In a shocking, yet not completely surprising move, the New England Patriots have traded defensive end Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals for offensive guard Jonathan Cooper and a conditional 2016 second round draft pick. While the move strengthens the Patriots' draft capital and – hopefully – offensive line, it also weakens the team's defense.
But how much, really? Let's take a look at who is left on New England's defensive edge to find out.
Rob Ninkovich (#50)
Ninkovich is the elder statesman at the defensive end position and a smart defender against both the pass and the run. Therefore, Ninkovich should once again play a majority of defensive snaps in 2016. A rotation would probably be best for both the team and the player given that the veteran turned 32 in February but until the younger players show that they can perform when the spotlight is on them, Ninkovich once again projects be an 80%+ snap player .
Jabaal Sheard (#93)
The 26-year old Sheard joined the Patriots during 2015 free agency and quickly became one of the team's best and most consistent defensive players, collecting 8.0 sacks in 13 games – while playing stout against running and passing plays. By the end of the season, Sheard (and Ninkovich as well) saw more playing time than Jones and now projects to fully take over his old role on the team as New England's number one pass rusher.
Geneo Grissom (#92)
New England drafted Grissom in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of Oklahoma. With Ninkovich, Sheard and Jones in front of him on the depth chart, however, the rookie did not see a lot of playing time and was on the field only 11.9% of the defensive time. With the possible elevation to number three on the depth chart, this number should rise in 2016.
Trey Flowers (#98)
Just like Grissom, Flowers was drafted last year – only one round later. The former Arkansas Razorback's rookie year was basically a redshirt season as the 22-year old was active only once in 2015 (playing four defensive snaps without showing up on the stat sheet) before being placed on injured reserve in December. Flowers should challenge Grissom for playing time as the number three option on the defensive edge.
Rufus Johnson (#59)
Johnson's first year in Foxboro ended after only 13 defensive snaps: because of an illness, the 25-year old was placed on injured reserve in October, ending his season. Johnson showed promise during the 2015 preseason and with a strong summer could once again be in the conversation for playing time at the position.
New England could also use other options to replace Chandler Jones' production as defensive tackle Dominique Easley and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins have all lined up on the defensive edge at times. Furthermore, the team could opt to bring in another backup option like free agent Chris Long, to whom the team was linked lately.
Chandler Jones is a very good football player and brought a lot of talent and energy to the defensive table. While it will be hard to replace his production and locker room persona, the Patriots have some talented pieces in place to keep going even without the former first round draft choice.