The Patriots didn’t have to make too many changes for a roster that had just won Super Bowl LI but one of the areas that underwent pretty dramatic change was at defensive end on the edge. With Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long leaving via free agency, it was considered the Patriots biggest area of need.
And the Patriots have addressed it, bringing in Kony Ealy in a trade with the Carolina Panthers and then drafting a pair of edge players Derek Rivers from Youngstown State and Deatrich Wise from Arkansas. Those three players will join Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich for the Patriots this season. The team signed UDFA linebacker Harvey Langi as well and he played the edge for BYU somewhat last year, but his best fit is at outside linebacker.
Flowers was arguably the best Patriots defensive lineman down the stretch last season. He’s guaranteed to be starting at RDE when the season starts. Ninkovich and Ealy will compete for the LDE spot. With Rivers and Wise providing rotational depth.
But this year’s unit has a much different feel to it because they have more versatility. Ealy is a bigger guy at 6’4, 275 pounds. He can set the edge in the running game, has the athleticism to get after the passer and is big and physical enough to kick inside as an interior pass rusher on third down. Flowers already does that frequently.
The Patriots brought in another free agent, Lawrence Guy who can be a sub-package interior pass rusher. That’s what they’ll get in Wise as well. He’s a big kid, at 6’5, 275 pounds with insanely long arms that he needs to learn to use better. When he extends his arms, with his upper body strength, he can push through tackles and get to the quarterback. He’s frequently been compared to Chandler Jones but isn’t nearly as athletic. He’s more of a big edge setter. But Wise can also kick inside and provide interior pass rush…Seeing a trend here?
Which brings us to the team’s first draft pick Derek Rivers. If there was one element the Patriots front seven lacked on the edge last season was speed. Rivers will bring that speed to the pass rush with an athleticism that should serve the team very well.
Rivers isn’t as big at 6’4, 250 pounds at the defensive end position but ran a 4:61 in the 40-Yard Dash, with a 1:61 10-Yard Split. His time in the 3-Cone Drill was third best at the position with 6:94. That shows he has the quick twitch athleticism, loose hips and the ability to change direction as well as bend off the edge to get to the QB. He showed his strength with 30 reps at the Bench Press.
He may need some time to find his feet in the NFL, similar to how Flowers progressed in his first campaign, but he has the potential to be a very good player in the league. The good part is, with the depth of the team, he won’t be pushed too hard too soon. They can let him develop and learn the nuances of the position at the NFL level.
With the added depth, the Patriots can move Ninkovich around and possibly let him take some snaps at OLB with Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, and Langhi.
However, the edge will look quite different in 2017. How effective will it be? No one knows right now but I’d bet on Belichick having it figured out as the season winds along.