Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots defensive endChandler Jones
(95) celebrates after beating the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots are coming up to the new league season and face difficult decisions as roster deadlines and free agency threaten to change the team make-up. With a number of internal free agents and a chunk of their cap money tied-up in cornerback Darrelle Revis expected to be freed-up when he is released from his “placeholder” contract with a $25 million cap charge in 2015 (salary data from OvertheCap.com), there is a lot of work to be done by Nick Caserio and the New England front office. Once Revis is released by March 9th when his $12 million roster bonus is due, the team should be able to re-organize and get their salary cap in order.
The Patriots have already used the franchise tag to keep potential free agent kicker Stephen Gostkowski on the roster. Long-time defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is set to be a free agent after the Patriots declined to pick-up his option. The team still has no deal in place with pending free agent safety Devin McCourty and he is expected to explore free agency. The team still has a number of needs to fill, especially if they cannot keep all of their own free agents.
Oct 26, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) sits on the field during the second half of New England
The NFL Draft follows in May, but by then the Patriots will be well into shaping their roster. Last season New England had a strong foray into free agency bringing in wide receiver Brandon LaFell (74 receptions for 953 yards and 7 touchdowns), re-signing wide receiver Julian Edelman (92 receptions for 972 yards and 4 touchdowns), and re-signing valuable blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and guard/center Ryan Wendell on offense (all stats from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). On defense Revis was the the crown jewel but cornerback Brandon Browner and safety Patrick Chung brought hard-hitting swagger to the defense.
This season the Patriots will need another strong off-season to keep the team in contention to defend their 2014 Super Bowl championship. Like all Super Bowl champions their free agents tend to be over-valued and receive extra attention from the other 31 squads. McCourty is one of the top free agents on the market who should draw a lot of attention from a number of teams. Revis is looking to be among the highest paid cornerbacks in the NFL. Finally, there are other free agents who may get a look from other teams including their mid-season acquisitions on defense Alan Branch, Akeem Ayers, and Jonathan Casillas.
Looking at free agency needs and the 2015 NFL Draft, this series first addressed the offense by looking at the most important position in part one: quarterback. Part two of the off-season delved into the running back position. Part three kept the focus on the offense and takes a look at the wide receivers and tight ends. The offense wrapped up with part four taking a look at the offensive line. Part five moves to the defense and starts with the defensive line.
Under contract: Rob Ninkovich ($3.95 million cap number), Chandler Jones ($2.6 million cap number), Dominique Easley ($1.65 million cap number), Michael Buchanan ($598,403 cap number), Chris Jones ($585,000 cap number), Joe Vellano ($585,000 cap number), Jake Bequette ($585,000 cap number), Zach Moore ($535,550 cap number), Sealver Siliga (restricted free agent).
Dec 28, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) warms up before the start of the game against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots need to fill a giant void in the middle of their defensive line. In not picking up the contract option on defensive tackle Vince Wilfork the team will be without their defensive tackle who played 818 regular season snaps and clogged the middle of the line to slow opposing rushing attacks in 2014. Wilfork did not generate much pass rush but that has not been his role in New England over the past decade.
When Wilfork was out in 2013 with the Achilles injury he was replaced primarily by Chris Jones and Joe Vellano. Jones has pass rush ability but is a liability in the running game. Vellano is undersized but has a high motor. He ended up on the practice squad. The 2013 team was saved by an undrafted free agent on the Seattle practice squad who joined the team for the last quarter of the season and the playoffs: that was Sealver Siliga.
Siliga was hurt for much of 2014 and his loss led to the signing of veteran Alan Branch. Siliga is a premier run-stuffer and has the ability to generate pressure inside. He is a restricted free agent who is expected to return and take on a key role on the defense. Branch is an unrestricted free agent but the veteran could be an inexpensive player to help replace Wilfork.
Sep 14, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Dominique Easley (74) celebrates his interception during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Vikings 30-7. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
The player with the highest expectations on the interior defensive line is 2014 first round draft pick Dominique Easley. Easley was a projected top ten pick who dropped to the end of the first round due to having ACL surgery on both knees in college. Easley failed to generate the dynamic pass rush that was expected of him in 2014 and his season ended early due to injuries. Fellow rookie and sixth round draft pick Zach Moore flashed pass rush potential but is raw having come from small school Concordia and may be another year from contributing.
On the outside the team had veteran defensive ends/outside linebackers Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. For simplicity, the New England “outside linebackers” are basically “hand-in-the dirt” edge setters and pass rushers. While Jones was out with a hip injury the Patriots snapped up Akeem Ayers from Tennessee and he added an instant spark to the defense providing a strong pass rush. Ninkovich is steady and consistent but Jones is the key to the pass rush. His health and ability to generate pressure is a major part of the defense.
