The Patriots defense will have some big shoes to fill in 2015 and that doesnâ€™t just apply to the secondary where Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington are gone. For the first time in more than a decade Vince Wilfork wonâ€™t be anchoring down the middle of the defensive line for New England.
Wilfork has been a constant and was the sole defensive player who had been a member of the 2004 Super Bowl team that won back-to-back titles, the last team to do so in the NFL.
The Patriots are going with a different approach on defense this season, opting to beef up the front seven to alleviate pressure on the secondary, they know replacing a Revis at corner isnâ€™t an easy proposition. Replacing a Wilfork inside wonâ€™t be a simple solution either so theyâ€™ll be looking for multiple players to step up and play different roles for them this season.
Siliga Will Be Counted Upon: Perhaps the biggest player that will be asked to fill Wilforkâ€™s shoes as the teamâ€™s dedicated run stuffer wonâ€™t be first round draft pick Malcom Brown but fourth year player Sealver Siliga.
Thatâ€™s not to say the team wonâ€™t be expecting big things from Brown but heâ€™s a different player than Wilfork despite similar size, being more of a penetrator and a disruptor. Siliga however fits the bill as a big-bodied gap eater who can be counted upon to be very stout in run support.
Siliga had a solid 2014 despite some injuries that he dealt with and limited him to just seven games with five starts. But his run-stuffing prowess was in evidence last year; Pro Football Focus gave Siliga high marks, a 12.1 run-stopping percentage, which ranked him as the #2 DT who logged at least 25 percent of defensive snaps. Siliga isnâ€™t a pass rusher per se, but can push the pocket a little. His biggest contribution is in the running game.
The biggest question for Siliga in 2015 will be health. Can he hold up and play a full 16 game schedule? He had off-season foot surgery and missed OTAs and mini-camp. But his availability for training camp will be the big key this summer.
Joining him as one of the big bodies inside is Alan Branch the 30-year old lineman who came over from the Bills last season and played well. The 6â€™6, 325 Branch played sparingly but was a valuable veteran presence. Heâ€™ll be looked at to provide more of a leadership role with Wilfork now out of the picture.
Also in the mix with be eight-year veteran Antonio Johnson, Vince Taylor the rookie defensive tackle from Vanderbilt and Joe Vellano.
Easley, Brown to Provide Interior Pressure: One key item that the Patriots have been searching for several years is pressure from the interior defensive line that can push the pocket and not allow the quarterback to step up. This allows the edge rushers to be much more effective, something theyâ€™ll need in 2015.
This season they may have not one but two and possibly three players to fit the bill. Last yearâ€™s top draft pick Dominique Easley is a slightly undersized but disruptive type player. He can explode into gaps and blow up plays in the backfield as well as get after the passer. After having surgery on both knees in college, he was slowed in his rookie season, missing nearly all of training camp which delayed his progression.
Now healthy, heâ€™ll be a player to watch to see if his patented explosion off the line is in evidence. Easley will be joined by this seasonâ€™s top draft pick Brown who was a steal for the Patriots at the back end of the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Brown is bigger at 6â€™2, 320 but shows the same pattern of disrupting plays at the point of attack. He has a fantastic blend of size, power and quickness to excel in the NFL. Heâ€™s played everywhere from zero to five technique at Texas and is strong enough to withstand double teams but quick enough off the line to get into passing lanes.
Brown had 15 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks for the Longhorns in 2014 earning him Consensus All-American honors. He and Easley give the Patriots two tackles that can push the pocket and be disruptors inside. Theyâ€™ll be joined by second-year DL Zach Moore who may be kicked inside more this season to help with the pass rush.
Moore is listed as 6â€™6, 275 but reports from spring workouts have him looking much larger.Â The raw but intriguing Moore who played at small Concordia-St. Paul saw little action as a rookie but will be looking to make a big step in 2015. His size alone makes him an intriguing prospect to watch. Chris Jones the third-year player from Bowling Green has been effective inside as a pass rusher and will also be looked to again to provide some depth inside.
The interior pass rush was bolstered by linebackers Jamie Collins and Dontâ€™a Hightower who attacked the A-gaps extremely well in 2014. With an improved presence at the interior DL this season, that should make them even more effective.
If all of this falls into place, the edge rushers Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich should be much more effective in 2015. Jones and Ninkovich have played far too many snaps in recent seasons and this off-season the team brought in Jabaal Sheard to help in the rotation and give the pass rushers a boost.
During the draft the Patriots added three more potential edge rushers in Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers and Xzavier Dickson. The trio can play either with their hand in the dirt as defensive ends or play standing upright as outside line backers. The competition will be fierce for snaps and roster spots this summer.
On paper this looks like an exciting season to watch the front seven for the Patriots defense. Theyâ€™ll be counted upon to provide much better, more consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks to alleviate pressure on the secondary.
But replacing players with the caliber of Wilfork and Revis is much harder than simply plugging a new guy in there. It may take some time to gel. The pieces are in place, Bill Belichick will tinker with the unit until he finds a place for everyone to fit and will play to their strengths.
The 2015 version of the Patriots defense will look vastly different from the one that took the field in Super Bowl XLIX. If what Belichick can get what heâ€™s looking for from this group, it should prove to be quite an interesting season.
Is it time for training camp yet?…