One man's loss is another man's gain, and while there are a lot of mixed feelings around NFL locker rooms at this time of year, there are opportunities opening up, and players need to be ready to capitalize.
The New England Patriots announced the release of three veteran defenders on Sunday: defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, linebacker James Anderson and defensive end Will Smith.
The Patriots have been getting younger on defense for years, and that process continues with a few recently signed veterans being shown the door in short order. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (32), cornerback Brandon Browner (30) and defensive end Rob Ninkovich (30) are the only Patriots defenders who are age 30 or older.
With these three moves, the Patriots lost experience and gained youth on defense. That being said, each cut comes with its own set of circumstances and meaning to the defense.
What the Patriots Lost
Smith's release was not particularly surprising. The veteran defensive end had failed to make a big impression on coaches in his time with the team and did not appear to be a fit anywhere in the Patriots' revamped 3-4 defense. Coming off a torn ACL in 2013, the Patriots took a flier on the free-agent defensive end with a one-year, $870,000 contract. They didn't know what to expect, and it turns out a low-risk contract was the right choice from the beginning.
Kelly, on the other hand, was a bit of a surprise. The veteran defensive tackle played well in 2013 before suffering a torn ACL of his own, and the Patriots were visibly hurt by his loss in the front line. Kelly returned to practice after spending some time doing conditioning with the rehab group at the start of camp and had even been placed right back in the starting lineup.
Anderson's signing was seen as a saving grace at linebacker. For years, the Patriots have struggled to cover tight ends over the middle. According to Football Outsiders' opponent-based metrics, the Patriots ranked 13th at covering tight ends in 2013 and 29th in 2012. He made some plays in coverage in practice, logging some pass breakups and interceptions, but did not jump off the page in game action.
Who Stands to Gain?
Kelly and Anderson looked like strong candidates to make the final 53-man roster, so with the departure of those two veterans, there is an opportunity for some younger players to crack the final cut.
Smith was a square peg in a round hole in the 3-4, but outside linebacker Darius Fleming has carved out a niche for himself as a versatile defender. He has lined up as an outside linebacker in a two-point stance and as a defensive end in a three-point stance, showing the ability to carry out multiple roles in what will be a scheme-versatile defense. He is also making plenty of appearances on special teams.
With Anderson out of the picture, linebacker James Morris may be able to settle into his old spot. The Patriots got a longer look at Morris in the third preseason game. They gave him the opportunity to run the defensive calls and checks in the second half by having him wear the green-dot helmet for radio communication with the coaching staff. He even earned some reps with the first-team defense and contributed on special teams in kickoff coverage.
Where Kelly is being shown the door, third-year defensive tackle Jerel Worthy may have an open door. The Patriots traded a conditional draft pick to the Green Bay Packers for the 24-year-old lineman, and Worthy had an impressive preseason debut against the Carolina Panthers, registering one tackle and showing the ability to hold strong at the point of attack.
|DT||Vince Wilfork (30)||Vince Wilfork (31)||Vince Wilfork (32)||Vince Wilfork (33)|
|DT||Kyle Love (25)||Kyle Love (26)||Tommy Kelly (33)||Chris Jones (24)|
|DE||Andre Carter (32)||Rob Ninkovich (28)||Rob Ninkovich (29)||Rob Ninkovich (30)|
|DE||Brandon Deaderick (24)||Chandler Jones (22)||Chandler Jones (23)||Chandler Jones (24)|
|LB||Rob Ninkovich (27)||Jerod Mayo (26)||Jerod Mayo (27)||Jerod Mayo (28)|
|LB||Jerod Mayo (25)||Dont'a Hightower (22)||Dont'a Hightower (23)||Dont'a Hightower (24)|
|LB||Brandon Spikes (24)||Brandon Spikes (25)||Brandon Spikes (26)||Jamie Collins (24)|
|CB||Devin McCourty (24)||Devin McCourty (25)||Aqib Talib (27)||Darrelle Revis (29)|
|CB||Kyle Arrington (25)||Kyle Arrington (26)||Alfonzo Dennard (24)||Brandon Browner (30)|
|S||Patrick Chung (24)||Patrick Chung (25)||Devin McCourty (26)||Devin McCourty (27)|
|S||James Ihedigbo (28)||Steve Gregory (29)||Steve Gregory (30)||Duron Harmon (23)|
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com (age in parenthesis)
Things have changed dramatically in the past four years. Where the Patriots once featured a defense loaded with veterans, they have traded experience for athleticism across the board. In fact, they have used their first draft pick on a defensive player in each of the past three years and seven of the past eight years (2011 was the exception, with the Patriots picking Nate Solder 17th overall).
The differences are even more dramatic the further back you go—the Patriots defense was once stocked to the hilt with veterans like Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest, Junior Seau and others.
The youth movement could bring about as many as five new starters to the Patriots defense; Chris Jones, Jamie Collins and Duron Harmon are the young guns getting a longer look while Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner are veterans filling in the blanks at cornerback.
With Browner suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, there's an opportunity for a younger cornerback like Alfonzo Dennard (25), Logan Ryan (23) or Malcolm Butler (24) to get the starting job in the meantime.
Kelly, Anderson and Smith may be gone for now, but their opportunity may not be. Now that they have all spent time in the system, they could be candidates to return to New England later in the season, especially after Week 1 when their salaries will no longer be fully guaranteed.
For now, even with talented top-flight veterans like Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Revis in the fold, there are plenty of opportunities for young defensive players to make an impact.