Ayers is a free agent who may have done enough to earn a starting job and more money than New England is willing to commit to a back-up. Jake Bequette is likely on his last chance after showing nothing in three years after being a third round draft pick in 2012. Michael Buchanan was a seventh round pick in 2013 who initially was a third down pass rusher but lost his job mid-way through 2013 and has yet to win back a role. Last year was a lost year as he played just two games and was placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury.
The Patriots need to add to the defensive line through free agency and the draft. Another big body or two is a must, although extending Siliga and re-signing Branch could play a big role in replacing Wilfork. The return to health of Easley will be important and the second year player will be an important part of the future of the defensive line.
Need (Low, Mid, High): High
Free Agent Activity:
Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) scrambles away from New England Patriots defensive tackle Sealver Siliga (96) in the first half in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
As a restricted free agent, the Patriots should have no problem keeping Sealver Siliga. The team would be wise to initiate a contract extension with the impressive big man to keep him in New England at a reasonable cost. Alan Branch should be a top target after he fit seamlessly on the defensive line and in the locker room after a rocky tenure in Buffalo. Bringing back those two players should go a long way toward making up for the loss of Vince Wilfork.
While Wilfork could technically come back, it seems extremely unlikely he will be back as a Patriot. Count the Patriots out on the Ndamukong Suh sweepstakes. While Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton would look great in the red, white, and blue he is likely too expensive. Ditto the perpetually underperforming Nick Fairley.
Oct 12, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Dan Williams (92) against the Washington Redskins at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
A run-stuffer who would fit in New England on the interior offensive line could be Arizona Cardinals big body Dan Williams. He is an absolute beast in stuffing the run and even generates some pressure. A 2010 first round draft pick, he is still only 28 but is looking for starter money and consistent playing time. If his market is cool at the beginning of free agency he is the type of player who the Patriots could swoop in on and snap up.
While New England could use a pass rusher opposite Chandler Jones, it appears Rob Ninkovich is safe for another year. Akeem Ayers could return but do not expect New England to sniff around Jerry Hughes, Brian Orapko, Greg Hardy, Pernell McPhee, Trent Cole or even Derrick Morgan.
Nov 16, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (97) at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Taking a flyer on someone like Jabaal Sheard who is strong against the run and is a Ninkovich-type player could be a target. Sheard is only 26 years old but injuries slowed him at the end of 2014 after a breakout 2013 season. Like Williams, there is not a lot of talk about Sheard but he seems to be a player in the “Bill Belichick” mold at defensive end/outside linebacker. Remember, Mike Lombardi is familiar with Sheard from his time in Cleveland and could recommend him to Belichick as a potential replacement for Ninkovich.
After spending a first round draft pick on a defensive tackle last season the Patriots could very easily go back to the position early in the draft. While end/tackle Leonard Williams and nose tackle Danny Shelton are not expected to be on the board at the end of the first round, an inside pass rusher like defensive tackle Malcom Brown of Texas could be available. Brown has quickness and power and could team with Dominique Easley as a one-two punch in the middle for years to come while giving the line a new look.
Oct 30, 2014; Louisville, KY, USA; Florida State Seminoles defensive tackle Eddie Goldman (90) against the Louisville Cardinals at Papa John
Eddie Goldman of Florida State is another player expected to go at the end of the first round and he stepped in for Timmy Jernigan last year for Florida State. He is huge but still quick and disruptive. He was not at the combine due to injury but could be the Wilfork replacement the Patriots need.
The Patriots may start thinking about eventually replacing Ninkovich through the draft and the draft is deep at pass rusher with four expected to go in the top twenty picks. Alvin Dupree of Kentucky may be around at the end of the first round and is a long, disruptive force with freakish athleticism he put on display at the combine. Eli Harold of Virginia is moving up the pre-draft charts as well as UCLA’s Owa Odighizuwa. Both may be a little light to play the defensive end/outside linebacker role in New England’s defense, however.
Oct 11, 2014; Starkville, MS, USA; Auburn Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall (14) steps out of the pocket and is chased by Mississippi State Bulldogs defensive lineman Preston Smith (91) during the game at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
Preston Smith of Mississippi State fits the mold for the position for New England and could be there as a second round pick. Trey Flowers is a mid-round pick who played in the SEC at Arkansas and seems to have the size to fit in but lacks polish in the pass rush. After the swing-and-miss with Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette the Patriots may be gun-shy to invest another third round pick on a player from that school again.
New England needs to replace Vince Wilfork in the middle of the defense this offseason while looking ahead and getting another outside pass rusher. Whether through the draft or free agency there are options available to the Patriots. The defensive tackle position has a high need with Wilfork gone, Branch a free agent, and Siliga coming off an injury filled season. With Akeem Ayers a free agent and no quality depth behind Jones and Ninkovich the Patriots need an outside linebacker/defensive end to develop for 2016.