In the 2020 season, the Patriots defense ranked in the top quarter of the league in most statistical categories. However, two notable areas stand out where they finished in the bottom five – rush yards allowed, and sacks.
Those metrics are primarily a reflection of the defensive line. Granted, that unit faced shortcomings due to COVID and injuries all season, so while the numbers are a depiction of how the position fared as a whole in 2020, they’re not necessarily representative of the talent in the room.
That being said, if Bill Belichick looks at his defensive line’s performance from last season and decides the unit needs sweeping changes, he’s in a position to make such moves. Of the five most-used defensive linemen last season, four are pending free agents. That group includes Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy, John Simon, and Deatrich Wise. (Chase Winovich is the fifth, and still has two more years on his rookie deal.)
Butler provides the most value of any of the four players listed above. He’s significantly younger than Guy or Simon, and plays a larger role than Wise. His unique skill set – a primarily pass rushing defensive tackle – makes him tough to replace.
At the same time, all of those factors will make him more expensive. Whatever deal he signs, in New England or elsewhere, will likely be worth $7-$10 million AAV, and should require at least a three-year commitment (unless he wants to take more money on a one-year ‘prove it’ deal).
For the Patriots to pay him that much, they’d have to trust he could be an every down player, as opposed to the situational role he is in now. On top of that, this is a relatively strong draft for players fitting Butler’s prototype. He’s a good player, but the Patriots probably have more reasons to move on from Butler than they do to bring him back.
Guy is pretty much the opposite situation of Butler, in that he’s a very well-rounded veteran who could be brought back at cost. Since arriving in New England in 2017, he’s been an under the radar cornerstone of the defense. Able to play and produce at tackle and end, Guy’s versatility has helped the defense adjust to personnel changes and injuries while remaining an effective unit. He’s also been reliable – Guy has started 68 of a possible 72 games during his time in New England.
However, he’s now on the wrong side of 30 and dealt with a series of injuries last season. At one point during the year, he was listed with simultaneous shoulder, elbow, and knee issues. While he still managed to play 14 games, the physical toll was apparent.
During his final media availability of the season, Guy mentioned he’d like to return to New England in 2021. He’s certainly a candidate for a hometown discount, and having a player like him in the locker room would be a big help for what projects to be a very young defense.
Simon, like Guy, is also entering free agency for the first time since turning 30. In the previous two seasons he’s been one of the Patriots most consistent edge setters. However, he seemed to take a step back in 2020, especially against the run.
In making a decision on Simon, the Patriots will need to decide whether his 2020 was an anomaly, or a true step backwards due to his age. With a strong edge-setting market and plenty of cap space to play with, Simon’s role is a spot the Patriots could look to spend and upgrade.
Entering 2020, Wise was far from a lock to make the roster. Through his first three seasons he was a sparingly-used pass rusher, and played a career-low 23 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps in 2019.
After putting on weight during the offseason, Wise was able to play a much more versatile role, similar to that of Guy. He started playing on the interior as well as the edge. His newfound skill set combined with a number of injuries thrust him into a key role, and his usage went up to a career high 56 percent.
His market likely won’t be robust in free agency, but there should be a handful of teams interested in his services. If he doesn’t find any deals he likes, it would make sense for both sides if the Patriots offered him a one-year deal. There’s still a role for him on this defense, and with another season of regular playing time in a system he knows he can succeed in, Wise could hit the market again next year with higher stock, and when more teams have cap space and are willing to spend.
The Patriots actually have a fifth defensive lineman who is a pending free agent as well. That would be tackle Carl Davis, who was signed during the 2020 season. He looked promising when on the field, but only played in three games due to concussions. Davis likely won’t have an immediate market in free agency, but don’t be surprised if he ends up a post-draft signing, and returns to compete for a job in training camp.
Between the pending expiring contracts, and strong free agent and draft classes along the defensive line (a DL is certainly in play for one of the Patriots’ top-50 picks), the opportunity is there for Bill Belichick to overhaul the unit.
The question is, with so many other areas of the roster needed focus this offseason, can he fit that rebuild into the full offseason plan?
MORE: Free Agents for the Patriots Defense
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.