Defections in the secondary and PSI readings have defined a tumultuous offseason for the New England Patriots. However, New England's offseason woes seem a bit overstated, as optimists can point to the small improvements Bill Belichick installed throughout the rest of the roster. Not having Tom Brady for any stretch obviously changes the roster calculus, but the Pats appear primed to reshape last year's championship roster.
The center of that mission is the defensive line, which looks like the deepest spot on the entire roster. After years of middling depth and unspectacular pass-rushing numbers, Belichick made the line a focal point of his offseason, with four draft picks and his biggest free-agent signing coming at the position.
Consequently, it's much harder to keep track of everything on the defensive line, and Pats fans might still be wrangling with all the myriad combinations. Preseason will surely alter the outlook, but for now, here's your complete guide and depth chart projection for the unit that might make or break the defense in 2015.
The Veteran Foundation
These four players are not only locks, but they represent the players this unit will most lean on for production in 2015. Three of them are the surest commodities along the line, while the fourth and youngest member is a huge X-factor whose development could potentially elevate the pass rush to another level.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have been alone in holding down the fort on the edge the past two years. No really—of the select few defensive linemen to play over 1,000 snaps the past two seasons, the Patriots duo accounts for nearly half of those seasons:
Jones and Ninkovich are both plus run defenders who have also combined to account for 45.6 percent of the Patriots sacks the past two seasons. The Patriots have been fortunate to have two three-down linemen propping up an otherwise unspectacular bunch, but bearing such a strenuous workload seems to have had an adverse effect on their down-to-down productivity.
Fortunately, New England finally has a player with a similar three-down skill set capable of spelling the two workhorses. Free-agent signing Jabaal Sheard was widely hailed as an excellent value back in March, and he figures to see significantly more playing time than any other reserve edge defender the past two seasons. There are already reports out of camp specifying some experimentation with all three edge defenders on the field simultaneously:
The above alignment ostensibly reflects a 3-4 base package, and Sheard's experience in both 4-3 and 3-4 systems should help him adapt well to the Patriots' hybrid fronts. It's well-known that his sack totals plummeted when Cleveland shifted him off the line, as he went from 17.5 sacks in two seasons as a 4-3 defensive end to 5.5 sacks the last two years as a 3-4 outside linebacker. But given that the Patriots usually utilize four down linemen in sub-packages, Sheard should return to his more productive role on passing downs.
Sheard's presence will reduce the snap counts for both Jones and Ninkovich, but if I had to guess, I'd think that the former would see a larger reduction. Jones has gotten hurt in two of his three seasons, missing a combined nine games in 2012 and 2014. And the ankle injury that caused him to miss three games his rookie season doesn't accurately state the impact it caused, as he was essentially immobile by season's end.
Of course, there's one other player who could emerge as a foundational pass-rushing presence, both on the edge and along the interior: Dominique Easley. The 2014 first-rounder has been the subject of much hand-wringing given the knee concerns that plagued him coming out of Florida; it certainly doesn't help that his rookie year ended with the Patriots shutting him down due to lingering knee soreness.
Though Easley has come off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, it's too early to say whether he can cash in on the potential that made him the 29th overall pick 15 months ago. The Boston Herald's Karen Guregian reported that Easley's early camp form has been spotty as he works himself back to full speed:
He didn’t have any decisive wins in one-on-one battles with offensive linemen, where you’d point to a quick first step. Bryan Stork, Tre Jackson, and David Andrews handled him without too much trouble during three separate duels we watched. Although on Saturday, he undressed Marcus Cannon during the same drills.
So it’s been a bit of a mixed bag thus far, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Easley, who wore a brace on the left knee, is just getting back in the swing of things at this stage. He’s trying to make up for lost time.
