If there was an area more snakebit than the edge for the Patriots in 2017, then please share. The team lost both Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long during free agency. But with Rob Ninkovich, Trey Flowers, Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin, and Kyle Van Noy returning, they weren’t in terrible shape. Then they addressed it with two draft picks, Derek Rivers, and Deatrich Wise. Kony Ealy was brought in with a trade and Harvey Langi was added as an undrafted free agent. So things didn’t seem bad at all, …and then the wheels came off.
Ninkovich retired abruptly during training camp. Rivers and McClellin were hurt in training camp and lost for the season. McClellin may be gone for good as he’s suffered numerous concussions and this one may be it for him. Wise missed time during camp but came on strong afterward. Things weren’t helped when Ealy flamed out and the player they brought in from the Seahawks Cassius Marsh wasn’t a fit. Langi was shelved for the year after he and his wife were rear-ended at a traffic light and both got seriously injured.
The team moved Hightower to the edge before he too was injured and ended up on IR. Keionta Davis never took the field as he had a bulging disk in his neck that didn’t hurt him in college but it made it where no one drafted him. It remains to be seen if he’ll be able to contribute down the road.
The team brought in Eric Lee who displayed a decent ability to rush the passer but struggled to set the edge. And very late they brought in James Harrison who at 39 still set the edge very well and had some juice left to get after the passer. Harrison, as well as ST/Edge player Geneo Grissom, are both free agents. Now entering 2018, the team is back to square one. Obviously, edge rusher is a big need, but good health is paramount.
Getting Hightower, Rivers, and Langi back is big. Hightower is a known commodity and he’s the Patriots best defender in the front seven…when healthy. Which is becoming an issue. We still don’t what they have in Rivers and Langi. But both flashed potential last season. Although they both got to sit in the meeting rooms last season, they’re still essentially rookies on the field. So while question marks on one side, they’re both like a free draft pick on the other. McClellin will bear watching, it may be in his best interest to call it a career after multiple concussions and missing the entire season due to others.
Free Agency Options: So what is out there in Free Agency? Top tier pass rushers Demarcus Lawrence and Ziggy Ansah are going to command much more cash than the Patriots can afford. Second tier players that may interest New England are Adrian Clayborn from the Falcons, who had 9.5 sacks in 2017. Trent Murphy from the Redskins had a nice 2016 but then missed all of 2017 with an injury.
Of course, they could bring back Harrison but one name to keep an eye on, could be Julius Peppers. The ageless, 38-year old pass rush specialist for the Panthers had 11 sacks last year in Carolina and could be one of those veteran players the Patriots and Belichick have brought in to bring some heat on the QB.
While we have been beating the drum that they need to get younger and more athletic on the edge, why bring in Peppers? Great question, while we’ll continue to believe that, there is nothing like solid production. Peppers hasn’t had less than seven sacks since 2007. He could be a nice fit with Belichick and the Patriots in a limited snap count role.
Names in the Draft: Now we’ll be the first to say, don’t even bother with draft scenarios until free agency is about played out. That will ultimately decide how the team decides to approach the draft and not the other way around. However, we always get a ton of questions about talented edge guys coming out in the draft.
Some guys to watch during the NFL Combine are Bradley Chubb, NC State, who will go far before the Pats select, and in no particular order (yet) are some edge rushers that could be of interest to New England:
Arden Key, LSU 6’6, 265
Marcus Davenport, UTSA, 6’6, 250
Harold Landry, BC, 6’3, 250
Sam Hubbard, Ohio State, 6’5, 266
Marcell Frazier, Mizzou, 6’5, 260
Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest, 6’3, 275
This list will grow as we get past the combine and get deeper into our NFL Draft coverage as we’ll look at some players whose skill sets may be of interest to the Patriots. If they opt for a guy like Peppers in free agency for instance, then they’ll likely look for an edge player closer to the middle rounds.
But regardless, the biggest thing the team needs now is health. Getting a healthy Hightower, Rivers, and Langi all on the field will do wonders for what ailed the team in 2017. Be intriguing to see if Davis, who was a productive college player can get a clean bill of health, ditto for McClellin.
We’ll be watching as free agency unfolds like everyone else, but with a limited amount of cash this spring, the Patriots will probably not be big players in free agency this season. They’ll have to do some creative work with the cap to make that happen and most of their big decisions will come down to whether or not to sign their own players. And while it won’t be the kind of moves that Patriots fans want to see, their biggest moves this spring may be just getting their own injured players back in the fold.