If games are decided in the trenches, then the New England Patriots should be optimistic. On the defensive side of the ball, the Pats will enter the 2014 season with a well-stocked cavalry on the line, which should emerge as a strength of the team.
As a likely Super Bowl contender, the Patriots have fewer holes in their starting lineup than most squads, thus lessening the number of truly critical camp competitions. However, the defensive line is unique in that niche players can have as important an impact as starters because of the unit's liberal substitution patterns.
Therefore, the D-line could actually produce more viable contributors than any other position, making its development important to track throughout the preseason.
Given that Bill Belichick has transitioned toward the hybrid fronts that have become en vogue around the league, versatility is indispensable when assembling the D-line. With the Pats employing one- and two-gap techniques on virtually every down, there are a wide range of skill sets needed to build proper depth.
With training camp still in its early stages, predicting the eventual depth chart is difficult. After all, contact is necessary to meaningfully evaluate linemen, which places more weight on joint practices and the preseason games. But based on the preliminary signs from Foxboro, here's one view of where the defensive line depth chart stands at the moment.
These players are not only shoo-ins for the final 53-man roster, but all are vital to the Patriots' success in 2014. As such, they are cornerstones who should receive heavy workloads and high-pressure snaps.
The bookend defensive tandem of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich carried the line last year, playing more snaps than any other players on defense, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). I recently wrote about Jones' breakout potential, as his ceiling after 17.5 sacks in his first two seasons indicates that of a budding elite pass-rusher.
The long-underappreciated Ninkovich has finally earned a steady role after posting 22.5 sacks over the past three seasons. While his pass rush is a nice bonus, it's Ninkovich's run defense that makes him a perfect fit as a closed-side end.
His plus-18.1 overall grade against the run was tops in the league among all 4-3 defensive ends. Moreover, his history in the 3-4 provides an added layer of depth at the second level:
Whereas the starters at defensive end had rock-solid 2013 campaigns, the defensive tackles are attempting to rebound from catastrophic injury-plagued campaigns. Longtime stalwart Vince Wilfork slashed his pay to stay in Foxboro, but according to NESN's Doug Kyed, the 32-year-old has rebounded quicker than expected from his debilitating Achilles injury:
If I had limitations, I wouldn’t be practicing. My job is to help my teammates the best way I can, whatever that may be. The only way for me to help my teammates is to be on the field and be healthy. Right now, I’m on the field and I’m healthy. If anything happens in the future, I can’t predict that. But right now my job is to help this team the best way I can and get better each day, and that’s what I’m going to do.
|Vince Wilfork Run Defense Stats, 2009-13|
|Year||Cumulative Run Grade||Run-Stop %|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
In fairness, Wilfork took on a heavier workload in 2011 and 2012 yet still managed to finish in the top five among defensive tackles in run-stop percentage. At the moment, last year represents a tiny blip, considering the tiny sample size of just 70 snaps.
But given New England's numerous options for pass-rushing 3-techniques, Wilfork figures to make his impact as a run-stuffing early-down presence this season. There were times, most notably against the New York Jets' Vladimir Ducasse in Week 2, where Wilfork appeared a shell of himself:
It's possible to rationalize this away. The Jets game was on a Thursday night, meaning that Wilfork played 116 snaps over five days, a massive total for a defensive tackle. Indeed, in Week 1, nothing appeared amiss when Wilfork routinely stonewalled the Buffalo Bills' running game:
Nonetheless, we are not asking what Wilfork was capable of last year, but what he will do this year after the Achilles injury. If he fails to rebound to his accustomed levels, Wilfork's $8.3 million cap hit for 2015, per Spotrac.com, could catalyze a redux of this summer's contract drama.
The final lock will be first-rounder Dominique Easley, who has yet to practice in training camp while recovering from a torn ACL last September. However, The Boston Globe's Erik Frenz suggested that Easley was not far off from his camp debut:
The Pats have been starved for an interior rusher like Easley, who has the potential to develop into one of the league's premier 3-techniques. With the versatility to also play the 7-tech and even the Wide 9, Easley's presence could foster some intriguing sub-package "NASCAR" combinations.
