Vince Wilfork‘s return highlights the New England defensive line. (AP)
As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We looked at the offensive side of the ball, as well as special teams. To open things up on defense, we examine the state of the defensive line:
Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Defensive ends Jake Bequette (1 quarterback hit), Michael Buchanan (3 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (93 tackles, 8 sacks, 18 quarterback hits), Chandler Jones (82 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits), Will Smith; defensive tackles Joe Vellano (48 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Chris Jones (56 tackles, 6 sacks, 8 quarterback hits), Sealver Siliga (21 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 quarterback hits), L.T. Tuipulotu; defensive linemen Vince Wilfork (10 tackles, 1 quarterback hit), Dominique Easley, Tommy Kelly (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits), Marcus Forston, Zach Moore.
Overview: This was a position of strength entering the 2013 season — with Wilfork, Kelly, Chandler Jones and Ninkovich up front, this group was one of the best in the league. A month into the season, both Wilfork and Kelly were sidelined with season-ending injuries, and the New England defensive line struggled to replace them. While the replacements (Chris Jones, Vellano, Siliga) did as well as could be expected, it was a sizable dropoff, and the Patriots suffered as a result. New England brought Andre Carter back midway through the season, and swung a deal for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga at the deadline. And while Carter was able to give them some quality snaps, the veterans were unable to prevent teams from exploiting the Patriots woes up front. While Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were able to provide strong support off the edge — and Jones showed some positional versatility when he kicked inside on a few occasions to work as a long, lean defensive tackle on passing downs — it was an effort to keep things together throughout the year. The most damning evidence came in the AFC title game when New England’s defensive front was unable to get a hand on Peyton Manning.
Going forward, the Patriots addressed some of the depth issues up front with the addition of Easley at the end of the first round, and while there are some questions about his health and how quickly he can get up to speed at the next level, he could provide support sooner rather than later at a variety of positions. In addition, Moore is a small-school prospect who could have an impact relatively early on as a backup to either Chandler Jones or Ninkovich at defensive end. But ultimately, it comes down to Wilfork, and, to a lesser extent, Kelly. If they return to the same level they were at when they went down last year — and both are able to stay injury-free — then New England’s defensive line could again become a massive position of strength.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. Vince Wilfork is the leader of the defensive line.
Like Logan Mankins on the other side of the ball, Wilfork remains the centerpiece of the New England defensive front, a leader who has a voice that cuts across all lines in the locker room. From an on-field perspective, when he went down with his Achilles’ injury last year, it left a gaping hole up front. Down the stretch, Bill Belichick said on several occasions, ‘You don’t just replace Vince Wilfork,’ and even though those who walked in his shoes weren’t short on effort, his absence was a major reason this team fell short of its final goal. (As was the case with Matthew Slater, it wasn’t a surprise to see him on the road with the team, as it was clear Belichick has a level of respect for him that transcends simple X’s and O’s.) A borderline Hall of Famer who has an ability to play multiple spots along the defensive line at a high level well into his 30s, he’s not always the elite presence he once was. But like Mankins, Wilfork at 75 percent is still better than most of the rest of the league. He’ll be a compelling individual this summer for several reasons, including the fact that it will be interesting to chart his progress as he works his way back after the Achilles’ injury. But removed from the rehab work, he’s had an eventful offseason on two fronts: one, one of his most trusted advocates, Pepper Johnson, is no longer with the team, having departed to become an assistant in Buffalo. And two, a contract situation in the spring between Wilfork and the team got a little heated. It’s not expected that either of those things will affect his ability to do his job, but the 32-year-old will start an interesting new chapter of his football career with the Patriots when he takes the field at camp later this month.
2. Rob Ninkovich remains one of the most underrated players in the league.
From this viewpoint, Ninkovich has never gotten the credit he deserves. A perfect fit in New England, he’s managed to provide support while working as a 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker, as well as seeing action on special teams. Whether it’s been dropping into coverage, working as part of the pass rush or setting the edge, he’s been consistent and steady ever since showing up as a backup linebacker/long snapper in the summer of 2009. In his five years in New England, he’s accumulated 27.5 sacks (including back-to-back eight-sack seasons the last two years), four interceptions and an absurd 12 fumbles recovered. (Ninkovich’s 11 fumble recoveries the last four years are more than anyone else in the league in that time.) The 6-foot-3, 251-pounder also has a streak of 79 straight games played (including the playoffs), having suited up for the Patriots every week since Nov. 30, 2009 against the Saints.
3. If everyone stays healthy up front, then Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga and Joe Vellano could do a nice job providing depth in 2014.
