The Patriots can't generate consistent pressure while on defense.
How many times have you heard that? Ever since the Patriots traded away Richard Seymour for (essentially) Nate Solder, New England's defense has lost its teeth. Now, looking at the whole picture, the loss of Seymour was greatly important to the collapse of the defense, but it wasn't the only thing that happened.
Mike Vrabel was traded. Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi retired. Asante Samuel left for greener pastures in Philadelphia.
All the players that made the defense so dangerous disappeared over a shockingly short period of time- and the Patriots are still recovering.
That said, Jerod Mayo is the cornerstone of the defense. Vince Wilfork brings the power. Devin McCourty champions the secondary. The leadership pieces are in position and the defense is just a couple studs away from getting back to the top.
The projected starters in the secondary look established, with McCourty and Adrian Wilson/Tavon Wilson/Steve Gregory holding down the safety spot, while Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington lock down the cornerback position.
Linebacker looks set with Mayo playing next to one of the best run defenders in the league, Brandon Spikes, and an up-and-coming star in Dont'a Hightower.
The defensive end positions are ready with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich setting the edge, while Justin Francis comes off the bench.
Defensive tackle? Well, there's Vince Wilfork and a whole bunch of question marks. Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick are solid role players, but they are not above average. Tommy Kelly is a short term fix. Marcus Forston and Armond Armstead are both fighting for roster spots, although Armstead provides some quality upside.
Everywhere you look on the defense has either an above average player, or a newly drafted top pick ready to step in- except at defensive tackle.
Let's see who that top pick could be in this draft:
1. Sheldon Richardson, Missouri; 6'3, 295 lbs - Richardson is the most athletic defensive tackle in this year's draft. While he won't reach the same incredible heights as J.J. Watt, with respect to pure athleticism, Richardson's speed and versatility is evident on the field. He played all over the defensive line, played standing up, with his hand in the dirt, and even dropped back into coverage. He is able to pursue and run down ball carriers, rarely giving up on a play. He can get skinny to get into the backfield and he can stand up against single blockers in run defense. He'll get swallowed against double teams and lacks the sand in his pants to hold up against some of the strong blockers, but he has room to improve. He plays extremely hard and the future potential is evident. Richardson is far from a polished prospect, but he has the most upside of any defensive tackle in the draft.
With respect to the Patriots, Richardson could be the perfect pairing for Vince Wilfork. Wilfork can handle the double teams and can open up opportunities for Richardson to make plays down the field.
2. Star Lotulelei, Utah; 6'3, 310 lbs - Lotulelei's stock has fallen due to health concerns (heart issues), but he's performed like a top 10 pick on the field. A two-time All Pac-12 selection, Lotulelei has the credentials of an impact player. He uses his size to fight off double teams and has one of the best first steps I've seen in order to disrupt plays and get into the backfield. He's still developing his pass rush repertoire, but he's already adept at getting into the backfield and stopping plays. He's extraordinarily strong and once he gets his hands on a player, he'll usually pull them down. That said, he won't be knocking many balls down at the line of scrimmage and he tires as the game wears on. Lotulelei is most likely a top 15 pick.
With respect to the Patriots, Lotulelei is certain to remind people of a young Vince Wilfork- and who wouldn't want two Wilforks on the defensive line?
3. Sharrif Floyd, Florida; 6'3, 300 lbs - Floyd was a late riser, jumping from a late first/early second prospect to a universally regarded top 5 selection during the off-season period. Floyd moved around the defensive line at Florida, starring at defensive tackle, before moving to defensive end as a sophomore due to team needs, and then back inside to tackle as a junior. His time on the outside has helped his stock as scouts and analysts believe he's brought some unique tendencies back as an interior lineman (pass rush moves, stoutness, etc), and as they believe he's only starting to realize his potential. He is a target in bot the 4-3 and 3-4, although he might be better off to thrive in the 4-3. Floyd can split linemen to disrupt the backfield and can stand up in run defense.
I'm nervous about Floyd due to his meteoric rise in the off-season and regard him as more of a top 20 pick. He doesn't flash the same athleticism as the two lineman mentioned above, and I believe his potential isn't as great. Still, he could be a solid prospect for any team.
4. Sylvester Williams, North Carolina; 6'3, 315 lbs - Williams is the next defensive lineman that has come from North Carolina that is expected to make an early NFL impact. He generates fantastic pressure up the middle, using his arms to get by defenders. He sometimes abandons his gap in order to pursue, causing him to run outside of plays, but if he can control his abilities, his potential is immense. He's fairly inexperienced (five years of football), resulting in a low football IQ (expected), but he already has a good sense of how to control the line of scrimmage. He's not as consistent as the above players, but could be just as valuable if and when he puts it all together.
Williams could be a solid pairing for Wilfork as his skill set reminds of a hybrid of Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, with plenty of upside.
5. Kawann Short, Purdue; 6'3, 300 lbs - Short doesn't have the athleticism of Richardson, or the popular name of Floyd or Lotulelei, but he could end up being one of the better linemen in the whole draft. A two-time First Team Big Ten player, Short has fantastic production on the field, notching over 6 sacks and 12 tackles for loss in each of the past three seasons. He's active on the line and is a consistent player. He can push the pocket to generate pressure and he can slip through into the backfield. He lacks the same closing ability as the other prospects, his technique can be improved, and he can become a much more consistent player, but all the pieces are there. Featured part: his active arms; he can contribute on special teams (6 career blocked kicks) and on the line (17 career passes defended).
Short is this year's Muhammad Wilkerson and can step in and help. He provides an immediate upgrade on the defensive line and could be a year away, with the right tutelage, from being a consistent producer.
Jesse Williams, Alabama; 6'4, 323 lbs - Williams is a stud nose tackle prospect, but his value to the Patriots would be limited. He's a great run defender and can hold his own against multiple blockers; he'll help some other team as a top 40 prospect, but I don't see the Patriots being interested.
Jonathan Hankins, Ohio State; 6'3, 320 lbs - Hankins has fallen far after being regarded as a pre-season top 10 pick. His consistency and playmaking never took the field and Hankins is now regarded as a middle-second round prospect. If he can put everything together, he could become a great player, but there are other prospects who performed much, much better.
The Patriots have clouded the water on what was originally a clear need in the draft. The release of Myron Pryor further removes some of the experience of players in the system (whatever he added), so there's a chance defensive tackle is still regarded as a need. Vince Wilfork will be a constant on the defensive line, while Kyle Love will most likely be used to spell Wilfork and keep him fresh. Tommy Kelly should rotate with Brandon Deaderick and Armond Armstead as the defensive line tries to generate some level of consistent pressure.
While the prospects of adding a stud like Richardson seems enticing, the Patriots could do well to stay within their price range. By trading out of the first round, the team could still pick up a top talent at wide receiver in the middle of the second round, and move up from the end of the round to grab a player like Short.
The Patriots needs beyond Wide Receiver are pretty uncertain- let's see if they deem one of these defensive tackles worthy of a top pick.