The Patriots have an interesting decision to make over the next couple of weeks. Linebacker Jerod Mayo needs to have his contract restructured, but leverage has tilted back towards Mayo's camp as linebacker sensation Dont'a Hightower will be sidelined for the next six-to-seven months as he recovers from shoulder surgery of an injury he sustained against the Packers in Week 13.
But let's say that the Patriots will have Mayo and Hightower back and ready for the season, and let's say that Vince Wilfork is definitely sticking around. New England has a lot of talent on the defensive front that deserves to be on the field- so where does everyone fit?
Linebacker: Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins
Edge Defender: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich
Defensive Tackle: Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga, Dominique Easley, Chris Jones
These are all players who are expected to rotate snaps. Some are more deserving than others (Chris Jones is the weakest of the defensive tackles), but as defensive tackles have to rotate there are snaps to share.
In Week 1, the only week every Patriots player was healthy, the three linebackers played all of the snaps, along with Chandler. Ninkovich played half of the possible snaps. On the defensive line, Joe Vellano and Siliga shared snaps, while Wilfork and Easley shared snaps.
Collins was hurt in Week 2, missed a game, and was limited for a couple weeks. Siliga was hurt in Week 3 and placed on the short term injured reserve. Hightower was hurt in Week 4 and missed the next two weeks. Easley was hurt in Week 5, missed a game, and was limited for a couple weeks.
Mayo was taken out for the season in Week 6. Chandler Jones was hurt in Week 7 and missed the next seven weeks. The Patriots acquired Akeem Ayers for Week 8 and then Alan Branch for Week 9. Week 10 was the bye.
Basically, the defensive front changed every single week. Past precedence is really hard to pin down since the defense was never healthy at the same time.
But let's project the return of all the above players. How are they expected to share snaps?
4-3 Base: Chandler - Siliga - Wilfork - Ninkovich; Collins - Hightower - Mayo
3-4 Base: Easley - Siliga - Wilfork; Hightower - Collins - Mayo - Ninkovich
4-2 Nickel: Chandler - Siliga - Wilfork - Hightower; Collins - Mayo
3-3 Nickel: Easley - Siliga - Wilfork; Collins - Hightower - Mayo
4-3 Base: Chandler - Easley - Wilfork - Ninkovich; Collins - Hightower - Mayo
3-4 Base: Chandler - Wilfork - Easley; Hightower - Collins - Mayo - Ninkovich
4-2 Nickel: Hightower - Chandler - Easley - Ninkovich; Collins - Mayo
3-3 Nickel: Chandler - Easley - Ninkovich; Collins - Hightower - Mayo
Here are the inferences off the projected formations:
Linebackers: All three of Collins, Mayo, and Hightower will be on the field for every snap. Hightower's ability as a pass rusher lets him drop down to play the edge in the 4-2 nickel fronts.
Edge defenders: Chandler Jones plays every snap except for 3-man fronts on rushing downs. Ninkovich plays every except the rushing defense nickel packages.
Defensive tackles: Siliga and Wilfork play all the run packages, with Easley jumping in as the defensive end in the 3-man fronts. Easley plays every passing set, with Wilfork playing the base defenses. Of course Siliga and Wilfork can rotate based upon snap counts, while Easley and Chris Jones will likely rotate as well.
This is a way to both manage the snaps of the defensive front seven, as well as keep the important players on the field as much as possible.
How would you manage the Patriots defensive front?