After Wilfork and Kelly went down early in the year, the trio was thrown into the deep end of the pool last season and forced to swim. As previously stated, they did as well as could be expected, with Jones showing a knack for working on passing downs (his six sacks were as many as Demarcus Ware and Nick Fairley), while Siliga was particularly stout against the run. Going forward, their body of work suggests that they could see work as backups in 2014.
1. How does the acquisition of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner impact the defensive line?
Ninkovich isn’t usually given to hyperbole, but the look in his eyes when he was talking about the pickup of Revis this past offseason gives you some sort of idea of just how much the cornerback could have an impact on the New England pass rush. It’s a domino effect: Because of Revis’ cover skills, the quarterback is forced to hold on to the ball longer, meaning the pass rusher usually gets another second or two (or three or four) to get after the quarterback. As a result, the most impactful member of the New England pass rush this season won’t likely be the addition of a defensive lineman or defensive end like Easley or Smith, but the pickups of Revis and (when he’s back from his four-game ban) Brandon Browner.
2. Can Chandler Jones take the next step?
Over his first two years, Jones has gradually become one of the better young defensive ends in the league, going from a very solid rookie year (albeit a season where he stalled out about halfway through because of a bout with an ankle injury and some lingering effects from hitting the rookie wall) to a sophomore year where he became the first player since Mike Vrabel to finish a season with at least 11 sacks. (Jones had 11.5, while Vrabel finished 2007 with 12.5.) In addition, the 17.5 sacks in his first two years are third-best in franchise history, trailing only Garin Veris (21 in 1985 and 1986) and Chris Slade (18.5 in 1993 and 1994). There are times where he can be dominant, but he needs to be more consistent — he had just one sack after Thanksgiving last year. The presence of Revis at corner will presumably give him more chances to get after the quarterback in 2014, and his occasional ability to bump inside to a defensive tackle spot should continue to give offensive line coaches fits in 2014. It will also be interesting to see how the additional weight affects his game — he said he added about 10 pounds in his legs, and looks bigger. It’s unfair to measure a defensive end purely on sacks alone, but if he can continue that type of progression when it comes to rushing the passer, it’ll mean good things for the New England defensive front on 2014.
3. What sort of impact can Easley have as a rookie?
At first glance, Easley could face a big challenge when it comes to playing time. With Wilfork and Kelly entrenched at the defensive tackle spots, if they stay healthy, it figures to be their show for the most part. The biggest question with the youngster is likely health, as he’s coming off ACL issues in both knees as a collegian. He was kept under wraps for the bulk of the spring sessions, and only emerged late in minicamp. He appeared limited in what he could and couldn’t do, but when he was on the field, he showed a nice ability to cut and change direction, showing a decent level of explosiveness for someone who has had a history of knee problems. If he’s healthy, he could play a sizable role in New England’s defensive plans, as his versatile and skill set suggest he could have a major impact relatively quickly in the Patriots defensive fronts. (For more on that, check out Doug Farrar‘s excellent piece here.) If there is an injury up front, it’s conceivable he could follow the same trajectory that took Jamie Collins from reserve/special teamer to starter by the end of the 2013 season. But as far as the Patriots are concerned, spending the better part of his rookie season taking a postgraduate year at Wilfork University might be the best course of action.
By the numbers: Through the first four games of the 2013 season ‘ with Wilfork and Kelly completely healthy ‘ the Patriots yielded an average of 105 rushing yards per game, 13th in the league. By the end of the regular season, that number had jumped to 134.1 rushing yards per game allowed, 30th in the league
Key new player: Smith. The annual ‘Let’s see what this veteran defensive lineman has left,’ Smith was a pickup after the Saints’ salary cap purge this past spring. (In the past, the Patriots have kicked the tires on a variety of guys like Carter, Shaun Ellis, Steve Martin, Albert Haynesworth, Keith Traylor, Ted Washington and Anthony Pleasant. Some have worked out, while some haven’t.) The defensive end, who has 67.5 career sacks, is a 33-year-old coming off a knee injury that kept him on the shelf for the duration of the 2013 season, so expectations should be managed. But if he’s healthy, he could fill the role that Andre Carter occupied to great acclaim in 2011, that of veteran pass rusher.
The skinny: So much of this position — particularly along the interior — comes down to health. Wilfork, Kelly, Smith and Easley are all coming off injuries that prematurely ended their 2013 seasons. If they are all able to bounce back in 2014, the Patriots will be able to count on the defensive line as a position of strength. If not, New England will be forced to turn to youngsters again and get creative with some of its defensive fronts.