How many times in the Bill Belichick era have the Patriots fielded three starting quality edge defenders?
At the start of his tenure, the Patriots featured Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel, but they mostly relied on Richard Seymour's All Pro ability on the inside to disrupt the pocket. Rosevelt Colvin might have been the closest thing the team had to a third edge defender.
During the middle of Belichick's reign, New England fielded Adalius Thomas in McGinest's place, and Vrabel still protected the edge. Players like Colvin, Tully Banta-Cain, and Derrick Burgess added depth, but Vrabel was the only edge defender on the roster to offer consistent value.
As of late, the edge defenders have been Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, and a whole lot of wishes and hopes that neither would be injured. Last season's injury to Jones forced the Patriots to both play rookie defensive tackle Dominique Easley on the outside, and make a trade to acquire Akeem Ayers. It paid off, but it was definitely less than ideal.
There really has only been one Patriots team that rostered three edge defenders that lived up to their billing: the 2011 Patriots, with Ninkovich, Andre Carter, and Mark Anderson.
It seems as if the Patriots might be modeling their defense off of their 2011 version, where great front seven play tried to compensate for a lackluster secondary. The coaching staff has to hope the 2015 version will be more successful.
Prior to the 2014 season, we looked into the other 4-3 teams around the league to see how they distributed their edge defender snaps. The 2013 Patriots starting edge defenders racked up 88.5% of the team's edge snaps, the second highest rate in the entire league. The best defenses in the league generally gave their starting edge defenders roughly 70% of the snaps, both to keep them fresh and to rotate in quality depth.
The Patriots didn't keep their edge players fresh and definitely didn't rotate in optimal quality depth. The injury to Chandler Jones during the most pass-happy stretch of their schedule could have ruined the team's season.
For 2015, the Patriots have invested heavily in their defensive front. With Jones and Ninkovich joined by Jabaal Sheard, the Patriots have arguably the best edge rotation they've had in the Belichick era. They also invested mid-round draft picks in Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers, just to add more bodies to the positional group.
For all the noise about the New England secondary, it's very possible that 2015 Patriots will field one of the best defensive front sevens in the Belichick-era. Even better, it's a strategy that just might work.