The New England Patriots selected EDGE Derek Rivers and EDGE Deatrich Wise Jr. in the third and fourth rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft and the intentional double dip reveals the Patriots plans for the defensive front in 2017 and 2018.
Head coach Bill Belichick has been trying to construct an agile defensive front for today’s versatile and pass-heavy NFL. The defensive front six or seven need to be stout against the run, while also athletic enough to drop into coverage against running backs.
Belichick had hoped that EDGE Chandler Jones could be the lynch pin of this defensive front, a defensive lineman that could flex from the standard 4-3 defensive end and could also move inside in three-man fronts. Jones flashed at times, but struggled to play inside on a consistent basis.
This defensive line role, along with SS Patrick Chung’s ability to play both safety, linebacker, and nickel, would allow the Patriots to move between a run-centric and pass-centric defense without having to change personnel.
Fortunately, Trey Flowers emerged as the defender the Patriots needed for this defensive line role, with an ability to play both on the edge and inside. The Patriots 2017 draft class further solidifies the team’s defensive approach- and sets the stage for change in 2018.
The Patriots defensive front has three types of edge players that will line up on the line of scrimmage at various points.
There’s the Chandler Jones and Trey Flowers role, which I will call the “Inside Edge”, then there’s the standard 4-3 defensive end role on the opposite side of the line, which I’ll call “Outside Edge”.
The third edge role is the strongside linebacker (SAM), who often lines up on the outside shoulder of the Inside Edge to bolster the Patriots run defense. This leaves the other linebacker and Patrick Chung in the box as the off-the-ball linebackers.
For the 2017 season, the Patriots will have Flowers and Deatrich Wise Jr. as the Inside Edge players and Rob Ninkovich, Kony Ealy and Derek Rivers on the Outside Edge. A mix of Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin, and Kyle Van Noy are all capable of playing the SAM linebacker position, with Hightower and Van Noy also able to play the other linebacker role with Elandon Roberts.
Ninkovich, Ealy, and Van Noy are all free agents after the 2017 season, so 2018 could represent some serious change on the Patriots defensive front. Ealy and Van Noy could sign elsewhere and Ninkovich has a real chance to retire if he collects 4 sacks in 2017 and achieves his goal of 50 career sacks.
If all three players do not return for 2018, then Patriots defensive depth chart would be:
Inside Edge: Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr.
Outside Edge: Derek Rivers
SAM: Shea McClellin
LB: Dont’a Hightower, Elandon Roberts
This line-up needs some depth, but it’s clear how the addition of both Rivers and Wise align with preparation for a worst-case exodus of talent on the defensive front. Rivers and Wise will be sophomores projecting into a larger role, and they join Trey Flowers to create a trio the team would be comfortable utilizing.
The Patriots no longer have to worry about where Ninkovich stands in 2018. Ninkovich could return to be the 4th edge defender in the rotation, or he could move on elsewhere. New England is ready for either scenario.
The team obviously needs help at linebacker, but Rivers and Wise represent two of the Patriots edge roles that will remain in place moving forward.