By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The New England Patriots enter 2018 training camp with some questions left unanswered, some of which on defense. But one of the most promising groups on the team is also perhaps their biggest chance for improvement from the end of the 2017 season.
After a virtually invisible night from the Patriots’ defensive front in Super Bowl LII, New England has for months had a sour taste in its mouth over the team’s frustrating lack of a viable pass rush on that February night. The almost total disappearance of disruption from the front-seven made Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles look nigh-unstoppable.
But the Super Bowl is far from a true indicator of how the Patriots will perform up front on defense. The defensive line has a lot of room to get better after that game, but they’ll kick off camp on Thursday in Foxboro with a fresh infusion of talent. Between some new faces and young, intriguing players making their returns, this positional group could turn out to be the team’s deepest – and, on defense, the one with the best chance to bounce back from the Super Bowl.
The Patriots typically employed a rotation of 6-7 defensive ends and defensive tackles on the active roster in 2017. Five regulars who played in the Super Bowl will return for 2018 training camp and, barring trades, all have a good chance of making the roster: Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, and Deatrich Wise. There will be at least two more spots to fill, but they could very well come from players who joined the team from outside New England in the offseason.
Free-agent addition Adrian Clayborn, who signed a two-year deal with the Patriots worth up to $10 million, is a virtual lock to make the roster. Danny Shelton, meanwhile, isn’t necessarily a lock. But the big defensive tackle, whom the Patriots acquired from the Cleveland Browns along with a fifth-round pick in exchange for a 2019 third-round pick, figures to fit exactly how Belichick envisions him in the middle of the line.
The new guys aren’t the only ones who give the Patriots a good chance to improve along the defensive front. Wise and Butler, a pair of promising second-year guys, flashed with big-time plays for the Pats over the course of their respective rookie campaigns in 2017. Arguably their brightest moments came in the divisional round against the Tennessee Titans, in which they compiled three of the team’s eight sacks that night.
And in 2018, the sophomores get reinforcements of their own in the form of Derek Rivers, who tore his ACL during a joint practice with the Houston Texans in 2017 camp. The second-year defender out of Youngstown State could create room for the rest of the defensive linemen on the roster if the Patriots classify him as a linebacker. He has potential as an edge rusher and could stick to a role as an OLB, while others man the rest of the front line. Rivers made some notable plays on the ball in minicamp and will carry some momentum into 2018 camp.
The Pats are not without added depth up front beyond the active roster, either. They signed undrafted free agents Frank Herron, John Atkins, and Trent Harris this spring, and Keionta Davis in 2017. There’s also former Buffalo Bill Eric Lee and 2015 third-round pick Geneo Grissom, who has slowly carved out a role on special teams during his time with the Patriots.
Ultimately, Belichick will have tough decisions to make as far as who to keep and who to cut. The defensive line will be among his toughest choices to make over the next several weeks.
Projected Depth Chart
Defensive End/Outside Linebacker:
- Trey Flowers
- Adrian Clayborn
- Deatrich Wise
- Derek Rivers
- Eric Lee
- Geneo Grissom
- Malcom Brown
- Lawrence Guy
- Danny Shelton
Flowers and Clayborn will end up the starters on the left and right edges, with Wise and Rivers rotating in during passing situations. The success of the Patriots’ pass rush could depend on the development of the latter two. … Speaking of pass-rush, Butler will again make the team and show some flashes when the opportunities arise. Guy will hold onto his roster spot as a jack-of-all-trades lineman for Belichick, who sure loves his versatility. … Brown and Shelton will carve out regular roles as the run-stuffing defensive tackles in the middle of the line. That combo should also represent a marked improvement for the defense against the run. … Lee and Grissom will compete for special teams snaps, and possibly make the roster as a linebacker. … At least one out of Davis, Herron, Atkins, and Harris could end up on the practice squad.
Provided Wise and Butler can continue to make strides, and Clayborn fits in similarly to how Chris Long fit in the defense in 2016, the defensive line is where the Patriots should take the most significant step forward in 2018. When it comes to making the defensive improvements they absolutely need to win Super Bowl LIII, they could live and die by the performance of these players.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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