DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18: Outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich #50 of the New England Patriots recovers the ball against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 18, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Happy Training Camp, everyone! Throughout camp, I'll be highlighting and previewing a particular position each day. Today, we'll focus on the defensive end position. Later, we'll tackle the defensive tackles.
After being the team's Achilles heal for several seasons, the New England Patriots defensive ends took a significant step forward in 2011. While it didn't quite reach the level it once was when guys like Richard Seymour and Ty Warren were in the trenches, the unit produced some pretty solid numbers that put them in the middle of the pack in the NFL. For one, the sacks totals went up significantly.
Following a season in Washington where he posted career lows in several categories, defensive end Andre Carter resurrected his career in New England--picking up 10 sacks and 30 tackles in an injury shortened season. Another guy that really found himself in New England was Mark Anderson, who also posted a 10-sack season with 20 tackles.
Both, however are no longer with the team. Anderson signed a lucrative contract with the Bills, while Carter still remains a free agent. Carter and the Pats have talked, but no agreement has been reached.
In order to replace Anderson and (possibly) Carter, the Patriots made a flurry of offseason moves to oblige. They picked up a couple of prolific pass rushers in Trevor Scott and Jonathan Fanane in free agency. Scott is viewed as a versatile DE/OLB, while Fanane has the ability to play anywhere on the defensive line.
While both players are likely to contribute to the position this season, the Patriots made the biggest move to replace lost production in the draft.
Bill Belichick and company made a surprising move to trade up in an NFL Draft, as he acquired the No. 21 overall pick to take the highly touted Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones. Jones has been regarded as one of best defensive players in the 2012 class. The team also drafted DE/OLB Jake Bequette out of Arkansas, a pick many had high praises for. The Patriots added a UDFA in Justin Francis, who played all over at Rutgers.
With this group of newcomers, the Patriots will team them with returning players Rob Ninkovich (who's been at DE during Camp thus far) and Jermaine Cunningham to form what should be some of the most interesting Training Camp battles. Let's take a look at how each player stands in the race for a roster spot:
Projected Starters/Roster Locks: Chandler Jones, Trevor Scott, Rob Ninkovich, Jonathan Fanane, Jake Bequette
The first round pick Jones is a possible impact player on this defense next season. His superior edge rushing ability helped him net a first-round selection, and has helped him earn reps in Pats training camp. Jones, along with fellow rookie Dont'a Hightower, have been impressing a lot of folks down at camp. Fellow rookie Jake Bequette seems to be a sure bet to make it, as well.
I really like acquisitions of Scott and Fanene. Scott, who's a versatile 4-3DE/3-4OLB pass rusher, will likely play into the Patriots' need for versatility on their front seven. Fanane, meanwhile can slide all over the defensive line, and be an inside rusher as a 3-4 DE or 4-3 DT. I loved Fanane in Cincy, and can't wait to see him on the Pats line this season.
Ninkovich's position seems to be in limbo for me. He's a lock wherever he ends up, but it seems like he's more needed as the Patriots' third linebacker. If the Patriots were able to bring Carter back, Ninko seems likely to move back to linebacker. But who am I to question Bill Belichick? He'll put Rob Ninkovich wherever he wants to put Rob Ninkovich!
Most To Prove/On The Bubble: Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis
Even though this will be just his third year in the league, Jermaine Cunningham finds himself on my bubble list. He spent the majority of the 2011 campaign on the bench, where he struggled to find playing time in the Patriots' incorporation of a 4-3 defensive set. He has versatility as a 3-4 linebacker, but so do a lot of other guys on the Patriots roster. He's had a strong camp thus far, and he'll need to keep things up going if he wants to play his third season with the Patriots.
I debated this for a while, but I decided to put Francis on the bubble instead of on the outs. The UDFA out of Rutgers has impressed many in camp in one-on-ones, and is really the dark horse DE. Some people believe he deserves a roster spot, and I'm right there with them.
Most To Learn/Possible Cut/Potential Practice Squad Member: N/A