Happy Training Camp, everyone! Throughout camp, I'll be highlighting and previewing a particular position each day. Earlier today, we took a look at the defensive ends. Now, we'll tackle the defensive tackles.
For really the past five-six years, the Patriots' defensive line has had to rely heavily on nose tackle Vince Wilfork. To this point, he hasn't disappointed. The four-time pro bowler has been a force in the middle of the line, and has established himself as one of the best run stoppers in the NFL. He can also get after the quarterback from time to time, averaging about a couple of sacks per season.
However, with Wilfork getting double teamed more and more often, the Patriots interior pass rush can become limited at times. Also at age 31, Wilfork shouldn't be playing as many snaps as he had in previous years. In order to oblige, the Patriots have brought in and developed a rotation of nose and defensive tackles to either pair with or replace the big man on certain plays.
Guys like Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick (who I included as a DT, not DE) have been the most common guys that Bill Belichick likes to use. Love, who progressed significantly in 2011 with three sacks, is primarily used as a 4-3 DT alongside big Vince.
Deaderick, meanwhile is used as a 3-4 end. While he's not in their as much as Love, he also saw an increased workload in 2012. The Patriots also had veteran Gerard Warren in as a 4-3 DT and 3-4 NT, along with Ron Brace and Myron Pryor as 4-3 DTs. All of these guys are in camp with the Pats.
While they brought in Jonathan Fanane who--like Deaderick--can play both DE and DT; the Patriots didn't really bring in huge names to upgrade this unit. The recently singed veteran Tim Bulman, who hasn't registered a sack since 2008 with the Texans. They also brought in a few 300-pound+ undrafted rookies in Marcus Harrison and Marcus Forston. But overall, not a complete makeover being done for this group.
With that being said, let's take a look at how each players stands in the race for a spot on the 53-man:
Roster Locks: Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love
I'm putting Wilfork as a lock for obvious reasons. Not only is he arguably the best defensive players on the team, but he's one of the best at his position around the NFL. Look for Big Vince to continue doing Big things on the field in 2012 as their nose tackle.
Meanwhile, I also have Love as an absolute certainty (baring injury). This is a guy who Belichick loves to use, and someone who compliments Wilfork well on the 4-3 scheme. He made significant progress in 2011, and will look to be even more of a force next season.
On The Bubble: Brandon Deaderick, Gerard Warren, Ron Brace, Myron Pryor, Tim Bulman
I debated having Deaderick as a lock, but I changed my mind for one reason: Jonathan Fanane. Over his career in New England, Deaderick has been utilized as a 3-4 D-end, 4-3 D-End and 4-3 DT. While versatility is always a great thing to have, Fanane is even more skilled at those roles. I anticipate Deaderick sneaking onto the roster, but I don't consider him a sure thing.
If Warren makes the 53-man, he'll likely see significantly less playing time than in 2011. With Kyle Love being used more often as a 4-3 DT, their does't seem to be too much playing time for him. I ultimately believe that he'll make the roster, solely because of what he can do in the sub packages. He's a savoy veteran who's been a good teacher for the younger guys, and I think he can be of use to them in 2012. But again, he's not a sure thing.
Even though they've been around for longer than any of the DT's, Brace and Pryor seem to be on the bubble, possibly looking on the outside in. Both of these guys have struggled to stay healthy, and when healthy, they haven't blown anyone away. Because Brace is impressing people in camp, I think he stands a better chance. Pryor, meanwhile has yet to hit field--stranded on the PUP.
Bulman for me is fighting the biggest uphill battle of the bubble players. He was signed just a few days ago, and will look to find his 2008 self again. While he could beat out Warren for a spot, I just don't know how much of an upgrade he'd be. Plus, he could be an earlier candidate to be cut, if the Patriots ultimately agree to terms with Andre Carter. Bulman is wearing Carter's #93 in camp...
Long Way To Go: Marcus Forston, Marcus Harrison
I've heard and seen a lot of good things about the two rookies, but I'm not sure how deep the Patriots want to be at interior defensive lineman.
Both are very big and strong, and could provide a helpful burst up the middle--Forston, specifically. But because the Patriots already have some veterans on the team--some who already know the system inside out--seems unlikely that we'll see either sneak in. I'm holding out for Forston, whom I saw play at Miami (FL), to earn a practice squad spot.