By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots defense finished at the top of the league in 2019. But when opposing offenses got the best of them, they did it with the big boys up front. So Bill Belichick could stand to combat that by beefing up his own guys on the defensive line.
Now, while yours truly would gladly accept a seven-figure contract to plop my rotund, doughy figure into the middle of the Patriots' defensive front, frankly there are more athletic options out there. Professionals, even. We'll list a bunch of names below, all with a focus on bolstering a defensive line group that thinned out as the 2019 season went along.
It’s nothing against Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, or Danny Shelton - three solid players who, especially early in the season, executed at a high level. But, partially due to injuries and attrition caused by the departures of Michael Bennett and Mike Pennel, the unit simply didn’t have the horses that they looked to have in camp, which forced others to play outside of their strengths. And now Shelton is headed for free agency, so at an absolute minimum the Patriots will need a replacement for his 492 snaps.
In a damaging loss to the Ravens and a season-ending Wild Card defeat at the hands of the Titans, the Patriots got gashed on the ground as Baltimore and Tennessee blew running lanes open at the point of attack. It culminated in January with Derrick Henry’s 182 yards on 34 carries (a 5.4-yard average) in Foxboro. Power running backs proved hard to bring down, too, as the Browns' Nick Chubb and the Bengals' Joe Mixon combined for 267 yards on 45 carries (a 5.9-yard average).
The Patriots obviously won the latter two games mentioned. But we're talking about areas where they can get better, deeper. Belichick himself is always trying to do that. So it would go against his own conventional wisdom if he didn't make the D-line a focus of the offseason.
How about the pass rush? Well, on the interior they actually did pretty well. Butler recorded a career-best six sacks and nine QB hits and is in line for a raise with a tender or extension. But the Patriots still haven’t found a way to replace what Trey Flowers gave them from 2015-18, which is a dependable three-down option as both an edge-setter and pass-rusher on the edge. Bennett never came close to accomplishing that.
So who can realistically ship up to Foxboro and provide some needed heft and explosion for a group that couldn't quite hold up over the course of 2019? Some of the 10 names below are more realistic (or more expensive) than others. But one or more of them added to the Patriots would deepen the roster and help shore up one of their more under-the-radar question marks entering 2020.
JPP may have done enough in 2019 to prove he still deserves big money as a dynamic pass-rusher. But at age 31, would he command more than one or two years? The attractive thing about Pierre-Paul is that he's a true three-down threat who can set the edge and contain the run as well as rush the quarterback. Maybe that value prices him out of New England, even if he just signs on short money. Perhaps his neck injury from a car accident last May, which limited him to just 10 games, makes him less expensive going forward. But when he made it back on the field, Pierre-Paul proved he's still a productive pass-rusher (8.5 sacks and 16 QB hits) and a workhorse (58.6 snaps per game).
If Belichick is going to prioritize a space-eater for the middle of his D-line, Pierce is as good as it gets. He's due for a raise and a long-term deal after making just $3.095 million in 2019. He stands at 6 feet and just an awesomely robust 340 pounds. In Belichick's hand, Pierce is one of the few players in the league who could legitimately invoke the name Vincent Lamar Wilfork. The problem is that Pierce seems like he really wants to stay in Baltimore and could cost in the $5-8 million range. But he'd certainly be an upgrade over Shelton and those issues stuffing the run up the middle would largely go away.
This guy may be Belichick's best bet at replicating what he's gotten out of Guy. But Wolfe may not come quite as cheaply. He's coming off a career-best seven sacks and 12 quarterback hits and remains dependable against the run. Belichick would love Wolfe's versatility and consistency, if not the relatively low price tag he might command on the open market. Unfortunately, that's partially because he missed the final four games of 2019 with a dislocated elbow and has played 16 games just once in the past five years. Wolfe recently told reporters he wants to stay in Denver but also said the magic word: "business." That doesn't mean Belichick would suddenly outbid everyone for his services. But as far as being put in a position to succeed as a 3-4 defensive end, Wolfe couldn't find a better landing spot than New England.
Brockers is another savvy veteran who would certainly absorb Belichick's coaching well. He'd likely help the Patriots contain the run up the middle tremendously. He can clearly still play, as he logged a career-best 63 total tackles in 2019. He's also quite durable; Brockers has missed just one start in his past three seasons. The question is affordability. If he can be had for an Adrian Clayborn-type deal with one or two years for well under $10 million, Brockers would be a welcome short-term addition.
After a slow start to his career as the 32nd overall pick in 2016, Ogbah started to emerge in his first season with the Chiefs. He amassed 5.5 sacks in just 10 games and averaged 41 defensive snaps per game before a torn pectoral muscle cut his season short. That injury should significantly lower his price tag. Ogbah is already a proven edge-setter and has begun producing as a pass-rusher, but the question would be how he'd fit if the Pats deploy the same defensive system in 2020. The 26-year-old would still be kind of a tweener in a 3-4 defense at 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, but his upside is starting to shine through.
The Buccaneers are reportedly prioritizing Shaquil Barrett among their free agents in the front-seven. And so, especially if they also want to keep Pierre-Paul, that means Allen could be on his way out. The classic run-stuffing defensive tackle has already shown he's willing to take less money to stay in Tampa. But it wouldn't cost much for the Patriots to bid up for him as a Shelton replacement. Allen may not be a transformative kind of player, but he'd certainly help against the run.
Butler has the size to play the run on the interior at 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds. He also made six sacks and eight QB hits in 2019 for the Panthers. Carolina has already declined his fifth-year option, so he's certainly going to cost markedly less than $7.6 million in 2020. He'd make a fine gamble for Belichick on a former first-round pick with the potential to play his best football under the Patriots' staff.
Covington may very well be the next Guy: a cost-effective, versatile option that Belichick maximizes on the field. He logged a career-high 28 tackles and played in all 16 games (six starts) for the Cowboys in 2019. He's not likely to cost much more than his $2.5 million tag last season, if at all.
The Falcons may opt to keep Davison as an affordable rotational option on the D-line, as evidenced by Thomas Dimitroff's happiness with how he played in 2019. Davison cost just $895,000 and made 55 tackles to go with four tackles for loss. He'd be another depth player that wouldn't be as impactful as some of the above names, but Davison brings the kind of skill set the Patriots could use.
As Patriot-like as guys like Covington and Davison seem, Crawford seems like they created him in a lab. He's drawn praise for his deepening versatility in Atlanta, playing multiple roles in different types of defenses. Crawford is versatile enough to play either end or on the interior, and could be used in either 3-4 or 4-3. He's going to be 32 years old and may only be another rotational player, but Crawford sure seems like a Patriots kind of pickup.
What Would You Do?
The Patriots likely wouldn't be in the market for top D-line targets like Jadeveon Clowney, Arik Armstead, Chris Jones, or Yannick Ngakoue. But they should be able to afford one or two of these players to improve the front four in time for offseason workouts. Who would you bring to Foxboro?
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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].