That isn't the most encouraging report, but it's also hardly surprising at this juncture. Until we have game action to evaluate, we probably won't know whether or not Easley has recaptured the explosiveness that made him a uniquely dangerous rusher at times over his collegiate career. Following a nondescript rookie season, though, we can be sure the Patriots will give him every opportunity to provide a meaningful return on their draft investment.
|DL Playing Over 1,000 Snaps, 2013-14|
|snap counts via Football Outsiders|
Drafting four players who slot in at various spots along the defensive line really put the Patriots' depth over the top. Thing is, New England doesn't necessarily need any of these players to make an immediate impact or assume a large amount of snaps in 2015. However, the Pats have restocked the cupboards for the long term while also providing greater insurance this season.
First-rounder Malcom Brown was one of two rookie defensive linemen widely hailed as an excellent value this spring. The Texas defensive tackle was generally projected as a mid first-rounder, but the Pats were all too happy to stop his curious fall at pick 32.
I wrote extensively about Brown the week after the draft, highlighting his versatility in lining up at various techniques. Brown's pass-rushing remains unrefined at this point, though he possesses upside in that category after six sacks last season. His game isn't an exact replica of Vince Wilfork, the player many have suggested he's replacing, but with all the sub-package rushers on the roster, Brown's clearest avenue to playing time in 2015 might be on rushing downs.
Brown is the player with three-down potential who should eventually emerge as the face of this draft class, but two other linemen taken within four picks of each other are arguably just as intriguing, albeit for very different reasons. While Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom may have been picked close together, a wide chasm has developed in both perception and training camp form thus far:
It's not entirely surprising to see Flowers outperforming Grissom at this point, as he was the higher-rated prospect despite going later than expected. Football Outsiders' SackSEER metric—which projects college edge-rushers to the pros based on draft position, combine results and college productivity (among other factors)—put Flowers in roughly the 73rd percentile among all edge-rushers since 1998. That rating put Flowers ahead of more ballyhooed first-rounders like Dante Fowler Jr. and Shane Ray (though to be clear, the rating excludes draft projection, which is why FO projects higher career sack totals for Fowler and Ray).
If you'd rather look at conventional metrics, Flowers accumulated 18 sacks and 47.5 tackles for loss over his four seasons, while Grissom accumulated eight sacks and 17 tackles for loss. Granted, Flowers was a starter for three years, while Grissom started for just two seasons, but it's indisputable that the former was a more disruptive collegiate player.
Watching Flowers' tape, the first thing that stands out is his power and active hands. He's better as a run defender than a pass-rusher at this point, but while his lack of explosiveness disables him from attempting many speed rushes, there are still signs of Flowers developing his arsenal of moves:
The first screenshot displays an awkwardly timed spin move that doesn't get Flowers free of the right tackle. However, he does a good job of chopping down the tackle's arms in the second screenshot, enabling him to turn the corner and sack the quarterback.
Flowers' game and size (6'2", 266 lbs) invites natural comparisons to Rob Ninkovich (6'2", 260 lbs), who also wins with technique and an indefatigable motor rather than natural athleticism. Flowers played multiple techniques at Arkansas, but his most frequent spot was at strong-side defensive end. If he develops as advertised, it's not difficult to envision him replacing Ninkovich when the latter's contract expires in two seasons.
Grissom, on the other hand, comes with more questions after the Pats drafted him at the tail end of Round 3. NFL.com projected him as a Round 5 or 6 prospect, while NFL Draft Scout had him pegged for Round 6. Intriguingly, Grissom actually started his career at Oklahoma as a tight end before turning to linebacker and defensive end, a fact the Boston Globe's Shalise Manza Young pointed out after the draft:
He may have a lot to absorb given how much he might be asked to do. Grissom acknowledged that while he’s in New England to “do my job,” he doesn’t know what his job might be. It seems safe to say that he will be focused on defense to start, though after drafting Grissom, Bill Belichick said he had one of the better tight end workouts the Patriots saw this spring.
That two-way versatility highlights Grissom's athleticism, but the Patriots likely won't be happy if he makes a cameo at tight end in the pros. Another third-round edge-rusher, Jake Bequette, has made that switch this summer after severely disappointing at defensive end. Whether Grissom plays on or off the ball, New England will hope he sticks somewhere better than Bequette ever did.
