1. The New England Patriots have made a quick changes to the defensive tackle position over the past few weeks, most notably shedding 2014 first round pick Dominique Easley. I had previously highlighted Chris Jones as a possible #5 defensive tackle to make an impact in 2016, but he's gone, too.
But here's a nugget to takeaway about the decisions. Dominique Easley measured in a quarter-inch below 6'2. Jones was also shorter than 6'2. Kitchen was 6'1.
Joe Vellano is the only defensive tackle on the roster shorter than 6'2, coming in at 6'1 and 3/8ths. Malcom Brown is 6'2 and 3/8ths. Terrance Knighton is 6'3. Frank Kearse is 6'4. Markus Kuhn is 6'4 and 3/4ths. Alan Branch is 6'5 and 3/4ths. Vellano is far from a roster lock and it seems like the Patriots are intentionally trying to increase the size of players on the defensive line.
2. I think the rise of the nickel defense is a key reason. The Patriots can only afford to put two defensive linemen, two edge defenders, and two linebackers on the field at any given time because the Patriots use five or more defensive backs on 83.5% of snaps.
Teams are more likely to run the ball when they see lighter defensive packages, so perhaps Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is trying to fill the interior of the defensive line with larger defensive tackles that can eat up a ton of space and hold the line of scrimmage.
3. Most importantly, Belichick has done a tremendous job of setting the Patriots roster in free agency so the team can afford to take the best players available on draft day. Go through the roster. What's the weakest starting player?
QB: Tom Brady
RB: LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis
WR: Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola
TE: Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett
OL: Nate Solder, Josh Kline, Bryan Stork, Shaq Mason, Sebastian Vollmer
ED: Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long
DT: Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Terrance Knighton
LB: Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Shea McClellin
CB: Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan
S: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon
Outside of the interior offensive line (more on that in a bit), it has to be at cornerback, where the depth behind Butler and Ryan is shaky- but Belichick added veteran E.J. Biggers to the youth of Justin Coleman and Darryl Roberts, so it's not like the position is without talent.
The Patriots don't have to draft for 2016. They can take the best players and prepare for 2017. That's a luxury few teams can afford.
4. That's not to say that Belichick is without fault. That Easley mistake is going to be a major glare in the upcoming seasons, as will be the rest of the 2014 draft class.
Belichick started with Easley (off the team), and followed with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (hopefully never plays), center Bryan Stork (starter at center), James White (roster bubble), Cameron Fleming (practice squad body), and a bunch of players that didn't have an impact.
Stork is the team's only contributor when everyone is healthy, and that's not good. The "dark" year under Belichick, which was basically just 2009, came on the backs of a brutal stretch of drafts from 2006-2008, where the Patriots got a kicker in Stephen Gostkowski (2006), a special teams stud in Matthew Slater (2007), and a star linebacker in Jerod Mayo (2008), and then a whole bunch of blah in first rounders running back Laurence Maroney and safety Brandon Meriweather.
If the Patriots go through a rough stretch in the next year or two, the sour fruits from the 2014 class would be a starting point. The Patriots really need 2015 draftees like Jordan Richards, Geneo Grissom, and Trey Flowers to have an impact.
5. I'm really looking forward to the second-year jump from 2015 first round pick Malcom Brown. He really picked up the game after the Patriots week 4 bye week and by the end of the season he was the team's most reliable defensive tackle.
His biggest knock as a prospect was questionable consistency on a snap-to-snap level, although his effort at the end of games was never in question. He's proven that he can be a player at the NFL level. Now it's his chance to take a major leap and become a serious impact player.
6. I'm also curious to see how the Patriots battle on the interior line will play out. I know I just listed my starters above, but that's going to be a serious competition in camp.
I'm a huge Shaq Mason fan, but he's probably not even a lock. Josh Kline and Jonathan Cooper will have a lot to say about the left guard role, while a healthy Tre Jackson could contribute at right guard. And that says nothing about the competition at center between Bryan Stork and David Andrews.
The line will be a lot of fun to watch over the summer.