Rich, last week we talked about the offensive positional; groupings heading into training camp, so this week I'd like to focus on the defense. One area I'm very excited to watch is defensive line, more specifically the tackles. The line that I thought was going to be wreaking havoc this year involved both Akiem Hicks and Dominique Easley, but those guys are no longer with the team. New England still has some solid depth along the line, but I'm not exactly sure who will be starting as the defensive tackles. What are your initial thoughts?
Dominique Easley was the Patriots best interior pass rusher- and in truth, he is one of the best in the league- and when he was injured, Akiem Hicks took over and dominated. These are two serious losses in the middle, although I question how much of the interior success was the high level of ability of Easley and Hicks, and how much was great scheming by the Patriots coaching staff. New England got bigger in the middle by adding Terrance Knighton and Vincent Valentine, so I think the team will rely more on their edge defenders to take over for Easley on passing downs. I hear sophomore Trey Flowers has seen a larger role on the interior.
But going back to Knighton and Valentine, they join Malcom Brown and Alan Branch on the interior. Brown got better and better as the season developed and I think he could be a stud for years to come. What are your projections for Brown's growth in 2016?
Brown played all 16 games in 2015 - and while he only registered three sacks, he was a solid presence along the interior and recovered two fumbles that were well away from where the play was, which speaks to his awareness and quickness for a man who weighs in at 320 pounds. Brown seems like a lock to be a started along the inner line, and the combination of Brown, Knighton, and Branch should make running up the middle very difficult for opposing offenses.
You mentioned rookie Vincent Valentine, New England's 3rd round pick in this draft. Given the way the Patriots integrated Brown into the defense last season, do you see Valentine being treated similarly and eased into the system? What kind of impact will he have this year, if any?
I think Valentine is going to have a slower transition than Brown because he is far less polished of a prospect. I remember watching Brown’s college tape and projected him as a top 15 pick. He was active against the run, he could battle double teams, and he was a fighter later into the 4th quarter of hopeless games. Valentine is not as ready.
I still believe that Valentine will play roughly 20-25% of the snaps, should Brown, Branch, and Knighton remain healthy. They’ll use him on rushing downs and in blow outs. The Patriots 2016 draft class really seemed to be made with 2017 in mind, so I think the Patriots want Valentine to absorb as much information from Branch and Knighton, without the stress of having to perform on the field.
Remember that Valentine is the most athletic defensive tackle the Patriots have ever had. His upside is insane. He’s just not as ready as Brown was as a rookie.