Future of Foxboro: Patriots could catch a falling star in crowded defensive tackle class

Dexter Lawrence of the Clemson Tigers reacts against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the first quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 1, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Dexter Lawrence of the Clemson Tigers reacts against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the first quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 1, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

"Falling star" has a different connotation in the NFL Draft. Every year there's a handful of highly touted prospects who take a curious tumble. The Patriots are usually there to catch them in their net.

It doesn't always work out. Former Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley was considered a high-end talent at his position in the 2014 draft, but plummeted to 29th after multiple ACL injuries. Easley is one of Bill Belichick's biggest draft busts. But the Patriots head coach has caught his share of falling stars as well.

Chandler Jones at No. 21 in 2012? His injuries slipped him out of the top half of the first round and Belichick pounced. Vince Wilfork at No. 21 in 2004? Heist. J.C. Jackson off the free-agent pile last year? Those character concerns may have been severely overblown.

But let's keep it to defensive tackle for now. Because that's perhaps the positional group with the greatest potential for a star to hurtle toward the end of the first round. As more quarterbacks climb the NFL Draft ladder, other positions are bound to drop. And Belichick rarely misses at defensive line in the draft, particularly in the first round.

Of all Patriots defensive linemen drafted by Belichick in the first round, only one (Easley) started less than 13 games by year two. Three (Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Wilfork, Jones) started all 16 games as sophomores. Malcom Brown, while not a hugely impactful player during four seasons in New England, started at least 12 games in each of his first four seasons as a pro.

There's a potential Pro Football Hall of Famer in that group. At least two Patriots Hall of Famers. So it's not preposterous to suggest that the next defensive lineman Belichick drafts early has that kind of potential.

The 2019 NFL Draft boasts a deep class along the defensive line, especially at defensive tackle. So it's quite possible that a future Patriots star slides down into Belichick's wheelhouse. Here's who could go to the Pats at No. 32, and then go supernova in the NFL.

The Pick: Dexter Lawrence, Clemson

Clemson Tigers defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence celebrates after a sack in the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the ACC championship game at Bank of America Stadium. (Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)
Clemson Tigers defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence celebrates after a sack in the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the ACC championship game at Bank of America Stadium. (Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

Lawrence may not fall far enough to be within the Patriots' reach, but if he's there at 32 he'd be another steal. For a team that lacked an effective run-stuffer in the middle of the defense last season, Lawrence could step in and make an immediate impact in that department.

Belichick still needs to find a suitable replacement for the departed Malcom Brown, who signed with the Saints. Call free-agent addition Mike Pennel the replacement for Danny Shelton, who remains a free agent after an up-and-down season in New England.

Lawrence would be a logical starting spot for Belichick to find his next mountain to plop on the interior of his defensive line and fill those roles, perhaps better than Shelton or Brown did for a 2018 Patriots defense that dominated the Super Bowl. Like Wilfork, Lawrence has surprising athleticism for a player his size. Coached under Belichick, he'd be as fun to watch as you can expect from a defensive tackle.

Lawrence's limited upside as a pass rusher may ultimately send him plunging into Belichick's atmosphere. But the Hoodie loves guys like these and knows how to use them. In New England, Lawrence would have a chance to be the Wilfork for a new generation.

What About Later?

Sep 29, 2018; Arlington, TX: Texas A&M Aggies defensive lineman Kingsley Keke reacts after making a sack in the third quarter against the Arkansas Razorbacks at AT&T Stadium. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
Sep 29, 2018; Arlington, TX: Texas A&M Aggies defensive lineman Kingsley Keke reacts after making a sack in the third quarter against the Arkansas Razorbacks at AT&T Stadium. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

Belichick doesn't necessarily need the first round to catch a falling star. Trey Flowers (101st overall in 2015) says hello. Here are some other defensive linemen who look like fits for the Pats who could be had at No. 32, if not later.

Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame. Has the size (6-foot-6 and power to be a dominant three-down lineman if he realizes his full potential, especially as a pass-rusher. Has the versatility to play in three-man or four-man fronts. His bull-rush could be disruptive right away. Physically strong enough to be an effective run-defender, too. Scouts are concerned about his consistency and he's apparently faced questions of whether he really loves football, which could be why he's merely a late-first-rounder. But the ability is there.

Christian Wilkins, Clemson. Has experience at both defensive end and defensive tackle. Has the athleticism to be a disruptive NFL pass-rusher. Smart and hard-working, Wilkins earned two degrees in just two and a half years at Clemson. Lauded for his high character and locker room leadership, which may entice Belichick and the Patriots.

Kingsley Keke, Texas A&M. Visited with the Patriots this month. Has played both defensive tackle and on the edge after transitioning to the latter. Fluid athlete with a number of pass-rush moves and NFL-caliber strength. Scouts are wondering how he really fits on an NFL defense, which is making him more of a mid-round pick than a top prospect. He may not have the size to play inside consistently, but he has shown good interior rush techniques.

Isaiah Buggs, Alabama. Belichick's consistent eye on the Crimson Tide and relationship with Nick Saban can't be ignored. Buggs has a similar frame to Vince Wilfork (6-foot-3, 306 pounds) and could interest Belichick as a potential anchor in the middle of the defensive line with more development. Short arms and other physical limitations make him a likely day 3 pick, but an intriguing project for the Patriots.

Dontavius Russell, Auburn. Possesses the traits that Belichick has typically liked in his nose tackle prospects. Big, wide frame (6-foot-3, 319 pounds) with the strength to absorb double-teams on the interior against the run. His lack of upside as a pass-rusher makes him a day 3 pick or possibly an undrafted free agent. But this is the kind of prospect that Belichick would know how to use. There would be few better opportunities for success in the NFL for Russell, a four-year starter in the SEC.

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].