All the hype is simply conjecture until he actually takes the field, but it's hard not to dream about the added dimension his skill set provides to the defense.
On the Bubble
None of these players should book their roster spots yet, but the majority of them figure to make the roster. In examining this group, it's best to view things through the lens of direct competitions since all these players are specialists who in some cases could have overlapping roles.
Defensive ends Michael Buchanan and Will Smith will look to provide depth at a position where Jones and Ninkovich had to shoulder unpalatable burdens last season. There hasn't been much to report on either player—Smith is practicing after losing his entire 2013 to a torn ACL, per The Associated Press (via Patriots.com), while Buchanan has yet to catch the eye among reporters.
Despite unspectacular starts, both figure to have relatively secure roster spots. That could change if one of the depth defensive ends stands out as an impactful edge-rusher during preseason games, but the Patriots do need layers behind Jones and Ninkovich.
For now, Smith and Buchanan have been relatively uninspiring, though New England really only figures to need 15 to 20 pass-rushing snaps per game between the two.
A higher-stakes battle is occurring between Tommy Kelly and Chris Jones. Provided that Easley does not suffer any setbacks, it may be redundant for the Pats to carry a trio of relatively one-dimensional pass-rushing 3-techniques. In fact, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss left Kelly off the roster in his latest roster projection.
The 33-year-old Kelly is coming off a torn ACL that cut his season to just five games. The longtime Oakland Raider does have a track record as a reliable interior rusher; indeed, after a porous 2012, Kelly showed signs of rebounding to his previous levels before his injury:
|Tommy Kelly Pass-Rushing Stats, 2010-2013|
|Year||Cumulative Rush Grade||Pass-Rushing Productivity|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Jones provided six sacks but slowed down considerably after a strong start. It would be unfair to pin much blame on Jones, whom the Patriots claimed off waivers in September and extracted a tremendous amount of value. Still, among defensive tackles, Jones' minus-26.6 run grade ranked last, while he was 26th in pass-rushing productivity due to his high number of total snaps.
With Easley in tow, the winner of this competition figures to see a scaled-back role from what he experienced in 2013. While Kelly's $1.8 million cap hit puts him at a disadvantage against Jones' $495,000 figure, the veteran was consistently more productive during his time in 2013. Even when he didn't reach the quarterback, Kelly's high motor and sneaky quickness often created pressures:
Economics often dictate roster decisions. But in this instance, Kelly and Jones should be on relatively level playing ground since the former's cost is not too prohibitive.
While those four duke things out, Sealver Siliga has the relative luxury of having a fairly secure role for 2014. Siliga may receive less playing time than any of the aforementioned linemen, as he figures to provide insurance in the event of a Wilfork injury.
But Siliga, who the Patriots signed to their practice squad in late October, saved the team's bacon down the stretch by providing sturdy two-gapping in the interior. If he had played enough snaps to qualify, his 10.5 percent run-stop percentage would have ranked fifth among all defensive tackles.
Indeed, at 6'2" and 325 pounds, Siliga's size provided to an underrated jolt to a Pats run defense that had come under siege:
Perspective here is important, as Siliga only played 328 total snaps and failed to make an impression in either Seattle or Denver, his two previous NFL stops. Still, while the 24-year-old may not match that snap total in 16 games this year, he's an intriguing developmental prospect worthy of the Patriots' time.
The Projects/Long Shots
None of these players is likely to contribute meaningfully in 2014. However, a few could sneak their way onto the final 53 or practice squad, making them important to track for future-minded fans. With all due respect to undrafted rookies Eathyn Manumaleuna and L.T. Tuipulotu, we're only considering four names in this category.
