With the majority of free agency completed and the draft looming, we’re going to take a look at the Patriots depth chart by position, and try and assess the level of need going forward. We’ve broken down each position on the offensive side of the ball. Now, it’s defense, and we start with the defensive line:
Current depth chart: (2014 regular-season stats via coaches film review and Pro Football Reference): Chandler Jones (43 tackles, 6 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed), Alan Branch (14 tackles, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Sealver Siliga (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Chris Jones (27 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (56 tackles, 8 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovery), Joe Vellano (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit), Zach Moore (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery), Michael Buchanan (1 tackle), Dominique Easley (9 tackles, 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits). Jake Bequette remains on the practice squad, while the Patriots added DE/OLB Jabaal Sheard and defensive tackle Antonio Johnson in free agency.
Lost in free agency: Vince Wilfork (47 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed) signed with the Texans after the Patriots did not pick up his option. While he was able to bounce back following a season-ending Achilles injury in 2013 and go wire-to-wire in 2014, his off-field guidance as a pillar of the franchise could be a greater loss. DE/OLB Akeem Ayers (15 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 1 pass defensed) who was acquired midway through the year, ended up signing with the Rams.
Gained in free agency: Sheard. The 6-foot-3, 264-pounder has played in all 16 games in three of his four seasons in the league, and he recorded 44 tackles and two sacks last year. The 25-year-old has 23 career sacks. Meanwhile, the 30-year-old Johnson has posted 98 tackles and 4.5 sacks in six seasons in the league with the Titans and Colts.
Other changes: The Patriots re-signed versatile vet Branch to a new deal, and while he should be an important part of the rotation along the defensive line in 2015, the real guy to watch will be Easley, who was shelved for the season with a knee injury in December. The first-round pick in 2014 certainly showed himself to be a disruptive presence when he was able to play, but can be step in and be a big part of the New England defense in 2015? It’s unclear where he might line up along the defensive front — based on his size, skill set and what we saw from him in 2014, he’s strength is probably working as a 4-3 defensive tackle, with some time at end. But his progression and his health (specifically, his knees) will certainly be worth monitoring this spring and summer. (It’s also worth mentioning that Buchanan is coming back after a season-ending injury derailed his 2014 campaign, and figures to be a part of the conversation at the backup defensive end spot.)
Is this an area of need going into the draft? It is, at least from this perspective. While the Patriots do have a talented defensive front, there’s still the need for a sizable, run-stuffing type in the middle who can at least try and replicate what Wilfork was able to bring from an on-field perspective. (Maybe the 6-foot-3, 328-pound Johnson will get that chance?) Whether the Patriots try and go after a big body in the draft or for one of the remaining veteran free agents left on the market, it’s something New England figures to address between now and the start of camp.