined up on the right side, but said he’s willing to play on the left, and has been doing some during offseason practices. Jones is the right defensive end in the base defense, but can move inside on passing downs.
If he's fully recovered from, you guessed it, a torn ACL, Smith will prove to be a very shrewd acquisition. His presence will leave rangy special teams demon Michael Buchanan battling with sixth-round pick Zach Moore to stay relevant.
This position is fully loaded, provided everyone gets and stays healthy. Belichick certainly needs them to. His multiple-gap technique scheming relies on versatile linemen to make it work.