Under Contract (2015 Week 1 Age): Vince Wilfork (33), Chris Jones (25), Joe Vellano (26), Dominique Easley (23), Rob Ninkovich (31), Chandler Jones (25), Zach Moore (25), Michael Buchanan (24), Jake Bequette (26), Rufus Johnson (25)
Unrestricted Free Agent: Alan Branch (30), Akeem Ayers (26)
Restricted Free Agent: Sealver Siliga (25)
2014 Review: In 2011, the Patriots made a decided effort to move away from their traditional 3-4 front and play with a more standardized 4-3 attack, due to the acquisition of Andre Carter and Mark Anderson. The Patriots are held to any particular style of play, apart from the game plan that best allows the defense to stop the opponent; this season held that mindset on full display.
New England opened the year in a bizarre 3-4 front, where Chandler Jones (260 lbs when soaking wet) was asked to play the 5-technique defensive end position. He was greatly overwhelmed and it was a total disaster by the coaches. Siliga was injured early on in the season, as was Buchanan. First round pick Easley was still regaining his sealegs after returning from an ACL injury, but was flexed all over the line in order to fill in any possible hole.
Chandler missed a big part of the season due to a hip injury. Vellano spent time on the practice squad. Branch and Ayers were mid-season pick-ups. Moore was rarely used outside of blowouts. Casey Walker played a few snaps, too, before winding up on the Ravens.
Wilfork and Ninkovich were iron men. Chris Jones was a rotational player in a pass rushing capacity.
Those were the players on the line. The "line" itself was up for interpretation.
If the Patriots were playing a heavier opponent, they would feature a 3- or 5-man front, with Branch and Wilfork flanking Siliga on the interior, while Chandler and Ninkovich were the edge defenders. When Easley was playing, he lined up at literally every single spot on the line, from the edge to the interior.
If the opponent passed the ball, the Patriots would play a 4-man front, with Chandler and Ninkovich at defensive end, and a rotation of all the 300+ lbs linemen in the middle.
When it was a third-and-long scenario, the Patriots would run a soft 3-man front, with either Easley or Chris Jones at nose tackle, with Chandler Jones and Ninkovich at the 5-tech to push the pocket, while every other player dropped into coverage.
When Chandler missed time, Ayers stepped in and added a tremendous wrinkle to the defense due to his coverage ability. As Mayo was out for the season, the Patriots could play two defensive tackles inside in the nickel defense, with Ayers, Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, and Ninkovich as the other players on the front. As all four of those players are former edge rushers, the Patriots could elect to run any combination of them, while dropping the other two into coverage. It was nearly impossible to read and attack.
The Patriots opted to keep their edge defenders on the field for every snap, when healthy, which is generally a questionable decision due to general wear-and-tear of the position. Ninkovich has played more snaps than any other defensive lineman over the past three seasons, a decision that might eventually catch-up to hurt to team, and definitely looked like an issue in the middle of the year.
The defensive line wasn't particularly stout against the run. It wasn't particularly dangerous in a pass rushing capacity. There were no real superstars, or standouts. It was a unit where everyone just did their job, showed up when it counted most, and allowed the linebackers and secondary to reap the accolades and glory.
2015 Projection: For, like, the third consecutive year the Patriots really need to think about investing in a third edge defender. They cannot possibly expect Ninkovich to play the full season at a high level at his age, and they were fortunate to pick-up Ayers when Chandler went down. It would be completely reckless to move forward without a third player for the rotation.
Another albatross is Vince Wilfork's contract. Contracts are payments for current services, not past endeavors. Wilfork is not a top five defensive tackle in the league, while his salary is. The Patriots are not sentimental and could possibly move away from Wilfork this off-season. This is just a fact of life that will have to be addressed prior to the start of the 2015 season on March 10th.
Beyond that, the future looks bright. Siliga is younger than anyone probably realizes and the Patriots would do well to lock him in for the long term, to serve as a really good complement to Easley on the interior. Easley should be fully healthy for his sophomore campaign and he should take a major step forward as a prospect. He had been coming on strong before a final knee tweak forced the coaching staff to place him on the injured reserve; no need to have another Aaron Dobson situation where their full sophomore year is derailed because of a late season reinjury.
Jones looks great when healthy, while Ninkovich finished the year with his best foot forward. Chris Jones and Vellano really need to find a way to fuse into one player since their skills (pass rushing for the former, run stopping for the latter) would combine into a really good player; stay apart and they'll be attacked while on the field.
Branch served as a great role player this season and it isn't hard to see him in a Gerard Warren type capacity for the next few seasons, as a veteran opting to stay in a familiar situation.
The Patriots will have to manage their free agents to see if they need to address the defensive line in the draft. The return of Wilfork, Branch, and Ayers, as well as the extension of Siliga would solidify the defensive line for the next year. Whether or not this is possible remains the question.