Reinforce the defensive line up front
During certain games last year, the Patriots’ defensive line was just a notch or two above utter disaster. Opposing running backs seemed to find open lanes at will, with unheralded rushers like Pittsburgh’s Jaylen Samuels and Detroit’s Kerryon Johnson playing like perennial Pro Bowlers as they gashed the Patriots defense on the ground.
Thankfully for all of Massachusetts, Belichick and Brian Flores coached the defense up just in time to make a playoff push at the end of December and into January, and the team tightened up its rushing defense the deeper it went into the postseason. Somewhat surprisingly, the Patriots actually finished as the 11th-best defense against the run during the regular season; granted, the stats don’t fully take into consideration that oftentimes opposing teams had to forgo the run in order to try and outscore the Patriots’ offense after falling behind early.
Still, it was an encouraging turnaround overall. In the postseason, New England held the Rams and Chiefs both to a 3.4 yards per attempt rushing average; they bottled up the Chargers even further, limiting L.A. to just 1.9 yards per rush on the ground. In all three wins (and in every Patriots regular season win), New England held their opponent below 100 total rushing yards in the game.
So how then does one evaluate this team’s defensive line? Or perhaps the better question is, which version of the line is more accurate: the one that played dismally against the Steelers, Jaguars, and Lions, or the one that overpowered the Chargers, Chiefs, and Rams?
Belichick probably thinks it’s the latter, and hopefully he’s right. After all, it stands to reason that the group of guys we just saw in February and January is a truer representation than the unit we witnessed back in December or September.
It’s now on Belichick (and Greg Schiano once his hire is made official) to prove that the defense’s postseason performance wasn’t just a fluke, particularly along the line. New England’s secondary is unquestionably stellar, and its linebacking corps showed real promise over the course of the year. The line is the only area where there’s a real question of continuity and depth entering the offseason.
Run-stuffers Danny Shelton and Malcolm Brown are both unrestricted free agents. Neither one of them is a premier player at the position, but it’d be a surprise if both are back in Patriots uniforms come September 2019. The team will need to decide what to do with both of them – particularly Brown, who was a first-round draft pick back in 2005 and is still just 25 years old.
Popular speculation suggests that if the Patriots are going to commit top-dollar to a player on their defense, it should be defensive end Trey Flowers. Flowers is coming off a terrific season, and he’s shown more and more every season he’s been in the league; as an unrestricted free agent, he’s sure to draw interest around the NFL for his versatility and pass-rushing capabilities. If they can afford to match offers he might receive elsewhere, New England should open up their piggybank to pay him.
Doing so would presumably leave less funds to go around the rest of the defense (and the team as a whole), which is where this situation really gets interesting. If the Patriots have a weakness defensively, it’s in their lack of a consistent pass-rush and the fallibility of the defensive line against the run at times.
The problem isn’t quite dire enough to force the team into seeking top-dollar reinforcements in free agency or at the top of the draft, but it should still consider throwing a bunch of answers against the proverbial wall and seeing what sticks. Scouting the draft for value mid-round steals at defensive tackle or end, as well as combing free agency for under-the-radar veterans at both positions, might be the best strategy for solving this area of need before the new season rolls around.