Preseason preview: Patriots' unheralded pass-rushers looking to make their mark

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By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

John Simon is used to hitting the reset button.

For the fourth time in his career, and third season in a row, Simon entered 2019 training camp with a different team than the previous year. He's had a bit of a head start in earning the respect of his Patriots teammates and coaches, having signed last October.

But 2019, as with every season under Bill Belichick, starts anew. Atlanta? The Lombardi Trophy? Yeah, that was last season. For Simon and many others, it's time to earn their snaps all over again.

Simon is just one piece of a deep, competitive group of edge rushers with opportunities to carve out bigger roles with the 2019 Patriots. Many familiar faces return from the Super Bowl-winning 2018 defense. Up front, many of those returning players have room to grow into more prominent pieces. Their first big chance to show their growth comes in Thursday night's preseason opener against the Lions.

One potential difference on this defense is that you may see more 3-4 looks, with new addition Michael Bennett filling more of an interior role and edge pressure coming from speedy defensive ends and outside linebackers. Their personnel indicates, almost demands such an approach.

That's where Simon can prove himself to his teammates. Just like he did with the Colts, Texans, and Ravens, he's relishing the opportunity.

"I think every time you just come in and you want to earn the respect of the guys," Simon told 985TheSportsHub.com last week. "You just come in and prove it by your actions, day in and day out and try to be as consistent as possible. And when you’re on the field, do whatever you can to help this team produce."

Jan 20, 2019; Kansas City, MO: Defensive end John Simon against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Jan 20, 2019; Kansas City, MO: New England Patriots defensive end John Simon against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Taking a different path to Thursday is third-year defensive end Deatrich Wise out of Arkansas. He has played in all 16 games in each of his first two seasons, but hasn't risen beyond a rotational pass-rushing role. But he continues to build his skill set with the Patriots' classic one-day-at-a-time approach. Wise wrapped up his most recent practice in Foxboro nearly an hour beyond the scheduled time, putting in extra work on the details.

Former Patriots, now-Lions defensive end Trey Flowers taught Wise the importance of working overtime to refine your technique (h/t Mike Reiss). Clearly, Wise has retained that wisdom. Speaking after practice last Friday in Foxboro, Wise credited the Patriots' mix of veterans and young talent for showing him a variety of ways to get better.

"We have a lot of guys here from various years - older, younger, 12 years, one year - that bring great insight to the game," Wise said. "With guys like that on the team, definitely for myself, I ask a lot of questions, making sure I get every detail, I get the little nuances, what made them great, what made them be in the league for this many years. That’s what I feel like this defense has, great guys who can teach from all [their various experience]."

Thursday will be Wise's first chance to show how far his extra work has taken him. The physical gifts have always been there. It's a matter of weathering the ups and downs and molding himself into a more complete player. Ideally he takes the same trajectory as teammate Dont'a Hightower, who flashed as a rookie in 2012, took a step back in 2013, then emerged as a game-changing middle linebacker on the Patriots' Super Bowl run in 2014.

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: New England Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after beating the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)
Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: New England Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after beating the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

Fellow 2017 draftee Derek Rivers is hoping for more of a Flowers-like jump from his first full season to his second. After recovering from a torn ACL that robbed him of his rookie season in 2017, Rivers spent most of 2018 on the inactive list. But he was a surprise activation for both the divisional round against the Chargers and AFC Championship against the Chiefs, a sure sign that he'd made significant progress in what was essentially a redshirt season.

In this most recent training camp, Rivers often got reps with the starting defense and flashed his playmaking ability off the edge. With major injuries way in the rearview now, he could be on the verge of leaping forward in 2019. His arrival would come just in time for a retooled defensive front that has depth but relative uncertainty at the pass-rushing spots.

The deeply religious Rivers constantly shows gratitude for every opportunity he gets. Speaking after a minicamp practice in June, in which he also stayed about half an hour late for extra work, Rivers is excited for his best opportunity yet to prove himself as a starting-caliber defender.

"It’s a blessing to be out here and play games," Rivers said. "It’s fun. Any time you get a chance, whether it’s a playoff game, regular season game, preseason game, you’re out there playing football. It’s a blessing."

Jun 5, 2019; Foxborough, MA: New England Patriots defensive end Derek Rivers walks on to the field before mandatory minicamp at the Gillette Stadium practice field. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)
Jun 5, 2019; Foxborough, MA: New England Patriots defensive end Derek Rivers walks on to the field before mandatory minicamp at the Gillette Stadium practice field. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

Rivers, Wise, and Simon are all safe bets to make the Patriots' 53-man roster in September. But the drafting of rookie Chase Winovich out of Michigan in the third round has put the whole depth chart on notice.

Third-year pro Keionta Davis is among the group of defensive ends who will only get a roster spot if he earns it. Originally an intriguing prospect out of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Davis went undrafted after doctors discovered a bulging disc in his neck at the Combine. The Patriots eventually signed and redshirted him for 2017, then made him active for six games (three starts) in 2018.

There's no doubting Davis' enthusiasm and work ethic. But if he wants to prove worthy of the pass-rushing rotation, he will have to shine in the preseason. It's no surprise, though, that the Patriots have kept the resilient, battle-tested defensive end in the fold. If Davis ends up elsewhere in 2019, he'll be well-prepared.

"You get to a point where you’re kind of eager to go through [the season], especially for guys who want to prove something or try to get better, and try to make the team, add value to the team," Davis said last week. "I feel like you can look at it one of two ways, you can look at it as punishment or opportunity. I look at it more as an opportunity.

"Everybody’s been flashing, so you see someone’s doing something good, you say ‘OK, I’ve got to do something now.' I think that challenge alone in the building is going to be great for us when we go other places, because we know we still have to flash out there on the field.”

FOXBOROUGH, MA - AUGUST 9 : Keionta Davis in action during the preseason game between the New England Patriots and the Washington Redskins at Gillette Stadium. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - AUGUST 9 : Keionta Davis of the New England Patriots in action during the preseason game between the New England Patriots and the Washington Redskins at Gillette Stadium. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Further complicating the competition at the end of the depth chart is fourth-year pro Shilique Calhoun, who reportedly stood out as a pass-rusher in joint practices against the Lions. His recent emergence simply underlines the depth of the competition for edge rushers. The Patriots probably can't keep them all.

But they all have one thing in common: they believe in the overall cause and in the coaches positioning them to succeed. From there, the question is who earns their confidence the most. That journey really begins on Thursday night.

"There’s a mutual trust between both players and coaches here. I think that’s why it works so well," said Simon. "They bring in guys who are all about winning, and the coaches are all about winning themselves. So everyone does selfless things on the field, and they’re willing to do what it takes to get wins."

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].