On the Patriots 53-man roster there are six players who I categorize as edge defenders. Those players are Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Trey Flowers, Rufus Johnson, and Geneo Grissom. In addition, they can bring Dont'a Hightower and Eric Martin off the edge from the linebacker position as well. Johnson, Sheard, and Martin are players that former Browns GM Mike Lombardi recommend Bill Belichick bring in this offseason. We probably won't see Grissom or Martin much in 2015 if the Patriots defense is healthy all year and both could be healthy scratches on Sundays. Even though the Patriots had a facelift at the CB position, I think overall their team defense has improved as unit with the upgrades in defensive line depth and on the edges.
Earlier today, a member of this page posted this picture of Pro Football Focus grades for 4-3 defensive ends in the preseason.
The Patriots had four edge rushers rank in the Top 13 in the preseason. This pretty much goes along with what you likely saw with your own eyes this preseason. All four were average or better in both run defense and pass rush. Chandler Jones comes as no surprise too anyone, he's the best edge rusher on the team in talent and production since 2012. Sheard was strong at holding the edge in the run game and quickly collapsing the play from the outside-in. Rufus Johnson was an absolute terror when rushing the QB against the Packers and Giants, making life terrible for Brent Hundley and Ryan Nassib. Trey Flowers was arguably the Patriots best defensive lineman this preseason, using his long arms and explosive power to his advantage to put the opposing tackle on skates. Those four should be playing on Sundays this year.
On the edge, the Patriots have a problem and that problem is how to maximize the effectiveness of these four players. That's an answer that DL coach Brendan Daly and DC Matt Patricia have to find. I have Jones and Sheard as the starters on the edge. Those two are the best players at the position and were the highest two in run defense grade. Ninkovich is probably the 3rd DE on the depth chart for the Patriots and Flowers 4th. When the Patriots take Jones off the field, I would prefer to see Trey Flowers on the field. Flowers is my favorite defender from this year's draft class because of his insane wingspan (84 1/2") and how well developed his game is despite being a rookie in the NFL. While Flowers isn't a quick twitch athlete, he's explosive and knows how to use his hands and gain leverage against his opponent.
Here's an example of what Trey Flowers can do. This was against who went 9th overall in the 2015 Draft.
Flowers vs Flowers. Trey bull rushes Ereck into QB https://t.co/RYW4engpwt— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) September 4, 2015
I'm not sure what the Patriots plan to do with Rufus Johnson, considering most teams only need to dress four defensive ends on game days. I think Johnson could be a NASCAR package DT and take advantage of that +7.5 pass rush grade. The type of NASCAR package I have in mind is Jones-Johnson-Easley-Flowers. Get your four best and most explosive pass rushers on the field and tell them to attack the QB. This would be for obvious passing downs such as 3rd and long or Patriots winning by 2+ scores in the 4th quarter. The key to getting off the field on 3rd downs and also creating turnovers is putting pressure on the QB and this year I hope to see a lot of it with the amount of talent and depth on the defensive line this year. The first test will be Pittsburgh's banged up offensive line and their tough to bring down QB Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben is the best QB in the NFL in handling pressure, so the Patriots pass rush needs to bring their A-game to bring him down to the ground. At the end of the regular season I believe the Patriots will be a Top 10 defense, perhaps even Top 5 in scoring, takeaways, and sacks.