By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots are entering this year’s training camp with some very interesting positional competitions going on this year, among them, WR, RB, LB, DL as well as in the secondary. We’ll take a look at the defensive line and give some thoughts on the players that they will definitely keep and those others they may.
Patriots Defensive Line Roster (as of June 21): Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Jonathan Fanene, Brandon Deaderick, Myron Pryor, Gerard Warren, Ron Brace, Chandler Jones, Jake Bequette, Marcus Harrison, Aaron Lavarias, Alex Silvestro, Marcus Forston, Justin Francis
Belichick is thy name and versatility is thy game-
Pats head coach Bill Belichick has long said and indeed his mantra has been that his players be versatile and be able to do many things out of different alignments. Which is why, when the Patriots lined up in a four-man front during the beginning of last year’s training camp, fans and the media were excited for the change. Belichick however, pooh-poohed that quickly, stating that they have always played a lot of four-man fronts rather than the traditional Patriots 3-4 base defense.
But is it really important to note, that Belichick recognizes that the league continues to spread out defenses forcing them to play much more in the sub-package role. He also wants players who can line up at different positions and in either a three or four man front. In 2010, the Patriots lined up in their subpackage defenses about 57 percent of the time. In 2011, it climbed to over 62 percent. Belichick told Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston that he expects it to climb even further.
Therefore it became imperative for the Patriots to get faster and more athletic on defense to cope with the offenses that they will face in 2012. Right now there are 14 players listed as defensive linemen on the roster. Andre Carter, perhaps the team’s best and most consistent player last year is still unsigned although I still expect him back. Included perhaps in the mix could be Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich and Trevor Scott who can line up as linebackers (Listed positions) or as a defensive end depending upon how the defense is called.
The defense still starts with Vince Wilfork, he remains the key as either a nose tackle (NT) in a base defense, a defensive tackle in a four-man front and even as an end. As Big Vince goes, so goes the Patriots front. He still eats up the double teams and makes himself the immovable object. Wilfork and Kyle Love played very well together last year, in fact, it was Love who played a lot of NT in the base 3-4 alignment allowing Wilfork to slide out to end. Love became a very valuable piece of the puzzle last season and that shouldn’t change much at all in 2012. As bookend tackles in the 4 man front, they played very well together.
The free agent signing that didn’t cause much of a ripple outside of Foxboro was DE Jonathan Fanene. But Fanene has the capability to be a solid DE in a four-man front and could be that interior pass rusher the Patriots have lacked for quite some time. Again, he’s a versatile player, while not great, could have a big impact on a defense that has prided itself on being better than the sum of its parts. Also included in this mode is overachieving Brandon Deaderick who lined up as an end in both three and four man fronts and as DT as well. He and Fanene will give the Patriots plenty of snaps and be versatile enough to switch things up to confuse opponents blocking schemes.
Rookies have great potential-
Two rookies who should see a lot of playing time at DE this season is first round pick Chandler Jones and third rounder Jake Bequette. Jones is a tall, rangy player who has the wingspan to be disruptive as both an edge rusher and set the edge in the running game. Eventually, if he develops as the team sees him doing, he will be able to play the “Elephant Role” that Willie McGinest did so well for so long, on the defense. Not so much this season though, I think the team will ease him into playing standing up for a while until he gets more comfortable in the defense.
Bequette however, promises to be a sub-package pass rusher, he has a relentless motor and has played in the best conference in college football. He could be a big producer in his rookie season, providing fresh legs off the edge.
One player written off every year but keeps coming back and producing is veteran Gerard Warren. Warren doesn’t have much left in the tank at this juncture but can always be counted upon for depth, veteran presence and playing solid, albeit not in an every down role. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Warren in uniform at some point this season.
Two other players firmly on the roster bubble are Myron Pryor and Ron Brace. Pryor, when healthy has played well especially in rushing the QB. His game against Miami on the opening week of Monday Night Football was something to look at with great optimism. Then he got hurt the next week against the Bolts and was lost for the remainder of the year. If he’s healthy I believe Pryor will make the roster. Brace on the other hand is trying to show that the 2nd round pick taken on him back in 2009 wasn’t wasted. The local player has done very little to show he belongs and will have to have a very solid camp to stick in his fourth season.
Aaron Lavarias, Alex Silvestro and Marcus Harrison all saw some looks last season. All will get a chance to show what they can do on the outside as options and backups. And all three will need strong camps to stick. Silvestro due to injuries during mini-camp filled in as a tight end. Never underestimate the power of versatility on a Belichick coached team. That may come down as a deciding factor at some point in training camp.
Every year it seems, the Patriots sign some undrafted rookie free agent and not only do they make the team but contribute some quality snaps as well. This year two of those type players are on the roster. Justin Francis played DE during the spring and was given a look with the first team players. The 6’4, 275 defensive lineman from Rutgers got generally positive reviews during the spring. He has the Belichick catch-word versatile about him as he could play either tackle or end. He’ll be one to watch once the pads come on.
The other is Marcus Forston out of Miami, Forston, 6’3, 300 is a defensive tackle and it’s doubtful he’ll pass all the other interior players listed. Both face very long odds but much the same was said of Love and before him, Mike Wright, who both have thrived in the New England system.
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