By: Steve Balestrieri
The Patriots are needing a healthy Vince Wilfork among others in 2014. (USA TODAY Images)
The 2014 New England Patriots defensive line may have a very familiar look to it when it hits the field in September. Or it may be different than one the fans are accustomed to. That is because the competition this summer should be fierce for not only roster slots, but for playing time as well.
Competition is always a good thing to look for in training camp and depending upon one’s point of view, whether it’s a glass half-empty or a glass half-full, each side can point to the same debate issue when discussing the defensive line. But at least until we know one way or the other if these five players will return to full health or not, the DL of the Patriots is filled with more questions than answers.
Going into 2014 Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead, Will Smith and Dominique Easley are all coming off of serious injuries. Wilfork and Kelly were starters at the defensive tackle position at the start of 2013, while Armstead was talked about by head coach Bill Belichick in the spring as the number three man in the rotation.
Armstead never took the field, having what was listed as an infection in the spring that required surgery. Wilfork was lost to an Achilles tendon injury early during the 2013 campaign, followed by Kelly, who went down with an ACL injury. Smith was a member of the New Orleans Saints last year and 1st round pick Easley both also suffered ACL injuries that ended their seasons prematurely.
Untested Players Step Into Roles: With Kelly and Wilfork gone, rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano were thrust into starting roles and the results were varied. Both, Jones especially, provided some good quarterback pressure early in the season. In his first five games, Jones provided five sacks but then he began to fade down the stretch. He finished with six sacks in 2013, but both he and Vellano were frequently gashed in the running game.
Later in the season, the Patriots landed Sealver Siliga and he was a pleasant surprise in the running game, filling in for Wilfork over the nose. Jones did improve somewhat in his rush defense, so all three will be looking to make a big second year jump and compete for playing time.
Interior Defensive Line: With Wilfork and Kelly back with re-negotiated deals, a perfect world from a Patriots perspective would be to have both return to full health and regain their playing prowess in the middle. Armstead would provide rotational depth along the defensive line along with Easley and Jones, Vellano, Siliga and L.T. Tuipulotu would factor in for depth while fighting it out for roster positions.
Siliga could spell Wilfork for a considerable amount of snaps while keeping him fresh for the entire season. Jones could fulfill a Mike Wright-type role as a sub-package interior rusher who wouldn’t be counted upon to stop the run.
But those are a lot of ifs. The team is taking it easy with both Kelly and Wilfork thus far this spring as they ease them into OTAs a small piece at a time. Armstead and Easley have both yet to take the field and in Armstead’s case, he’s scarcely been seen since being introduced on the Gillette turf.
Other than Easley, who was the team’s number 1 pick of the 2014 NFL Draft (29th overall), no one’s job is entirely safe. Health questions could derail anyone as well as production once the pads come on. Those question marks will remain until we can see the players performing.
Defensive Ends: The Patriots starters, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are both very solid both production wise and physically. They both played over 1100 snaps in 2013, which works out to over 95 percent of the defensive snaps for the team. That speaks well for their durability, but poorly for the team’s depth. The team needs rotational production from the position or those players will begin to break down.
The team rolled the dice on veteran Will Smith, formerly of the Saints who is coming off of a serious knee injury suffered in the pre-season of 2013. The hope is that he will regain the form that made him a productive player. With the Patriots he wouldn’t be forced into a starting role, just providing a consistent sub rusher on passing downs giving the starters a breather.
Michael Buchanan was a rookie last season who had modest success early in the year rushing the passer, but had troubles setting the edge in the running game and eventually was benched in favor of veteran Andre Carter when he was re-signed. Buchanan lacked the upper body strength to take on offensive linemen as a rookie, but with an off-season in the strength and conditioning program, he seems poised to compete for snaps this season.
This is a make-or-break season for defensive end Jake Bequette. The 2012 3rd round draft pick out of Arkansas has scarcely touched the field in his first two seasons for the Patriots. The high motor player was hoped to be a piece of the puzzle in rushing the passer but hasn’t made any buzz on the defensive side of the ball. He’ll need an impressive camp to stick in 2014.
An intriguing player at 6’6, 269 with long arms and running a 4.84 40 is DE Zach Moore, who the Patriots selected in the 6th round (198th overall) of the 2014 NFL Draft. Moore is the first player ever drafted by Concordia-St. Paul (Div. 2) and can play end in a 4-3 or OLB in a 3-4. Moore is most likely a project who won’t be counted upon to produce much in 2014 as he’s considered a pretty raw prospect. Look for him to push Bequette for a spot on the roster this summer.
As for the interior part of the line, there are question marks here, at least as far as after the starters are concerned. If Smith can return to health and produce in a rotational role, it could prolong his career as others who’ve come before him in New England have proven. Buchanan will need to make a big year two jump. Should both of those things happen, Jones and Ninkovich could remain fresh and be much more productive down the stretch.
The one thing that is clear, with the drafting of Easley and the additions in the secondary of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, the Patriots in the sub-packages plan on being much more aggressive this season. They played in subs around 67 percent of the time in 2013 and they are planning on utilizing a rotation of many versatile players. But it is far from a given on actually who those players will be.
With mini-camp scheduled for next week and training camp slated about 6 weeks from today, those questions will be answered shortly.
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