By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Don't let anyone tell you Trey Flowers isn't a big void to fill for the Patriots. He is. With the free-agent defensive end expected to sign a five-year deal with the Lions for at least $16 million annually, the takes are bound to come out that Flowers wasn't really that good.
Flowers may end up being overpaid compared to others, but the description is more like "very good but not generational". Flowers may not be J.J. Watt or Khalil Mack, but he's an excellent all-around edge defender and the Patriots don't appear to have a clear replacement behind him.
Still ... where everyone should stop short is that the Patriots can't get right back to the Super Bowl next season without Flowers. Not even your tone of voice should imply such a thing. And it shouldn't be ruled out that one of their younger defensive ends makes a big step forward in 2019, much like Flowers himself did to mitigate the loss of Chandler Jones. But that's the reality of Bill Belichick's situation now: he needs someone to step up.
For the guys on the depth chart as of Monday, the leader in the clubhouse for an expanded role is Deatrich Wise Jr. Like Flowers, Wise is a former fourth-round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft. He's a 6-foot-5 specimen who has flashed as an explosive pass rusher, but his edge-setting against the run and mobile quarterbacks could stand to improve. If he's a full-time replacement for Flowers, Belichick will be hoping that upswing comes this fall.
Derek Rivers also can't be ruled out as a potentially impactful player in 2019. It's important to remember that Flowers basically redshirted his rookie season in 2015 before quickly emerging in 2016. Rivers has had a similar trajectory. After losing his entire rookie season to a torn ACL, Rivers played in just six games in 2018 while being inactive for the rest. The Pats were confident enough to play him in the AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs, but made him inactive in Super Bowl LIII. Year 3 will be Rivers' first realistic opportunity to finally make his presence felt.
Also on the roster right now at defensive end are Keionta Davis, Ufomba Kamalu, and veterans Michael Bennett and Adrian Clayborn. Bennett makes sense as a replacement (read: upgrade) over Clayborn, who can be cut to save $3.9375 million in both real and cap money. Davis and Kamalu have potential as rotational options, but not necessarily as plausible replacements for Flowers as soon as 2019.
Help could also be on the way in April's draft. The Patriots have reportedly met with multiple defensive end prospects, including potential early-round pick Zach Allen out of Boston College. They've also met with Oregon's Jalen Jelks.
None of these guys are guarantees to keep the Patriots defense rolling along as if Flowers never left. But it's a risk that Belichick is clearly willing to take. Flowers was no guarantee in 2016, and look what happened. Ultimately, it's more likely than not that the Patriots are right back in the mix next January.
The Patriots pass rush may somehow get better in the post-Flowers era. It may get markedly worse. But even just with Flowers out and Bennett in, the only certainty is that it will look very different.
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 [email protected].