As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2015 Patriots. We started with the offensive side of the ball and now we’ve shifted to defense with the cornerbacks, linebackers and safeties, now we take a look at the defensive line.
Depth chart (regular-season stats via Pro Football Reference): Rob Ninkovich (53 tackles, 8 sacks), Jabaal Sheard (25 tackles, 2 sacks), Chandler Jones (37 tackles, 6 sacks) Dominique Easley (6 tackles, 1 sack), Sealver Siliga (21 tackles, 2.5 sacks), Alan Branch (14 tackles), Jake Bequette, Chris Jones (16 tackles, 3 sacks), Joe Vellano (4 tackles, 1 sack), Zach Moore, Malcom Brown (rookie), Trey Flowers (rookie)
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. It’s a different group than a year ago. While they may have lost only one player, it was their leader Vince Wilfork. Without Wilfork it will surely be a different group and they will need someone to step up and take on a leadership role, which will likely be Ninkovich. The team also went out and signed Sheard, who was a free agent after spending last season with the Browns. While they will be without the biggest guy in the middle, the talent is still there to keep up the success.
2. Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard will be good. The Patriots could have one of the best outside pass rush grouping in the entire league with these three. Ninkovich has had eight sacks in three straight seasons, Jones had six in an injury-plagued 2014 season and Sheard will benefit from having the other two players with him. These three rotating in-and-out will likely create matchup problems for opposing defenses and allow the Patriots to get constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks when they choose.
3. They will need to make more of an impact. Last season the secondary was the group which led the defense and this year it will be the front-seven with the departures of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington in the secondary. It will likely be the opposite of things from last year, as this year it will be the front-seven taking some pressure off of the secondary rather than the other way around like last season.
1. How will they replace Vince Wilfork? This is the biggest question with this group. While not one player can replace the leader that Wilfork was and have the impact that he had in the locker room, Ninkovich is as close as you can get. A soft-spoken player by nature, but he has the experience and work ethic it takes to be considered a leader. It is also a group of players who will all work together to make up for the loss of Wilfork in the middle, although Branch and Siliga specifically will need to step up and play a bigger role in stopping the run.
2. What kind of impact will Dominique Easley have? After playing in only 11 games last year and starting this season on PUP, it will be interesting to see what kind of impact Easley has. The 2014 first-round pick has plenty of upside, but is still working his way back from his ACL injury he suffered at Florida. At 6-foot-2, 285 pounds, Easley has plenty of potential, but the biggest key for him is staying healthy.
3. How fill Malcom Brown fit in? For the second straight season the Patriots used their first-round pick on a defensive lineman. The Texas product has the potential to make an impact right away if he can learn the system and adjust to the NFL quickly. He could be another guy, if he picks things up quick, to fill Wilfork’s place on the middle of the line. It’s unlikely he steps in and starts right away, but he could potentially see a good number of snaps this season.
By the numbers: 6. The Patriots allowed six rushing touchdowns in 2014, which was the second-fewest in the entire NFL.
Key new player: Sheard. The former Cleveland Brown could make a huge impact in his first season in New England. Provided he can learn the system, he will be a major piece on the Patriots defense when it comes to getting after the opposing quarterback. And with more of an emphasis on the front-seven, Sheard was just the player the team needed to get this offseason.
The skinny: While the biggest thing to monitor is the loss of Wilfork, the unit should be just fine. Ninkovich, Jones, Sheard and Branch will be good players for Brown and Easley to look up to. As has been mentioned, the front-seven will be asked to do more than last year and will be asked to come up big in the red zone once again, as holding teams to field goals instead of touchdowns will go a long way with winning a number of games this year.