Sixth-round rookie Zach Moore might be the most intriguing name to Patriots followers. After playing collegiate ball at Division II Concordia-St. Paul, the massive jump in competition makes Moore a project. However, the 6'6", 275-pound lineman possesses tantalizing physical tools, which led Reiss to make the bold proclamation that Moore is a lock for the final roster:
Some might view it as a surprise that Moore, the sixth-round pick from Concordia-St. Paul (198th overall), is viewed as a "sure-fire" lock when it's possible he doesn't play much in 2014. But the feeling here is Moore was selected with a two-year plan in mind (he comes from a lower level of competition) and he is a sure-fire lock based on his top physical traits and testing results (e.g. 10-yard split).
Indeed, Moore's excellent combine results in the long jump, 40-yard dash and short shuttle (via NFL.com) indicate a player with the athletic upside necessary to develop into an important sub-package rusher.
Moore's explosion off the snap should be fun to watch in preseason, but keep an eye on the finer nuances: Does he vary his moves? Does he set the edge reliably? How does he use his hands? Moore is extremely unrefined in all these areas and must learn these skills before earning significant playing time.
If Moore represents all upside, then former third-rounder Jake Bequette is an embodiment of what happens when that upside sours. Bequette has played just 43 defensive snaps over his first two seasons, generally ending up as a healthy scratch. Facing a make-or-break summer, there are some positive early signs from Bequette:
Unless injuries arise, it would seem as though the Arkansas product is out of luck. However, according to Patsfans.com's Miguel Benzan, Bequette is eligible for the practice squad since he has yet to accrue nine games on the active roster over his first two years. If he continues to show well this summer, he could at least garner consideration from the Pats or another team.
Joe Vellano and Marcus Forston actually have more experience than either Moore or Bequette, but both face huge uphill climbs to make the final 53. Forston does still have practice squad eligibility, but Vellano, who lost playing time after a disastrous Week 12 showing against Denver, could be out of luck.
Early Depth-Chart Projection
As the Patriots approach their preseason opener, here's one take on where the depth chart stands along the defensive line.
Starters: Chandler Jones (RDE), Tommy Kelly (RDT), Vince Wilfork (NT), Rob Ninkovich (LDE)
Three-quarters of the front four should be a no-brainer. With Easley missing most of offseason workouts, however, look for the Patriots to lean upon Kelly's experience early on. Considering the Patriots line up in 3-4 as well, this base look is not set in stone since New England figures to shift its personnel constantly based on weekly game plans and injuries.
Sub-Package Personnel: Will Smith (DE), Michael Buchanan (DE), Dominique Easley (DT)
These three players should afford the Patriots tremendous versatility. Easley gives the Patriots three viable interior rushers (along with Kelly and Jones), which should allow them to mix-and-match on the outside as well. There are myriad possibilities for passing downs: Smith-Jones-Easley-Ninkovich, Easley-Jones-Kelly-Ninkovich, Jones-Kelly-Easley-Buchanan, etc.
Goal-line Personnel: Sealver Siliga (NT)
Unless Wilfork goes down, it's hard to imagine Siliga carving out a much larger role than this. Most of Wilfork's rest is likely to come on passing downs, so Siliga might not see more than five to 10 snaps a game, depending on the game plan.
Practice Squad: Zach Moore (DE)
The allure of the unknown can be powerful, and Moore's unharnessed upside gives him a leg up over the rest of his competition. If he flashes well in the preseason, the Patriots may be forced to devote an extra spot on the final roster to ensure that no team poaches him. But even NFL backups are a big leap in competition for Moore, so we'll leave him on the practice squad for now.
Cuts: Chris Jones (DT), Joe Vellano (DT), Marcus Forston (DT), Eathyn Manumaleuna (DT), LT Tuipulotu (DT)
With Jones and Forston having expired their practice squad eligibility, the two players who stepped up and played heavy snaps with the starters last year could find themselves off the roster entirely in 2014. Depending on how Wilfork, Kelly and Easley progress in their recoveries from major injuries, the Pats could add another layer of depth by placing a fifth defensive tackle on the practice squad.
*All stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).