The fourth and final rookie, seventh-rounder Xzavier Dickson, is a much longer shot to make the roster. Versatility is the common thread among these players, and like Grissom, Dickson played both on and off the ball at Alabama. However, despite a senior season surge that saw him pile up a career-high nine sacks, Dickson's marginal athleticism makes him more of a project at this point. Just four out of 10 Round 7 picks have made the Patriots roster out of camp the past five years, so it might be best to temper expectations.
On the Bubble and Long Shots
The remaining seven defensive linemen possess varying skill sets and roster hopes, but the common thread is that each will need to impress during the preseason to earn a roster spot. Given the numbers crunch, there is likely no more than one or two spots available to this group.
Sealver Siliga is the one player who doesn't really belong into any category here, but the 6'2", 325-pounder is the team's biggest presence in the middle and will play plenty of base-package snaps as the nose tackle. Siliga, who will be a restricted free agent next year, could be an extension priority if he stays healthy after landing on short-term injured reserve last season and missing this spring's offseason workouts while recovering from offseason foot surgery.
Based on pedigree, another favorite should theoretically be Alan Branch. The 30-year-old vet has 49 career starts and played well in a two-gapping role after arriving midseason in 2014. However, Branch skipped OTAs this spring and is now falling behind the pack while sitting on the non-football injury list. On his list of players in need of training camp momentum, ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss put Branch at the very top:
Veteran defensive tackle who re-signed with the team in the offseason has opened on the non-football injury list, and has only been seen riding the stationary bicycle during practice. That has opened the door for eight-year veteran Antonio Johnson to take repetitions that probably would have otherwise been his.
It's interesting that Reiss first mentions Antonio Johnson, who signed a futures contract in December, as Branch's potential replacement. A six-year veteran, Johnson started 46 games during his first five seasons in Indianapolis before moving on to Tennessee for the 2013 season. He was subsequently out of football last season after being waived via an injury settlement, but like Branch, Johnson offers a sneaky amount of experience for a potential depth player.
If Branch is in the doghouse, his biggest competition for a roster spot will likely be Chris Jones and Zach Moore. Jones hasn't garnered much appreciation during his two-year stint in Foxborough, but other than Chandler Jones and Ninkovich, he's actually been the team's most productive pass-rusher in that time. Among defenders who debuted in 2013, Jones has flown under the radar with one of the best career sack totals from that class:
With Jones currently on PUP, though, his snaps are going to fellow second-year pro Zach Moore. Moore came into the league as an uber-athletic edge-rusher but has since bulked up to 275 pounds so he can play more 3-tech and 5-tech. After going through a redshirt rookie season, it will be interesting to see how far the former Division II star has developed as he presumably ascends to more of a part-time role in 2015.
Depth Chart Projection
PUP: Chris Jones
Cuts: Alan Branch, Antonio Johnson, Xzavier Dickson, Joe Vellano, A.J. Pataiali'i
The Pats ended up with 11 defensive linemen going into Week 1 last year but were down to nine after releasing projects Bruce Gaston and Kelcy Quarles. Maybe the Pats go into the season with someone like Dickson or Johnson on the 53, but we'll assume for now that they end back up at nine. It makes sense to stash Chris Jones on PUP to open the season, as he'll be able to return after six weeks to supplement whatever depth the Pats may have lost.
|Career Sack Totals by 2013 Rookies|
As you can see, this depth chart is full of players who can play numerous spots along the line. Portraying a more accurate depth chart would become unwieldy to read due to all the players who'd show up at multiple spots, and that's just how Bill Belichick likes it.
There's no guarantee the Patriots perform like the bullying fronts of the early 2000s, but this is certainly the deepest group New England has had since the halcyon days of Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren. As the Pats shift defensive identities from 2014, having one or more players from this unit break out will be key to sustaining a championship-level defense.