Health and New Faces Key
The Patriots 2018 training camp begins in less than three weeks which means that we’ll be in football mode from then until early February. The team is looking to return to the Super Bowl albeit with a different result this time around and where they have to make changes, begins with the defense and specifically the defensive line.
The team allowed 4.7 yards per rush attempt (31st in the NFL)in 2017 and while there were plenty of factors involved in that, they needed to get bigger and stronger inside. Which is why they brought in Danny Shelton from the Cleveland Browns. Getting big Vincent Valentine back from injury this season should help as well.
The Patriots have to do a much better and more consistent job of getting after the quarterback this season. Trey Flowers is their best overall defensive lineman and many expect him to turn in a Pro-Bowl season in 2018. They’ve added Adrian Clayborn from the Falcons and get back Derek Rivers from a season-ending injury suffered in preseason last year. Deatrich Wise had a good rookie season as well.
So… who is locked into the roster and who is on the bubble for the defensive line?
Roster Locks: Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown, Adrian Clayborn, Deatrich Wise
Trey Flowers and Adrian Clayborn look (on paper) to be the starting defensive edge setters while newcomer Danny Shelton and Malcom Brown anchor the middle. Flowers can do everything, rush the passer off the edge, kick inside as an interior rusher and set the edge in the running game. Clayborn gives the Patriots a veteran presence on the edge, and a solid one. He’s been productive in his career and a solid player on the field and in the locker room. He’s been one of if the not the first players on the field all spring.
Shelton will be looked to provide that two-gap immovable presence inside against the run that they were lacking a year ago when Alan Branch got old quickly. He’s looking to get his career back on track and with the team turning down his fifth-year option, is in a contract year.
Ditto for Malcom Brown. The Patriots former first-round pick has been good but could be more consistent on the field. Brown has held up well against the run and is playing for a contract as well. The team will expect much better play on the interior as well.
Wise had a solid rookie season, after getting off to a very good start, he tailed off in the middle of the season before finishing well down the stretch. He’s got a long wingspan but isn’t the most athletic guy. With a year in the system and looking to get a little stronger, the strength and conditioning program should have helped him quite a bit.
Near Roster Locks: Lawrence Guy, Vincent Valentine, Derek Rivers
The health of Valentine and Rivers are the only things that could hold them back in 2018. Valentine played well as a rookie in 2016 and the team was pleased with his performance. But an injury caused him to miss the entire 2017 season. It was thought he might be healthy enough to activate by the end of the regular season but it never took place. Now the team is hoping for him to not only be healthy again but to make the next leap forward in his development.
Rivers was the Patriots top draft choice a year ago coming from a smaller school at Youngstown State. He started slowly, getting used to the speed and physicality in the pro game. It seemed like the light was just coming on for him when he tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Now it is hoped that he’ll be fully recovered and ready to go once training camp begins. He’ll be on the players to watch on defense this summer.
Guy was signed to a 4-year deal last spring and the 6’4, 305 interior lineman away from the Baltimore Ravens during free agency. He played well during his first year in Foxboro appearing on the field for 54.91 percent of the snaps. If he appeared in just one more (55%) it would have immediately triggered in a $500,000 bonus. But the Patriots decided to pay it anyway which tells you something about they feel about Guy.
On the Bubble: Adam Butler, Keionta Davis, Geneo Grissom, Trent Harris, Eric Lee
The Patriots signed Butler, a UDFA last spring and he made the team out of training camp and immediately became part of the rotation in 2017 appearing in all 16 games. He showed the ability to get after the passer a bit and contributed 16 QB pressures and two sacks. He was inconsistent and needs to improve in the running game but will be a tough player to jettison after a promising start.
Davis was considered a later round edge rusher from Chattanooga last year and then a neck injury caused him to go undrafted. He certainly looks the part and appears chiseled in his upper body. We’ll see if it can translate onto the field. Grissom has been a key contributor on STs but has yet to make a dent in the defense.
Lee was picked up from Buffalo last fall and displayed an ability to rush the passer. However, he has troubles setting the edge and may be just a situational pass rusher. Harris, “Toolbox Trent” as he was called in Miami was a UDFA and isn’t the most athletic defensive end but his teammates marveled at his array of pass rush moves. Will it translate to the NFL? We’ll see.
Outside Looking in…. Longshots: John Atkins, Frank Herron,
The Patriots signed undrafted free agents John Atkins and Frank Herron this spring. Atkins was a key player in the Georgia Bulldogs defense, eating up two blocks while allowing Roquan Smith to clean up. He has good size at 6’3, 322 for a nose tackle and a great work ethic but has a long way to go to beat out any of the interior guys.
Herron is another interior defensive lineman with good size at 6’3, 311 and plays with a chip on his shoulder. Had a few scrapes with disciplinary issues at LSU but raised his stock a bit in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, displaying a quick first step, something he was lacking in during film study of his games. But he too is a longshot with a chance to possibly make the practice squad.