By: Steve Balestrieri
The Patriots will open their 2013 Training Camp next week with the first practice slated for 9 a.m. on July 26. Here at PatsFans.com we’ll be bringing you a look at the roster by positions and who is competing for each slot and how they fit the system.
We’ve already looked at the running backs and the linebackers as many of the positions this summer will be hotly contested. Check in with us daily as we’ll bring you a close look at training camp from the many fine writers here.
Chandler Jones is poised for a big jump in production in 2013. (FILE:USPresswire)
Today we’ll look at the Patriots defensive ends; it is a young group with some nice veteran presence with a lot of potential. The two starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are firmly entrenched and are locked into their respective positions. After that however, there is plenty of room for camp competition and six players will compete for three, perhaps four roster slots.
Defense Needs To Step up- If the Patriots are to contend seriously for a deep playoff run in 2013, the defense will have to improve. While they feel they made strides in the second half of the 2012 with finally finding the right pieces in the secondary, the pass rush which goes hand-in-hand with coverage needs to get better.
And the pass rush not only consists of edge rushers but an interior push as well. The team has long been trying to add that interior pocket pusher next to Vince Wilfork. And this off-season they added pieces to address that with Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead.
At the defensive end position, while the team kicked the tires on a few big name high-priced free agents, they’ve stood pat with their starters and have added some complimentary pieces. If these players can step up on the defensive line, the Patriots front seven, already stout against the run, will be able to impose its will against opponents.
Roster Breakdown- The current roster consists of Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Bequette, Justin Francis, Jason Vega, Michael Buchanan, Marcus Bernard.
Chandler Jones- The team’s top draft choice of the 2012 NFL Draft, Jones burst on the scene in the first half of the season racking up six sacks before suffering an ankle injury. That slowed him down the stretch and he re-injured it against the Texans in the playoffs.
Jones worked hard in the off-season adding 10 pounds of muscle while not sacrificing any of his speed which is needed coming off the edge. Much is expected of Jones this season as the team expects a big jump in production from year 1 to year 2.
The report on Jones when he entered the league was that he might be a player that would take a while to find his feet in the NFL and he’s frequently compared to a player with similar physical skills, Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants. If that is so, then Jones may indeed be ready for a big jump this season.
Rob Ninkovich- The unheralded and underrated Ninkovich led the team with 8 sacks in 2012 along with five forced fumbles and led all defensive linemen with 58 tackles.
He is a player that gradually found his way into bigger and better things the old fashioned way, by hard work and is now a respected member of the defense by his peers if not always by the media and fans.
A converted long-snapper turned outside linebacker turned defensive end, Ninkovich has had good production in his career with the team and now helps mentor the younger players. Always with a nose for the football and making plays at key times of the game, Ninkovich should continue being a big part of the defensive schemes for the foreseeable future.
Jermaine Cunningham- Much was expected out of Cunningham after being drafted ahead of Florida teammates Carlos Dunlap and Brandon Spikes in the 2010 NFL Draft. And after glimpses of potential during his rookie campaign, he bottomed out in 2011, and was a healthy scratch for much of the season, playing in only nine games.
Cunningham worked hard after 2011 and drew praise from Bill Belichick for his work ethic. Cunningham had a very good camp in 2012 and was used frequently in the interior of the defensive line as the Patriots tried to find ways to pressure opposing QBs.
Cunningham was then suspended for four games by the league for PED use late in the 2012 season and his playing time suffered upon his return. Going into this camp, I believe him firmly on the bubble, he will he have to shine this summer, but may still make the roster due to his versatility of playing either inside or outside.
Jake Bequette- The day 2 draft pick of the 2012 NFL Draft had a pretty non-descript season getting in on only 29 snaps in his rookie campaign. The Patriots moved him around during last season’s training camp, looking for things he does well and in his very limited look, he played mostly DE with a little OLB.
Bequette’s red-shirt rookie campaign showed he wasn’t completely prepared for the speed and strength of the game at the next level and he’s been working hard inside the Patriots strength and conditioning program to reach an even playing field.
He’ll be locked in a battle with Cunningham, Francis, Vega and Buchanan for snaps this summer and it is going to be a tough battle for each of them.
Justin Francis- Francis, an undrafted rookie free agent from Rutgers in 2012 worked hard and made the roster out of training camp. Inactive for the first four games, he gradually worked his way into the lineup and performed very well earning the praise of Belichick along the way for his work ethic.
In limited time on the field, Francis chipped in with 3 sacks, but his production it is believed will increase with added playing time and experience. His chances of making the team as a back-up are strong. Given the end to the 2012 season, he should improve going into camp this season.
Jason Vega- The Brockton native who played at Northeastern prior to going to play in Canada with the CFL for two years had decent stats for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Vega tallied 12.5 sacks and 66 tackles and the Patriots are hoping to strike a little gold from the CFL with he and Armstead like Miami did with Cameron Wake.
Vega has the build and is athletic enough to be a disruptive presence at the edge. He’s a bit of a dark horse at this point and he’s facing a daunting task of competing for reps with a lot of other players but he could surprise and work his way into a roster slot.
Michael Buchanan- The Patriots tabbed Buchanan with a 7th round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. After an impressive 2011 campaign in Illinois, he was originally thought to be a very high draft pick.
But a disappointing 2012 dropped his stock where he was thought to be a 4th or 5th round choice, eventually dropping into the Patriots lap with the 226th pick.
But before anyone writes him off automatically remember something about him from the NFL Combine, among DEs he posted the 3rd best three-cone drill time which translates to explosiveness off the edge. Buchanan is my surprise pick to make the roster this year, as there is always one.
Marcus Benard- In an interesting move, the Patriots inked Benard to a free agent contract this spring. Benard, is a proven edge rusher having had 7.5 sacks for the Browns in 2010.
But serious injuries wiped out both 2011 and 2012 for him and while the Patriots are known for making successes out of other reclamation projects, it isn’t known yet what Benard has left in the tank production wise.
He hasn’t been on the field for quite a long time and he’ll be fighting for reps. For now he’s on the outside looking in but has had the production they need.
The Patriots seem set with their two starters locked in place but as with the linebackers they’ve added a nice blend of veterans and youth. Now it is the time to see who can translate that into on field production.
They’ve kicked the tires on some veteran free agents in the spring (Freeney, Abraham) and while some reports were running rampant that they had signed Abraham, they stayed pat. Does it mean that they won’t bring in another veteran during camp? No, but as time goes on, I find it increasingly remote, unless an injury strikes someone.
The team is counting on a big jump in production from Jones, coupled that with the solid play from Ninkovich and some quality snaps from the depth players, they feel they will address their pass rush woes….time will tell.