By Bruce Allen, Patriots Daily Staff
The “big fatties” up front are a hallmark of a Bill Belichick 3-4 defense. Last season for the first time since Vince Wilfork was drafted in 2004, the Patriots front three did not start with Wilfork in the middle with Ty Warren and Richard Seymour beside him. Seymour was traded prior to the season opener to the Oakland Raiders. The Patriots plugged in Mike Wright and Jarvis Green into Seymour’s spot, but neither fared well as a full-time player. For a time it looked like perhaps Wilfork might be gone as well, as his contract ran its course and he approached free agency. In the end, he got his new contract, and the Patriots have their biggest piece in the middle of their defense. This offseason, Green was allowed to leave, signing with the Denver Broncos, and the Patriots added a couple of veteran starters to the DL mix, hoping to avoid some of the issues they faced last season.
Here’s a look at the D-lineman currently on the roster, in a semi-arranged depth chart:
Obviously, getting Wilfork re-signed was the Patriots biggest priority of the offseason, though perhaps it wasn’t the huge no-brainer most people thought it was. Number 75 is one of the best in the business, and knows the Patriots defense in and out. With the contract, it’s time for Vince to take on a larger leadership role with the defense. Apparently with his contract situation uncertain, he was at times hesitant to speak up in the turmoil of last season. Hopefully that is all behind him, and he can be the force on the field and in the locker room that this team needs him to be. He occasionally gets handled by the likes of Jeff Saturday, or as in the playoff game against the Ravens. That sort of thing can’t happen either. They need him to be a monster.
He’s perhaps a step below what he was a couple of years ago, but Ty Warren is still a very good defensive lineman. He spent this offseason getting his degree, so he wasn’t around the team as much, so might have some catching up to do on the field and with his new teammates. Warren has been here since 2003, so he’s a nice bridge between the old and the new. His experience in the system is valuable and his play on the field is still at a very high level. He also needs to be able to take on more of a leadership role, having been a team captain in the past.
Seems the early choice to be the other starter. Warren actually played with Richard Seymour in Oakland last season, and came out in the same draft class as Seymour back in 2001. He was actually picked ahead of Seymour in that draft, going third overall to the Cleveland Browns. He hasn’t had a Seymour-like career, but he has been a solid NFL player over the course of his career, starting almost every game he’s played in, and is very durable, having missed only eight games in nine seasons. He looks to be an improvement over Wright or Green as a starter.
He’s another possibility to start, and might at times, depending on the opponent. The former Panther and Ram was also selected in that 2001 draft, going 12th overall. It seems more likely that Lewis is here to fill the Jarvis Green role as a backup lineman who can play multiple positions and get after the quarterback. He’s also got the reputation as a good locker room guy, adding another good influence for the younger guys.
It’s no knock on Wright that he was asked to do a bit too much last season. He did have some very good games as a starter, including a two-sack performance against the Ravens early in the season. At times he was very good, at others times, he looked like a backup playing as a starter. His versatility on the line make him a big asset to the team, able to fill in on any spot on the line, and he’s shown an ability to get to the quarterback and make plays. Back in his familiar role this season, we can expect another solid year from the Cincinnati product.
A decent surprise as a rookie last season, the 2008 sixth round selection looks to build on his first year. He played in 13 games as a rookie, making 23 tackles. He seemed to catch on quickly to the defense, and his development make him someone to watch in camp and during the season.
By his own admission, Brace was unprepared for NFL life as a rookie and had a hard time adjusting to the pro level. It showed. Drafted out of Boston College to be Wilfork’s potential understudy, Brace played in only eight games, though he did start two late in the season when Wilfork was injured. He’s got the size (6-3 330) for an NFL nose tackle, but needs to make big improvements this season or risk being labeled a 2nd round bust. He’s vowed to be better prepared this season, let’s hope he can make the leap he needs.
I put Deaderick ahead of the other youngsters below him on this list because he’s got the advantage of having been a starter in Nick Saban’s defense at Alabama. Drafted in the 7th round, Deaderick seems like he might be able to sneak onto the final roster with some strong play in the preseason.
Drafted with the pick immediately after Deaderick, Weston is another big body (6-5, 315) with solid college credentials. When you get to this point on the depth chart, you’re fighting for the practice squad.
Last year’s seventh round pick spent the season on the practice squad. At 6-4, 290, he’s not quite as big as some of the other guys, but his intelligence draws raves from those around him. Could stick around on the PS for another season.
An undrafted free agent, the 6-1, 310 Love comes from Mississippi State where he played as a true freshman and went on to a solid four year career. He figures as a long shot.
This group isn’t as good as it was a couple of seasons ago, but still has to be considered among the top units in the league. With Wilfork and Warren starting to get up there in age, it is imperative to develop younger linemen who can come in a contribute. Ron Brace might be the most important in that category. If he can develop into a guy who can spell Wilfork as well as play an end position, it will be a huge boost. Gerard Warren and Lewis provide some veteran stability and experience, giving the youngsters time to develop.