The New England Patriots have invested a lot into the defensive tackle position over the past few years. The team has used its first round picks in 2014 and 2015 on defensive tackles Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown, and they have found ways to acquire talent in the middle of the year.
Sealver Siliga joined in October of 2013, Alan Branch in October of 2014, and Akiem Hicks was acquired for 4th string tight end Michael Hoomanawanui on the very last day of September 2015. The Patriots talent evaluation at the position has been spectacular.
Rookie Brown, not yet 22 years of age, quickly became the team leader in snaps at the position and is one of the most promising young players in the league. Easley finished his second straight season on the injured reserve after starting the year as the best interior pass rusher in the NFL. Branch provided veteran leadership and stability, while Hicks replaced Easley in the line-up and made the most of his opportunities.
Siliga slipped down the depth chart as the season wore on.
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The Patriots were at their best when they had a four player rotation at the position, and it would seem like the best four players in a vacuum are Brown, Branch, Easley, and Hicks. Hicks is a free agent and should be one of the team's top targets to bring back with a long term extension because he fits exactly what the team wants from a defensive tackle with regards to strength and containment.
Players like Ishmaa'ily Kitchen and Chris Jones will be under contract, but they are likely camp bodies as the Patriots won't be able to keep more than five defensive tackles on the roster. Siliga will be competing with these players for what is probably the final spot, should Hicks sign back with New England.
If Hicks departs, giving the Patriots a pretty good compensatory pick in 2017, then there will be more space in the rotation. The coaching staff loves Jones, and Siliga could be retained for cheap.
Brown and Easley remain two of the most promising players in the league, but Easley needs to stay healthy to reach his potential. His season ending injury wasn't viewed as severe, but it was enough to knock him out through the remainder of the season.
The Patriots will probably bring in a late round draft pick to compete for a practice squad position, but overall the team is young and strong. If Hicks returns, the Patriots could feature one of the top defensive tackle rotations in the league.