Left End: Rob Ninkovich
Defensive Tackle: Kyle Love
Nose Tackle: Vince Wilfork
Right End: Chandler Jones
Last season, the Patriots opted to feature a more mainstream 4-3 defense front- and who could blame them? Ever since the Patriots popularized the 3-4 defense, the tweeners that were once undervalued have now been snapped up across the league. The Patriots could no longer capitalize on cheap talent; they had to innovate.
The Patriots realized that the passing league has been a growing trend (hard to call it a trend anymore) and that they happened to spend the majority of their defensive snaps in some variation of a sub-package, throwing five defensive backs on the field in hopes that they could slow down the opposing receivers. New England also realized that the best way to beat these passing teams is to generate a pass rush and to force the quarterback to make a quick throw.
The defense had a goal. Don't let the quarterback stand in the pocket. Don't let them read the defense. Chandler Jones was tapped as the biggest athletic freak in the 2012 draft and the Patriots traded up to get him- and why wouldn't they? The defense hadn't had the same bite since they lost Willie McGinest and Jones was going to be as close as they would get.
Jones started the season at 4-3 defensive end and was one of the most effective rookies in league, before an injury derailed his year. Still, as the year developed, the Patriots fed Jones a little more, and a little more, until it wasn't a shock to see Jones kick out into the flat to attack a swing pass, or defend a running back. Was he perfect? No. Was he even good moving backwards? Eh. But he showed potential and he was developing as a complete player. A player not just defined by a 4-3 defensive end role.
LDE: Brandon Deaderick (6'4, 305)
NT: Vince Wilfork (6'2, 325), Kyle Love (6'1, 315)
RDE: Tommy Kelly (6'6, 325), Armond Armstead (6'5, 300)
The Patriots have used this off season to reload their defensive line. Wilfork is an All-World player, but Love and Deaderick were merely average.They didn't have the size or skill to run the 3-4 front, even if they wanted to.
As a result, the Patriots reached out to sign pass rushing defensive tackle Kelly, and Canadian pass rushing import Armstead to bolster the line. Of course, both players could be considered defensive tackles who can attack the pocket next to Big Vince, and they will absolutely be used in that fashion.
But they're flexible players. They can change roles according to the necessary defense. That versatility that Belichick loves? This group of defensive linemen embodies it.
Deaderick is a former defensive end from Alabama's 3-4 defensive front, while Tommy Kelly was drafted as a 3-4 DE in Oakland. Love has shown that he's a purely inside lineman, but one that can play tackle in all fronts. Armstead has experience at both DT and DE, and his incredible size, explosion (10 foot broad jump), and speed (5s 40) makes him a great 3-4 DE candidate.
And then there's Vince. Wilfork can play whatever the heck he wants.
So what we now have on the roster are five, big, versatile linemen capable of playing both the 3-4 and the 4-3 front. Don't be surprised if you see three of them on the field much, much more frequently than last season.
DE/DT: Justin Francis, Jermaine Cunningham
DE: Chandler Jones, Jake Bequette
DE/OLB: Rob Ninkovich, Jamie Collins, Michael Buchanan, Jason Vega, Marcus Benard
LB: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower, Dane Fletcher, Steve Beauharnais, Niko Koutovides, Mike Rivera, Jeff Tarpinian
Where do you see the strengths? I see Francis and Cunningham adding value as knuckleballers, but they're not game changers. Jones is a franchise player, but as far as we know he's all alone since Bequette is so unproven. So out of the pure defensive linemen, you have a franchise player in Jones and then a solid chess piece in Francis- but little beyond that.
Branching out to those linemen who can also stand up in space and add value as potential 3-4 OLBs, you have consummate Patriot Ninkovich who can do it all. Then you have the newly drafted Collins and Buchanan, both with a ton of college experience standing up and having their hands in the dirt at defensive end. Behind them are the free agent signings of Vega and Benard, both players with past experience standing up at OLB and as a pass rusher.
Then coming to linebacker, you have the core players of Mayo, Spikes, and Hightower- linebackers who can play any formation. There's some depth behind them in Fletcher and Beauharnais (both solid depth at LB), but this grouping is very top heavy.
But this defense (this crazy youthful defense) seems to wear its strengths on its sleeves.
There are the inside linebackers, with Spikes a forward moving linebacker and Mayo roaming behind, who can hold down the middle of a defense and complement each other very well.
There are the outside linebackers, any combination of Hightower, Collins, Ninkovich, Buchanan, heck even Jones in the Elephant role, who can show their versatility by standing up and dropping into coverage in the flat or step up to the line and hold their own against the run.
The Patriots haven't had the ability to flash the same schemes that they've used in the past due to their lack of proper personnel. They were forced into the 4 man front when they couldn't consistently find impact lineman. This year looks to be different as they've added two long bodies in Kelly and Armstead.
Will they still use the 4 man front? Absolutely- and they definitely still should. Getting a pass rushing combination of Ninkovich, Kelly, Wilfork, and Jones will yield better results than anything they saw last year, purely due to Kelly's impact up the center of the pocket.
But they should try to venture more into their historical 3-4 fronts because of the versatility it provides.
NT: Wilfork, Love
RDE: Kelly, Armstead
LOLB: Ninkovich, Collins
ILB: Spikes, Hightower,
ILB: Mayo, Fletcher
ROLB: Jones, Buchanan
LDE: Ninkovich, Francis
DT: Kelly, Armstead, Deaderick
NT: Wilfork, Love
RDE: Jones, Buchanan
SLB: Hightower, Collins
MLB: Spikes, Beauharnais
WLB: Mayo, Fletcher
What do you think about the flexibility of the Patriots defensive front? Should they dust off their playbooks with their 3-4 fronts?