The Patriots shipped away Chandler Jones over the offseason, but the team still has impressive depth. Jabaal Sheard will take the starting role that Jones left vacant, while some combination of Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, and Shea McClellin will fill the opposite spot. This doesn't include youngsters like 2015 draft picks Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers, and futures contract surprise Rufus Johnson. Flowers and Johnson stood out during the 2015 preseason, but injuries derailed their first season on the field.
Assuming Sheard has one starting spot in control, which youngster do you think has the best chance of challenging the veterans like Ninkovich and Long for the other spot?
We were both pretty high on Flowers last year, and I see no reason why we shouldn't remain high on him this year. He was only active for one game in 2015, but I think that was more due to the depth along the line as opposed to him underperforming. The Patriots drafted him early in the 4th round - 101st overall - and I can see them starting out the year as a rotational edge rusher and pushing for more serious playing time down the stretch. Flowers can line up all along the line, so the real question with him is where the coaching staff feels that he'll be the best fit. One thing I don't want to see is the older guys getting too many reps early, so hopefully those younger guys you mentioned can deliver and keep everyone as fresh as possible come December.
Speaking of older guys - how do you see Chris Long fitting into this system? Is he primed for a career revival?
I don't know if "revival" is in the cards for a 31-year-old pass rusher that is coming off two serious injuries, but I still think he can be a valuable piece of the defense. If the Patriots use him as a pass rusher on third downs and limit the time he needs to set the edge against the run, I think he will perform at a high enough level. I don't know if the Patriots will be able to rely on him as the third edge defender as much as they did with Jabaal Sheard in 2015, but I still think Long has a handful of sacks left in his legs.
I'm with you- I hope the Patriots don't have to rely on Long because I really want to see Flowers emerge as a solid contributor on the line. He has a crazy wingspan and his leverage is incredible. I would be thrilled if he stole the #3 edge defender role in camp. I just don't know if it's going to happen.
I also don't think the Patriots will keep as many edge defenders as they did last season. They stashed Rufus Johnson and Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom, but I don't know if all three make the team. Who gets cut?
I can see the Patriots retaining five ends in Sheard, Ninkovich, Long, Flowers, and Grissom, with that number jumping to six if you want to include McClellin in this grouping. That leaves Rufus Johnson on the outside looking in. Ultimately it's all going to come down to the base defense and how important the edge rusher is going to be to the defensive scheme, but given that there are some guys on my list getting up there in age, I think it makes sense to keep more guys here and make sure everyone stays fresh.
In a gameplan-specific system, versatility is key, and these five or six guys all bring different skillsets to the table. Of course, now that I've said that, watch as Sheard gets cut, Belichick moves Malcolm Brown to the outside, and Ninkovich becomes an every down linebacker. I don't know why I even bother trying to predict what the Patriots will do.