Off-ball linebacker Preston Brown, thanks to a Wednesday morning piece from Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, became the latest name on a growing list of potential acquisitions over the past two offseasons at a position that has topped the wish lists of Patriots fans.
The appeal of Brown is certainly understandable, as he has done nothing but produce since being drafted out of Louisville in the third round of the 2014 draft. The guy is a 25-year-old tackling machine, and was a staple of a division opponent’s defense over the past four seasons.
However, the excitement of Patriots fans surrounding the potential addition of a talented player like Brown, or Philadelphia’s Nigel Bradham, must be tempered — and for two major reasons:
- The Patriots’ current cap space resources aren’t what they were a year ago heading into free agency, meaning the team, in all likelihood, will be carefully abiding by their value-driven model of roster building.
- The off-ball linebacker position is not their biggest need.
This isn’t to say that it isn’t a need at all, but with all of the roster deficiencies Bill Belichick is tasked with bolstering this offseason, and with the aforementioned decreased in available cap resources, it’s difficult to imagine that linebacker will be his top priority — particularly when two starters are returning to the position in 2018.
Dont’a Hightower is, by all accounts, on track to return to full health from a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2017 campaign after just five games. Kyle Van Noy, who developed into a critical member of the team’s front-seven in Hightower’s absence, is under a team-friendly deal through 2019.
In the nickel and dime-heavy defensive personnel packages employed in today’s NFL, it’s tough to justify utilizing valuable cap space on what feels like more of a luxury item — even if Hightower is utilized more on the edge in 2018.
So, of the many heavily-covered areas of need that the Patriots must address in the coming months, which is the most pressing? More importantly, which hole can best be filled effectively and efficiently?
If the primary focus is kept on the defensive side of the football, the widely accepted remedy to what ails the Patriots is an infusion of pass-rushing talent. Yet, acquiring quality edge personnel in free agency is simply out of the question, and given this incoming draft class’ lack of depth, there is simply no chance at landing a surefire pass-rushing prospect with the penultimate selection in the first round. Any edge defender taken at 31 will have question marks, and is extremely unlikely to be the best player available.
Yet, there is one area on the Patriots’ defense where an upgrade in talent, whether through free agency, trade, or a top draft selection, would do wonders to ease the burden on the other components within the unit: interior defensive line.
This unit curiously shirked criticism for their play in 2017. Their consistency against the run was vastly overrated, to say nothing of their complete inability to create a pocket-collapsing push. Yet, as blame for the defense’s struggles was doled out and heaped upon the shoulders of the edge, linebacker, and safety units, the interior defensive line was inexplicably absolved.
When looking at the personnel they have in place, the unit simply isn’t talented enough.
Adam Butler flashed at times last season, but the former undrafted free agent has a long way to go before being considered a long-term solution. Alan Branch’s effectiveness took a nosedive before injuries his ended his 2017 season. 2016 fourth-round pick Vincent Valentine missed all of last year with a knee injury. Some are even calling for a return of Ricky Jean Francois in 2018 — the same 31-year-old player who was a member of three different rosters during the 2017 league year, and who was cut and re-signed by the Patriots within the regular season.
Lawrence Guy was the best of the group last year, which is perhaps why he garnered such an inordinate amount of praise from fans and the media. In reality, although he was sound in his gap responsibilities, he made very few splash plays, and provided nothing in terms of a pass rush, logging one clean-up sack on the season.
Then there is Malcom Brown — who has proven himself a more than capable two-gap run defender, but not much more. He doesn’t have the burst or nuance to stay on the field consistently on third down to attack from the 3 or 5-tech positions. He is fine for what he’s asked to provide, but with three full seasons under his belt, it is becoming safer to assume that his role won’t be developing much further.
“But that’s the Patriots’ system! Their interior guys are patient two-gappers! They aren’t asked to create a pass rush!”
Does New England demand patience and gap-integrity from their interior down-lineman? Yes. Every team does. But a penetrating role absolutely exists within their scheme, and they’ve been looking to fill it for a while. They were able to get one-gap penetration production in 2015 from Akiem Hicks, and a year prior they invested the 29th overall pick in the 2014 draft in Dominique Easley to achieve the same defensive attributes.
If adding pass-rushing talent on the edge isn’t feasible through free agency or the draft, then there are quite a few ways to find personnel who can generate production from within. This draft holds far more quality depth at the 3 and 5-tech positions than it does at edge, with top prospects like Michigan’s Maurice Hurst (very unlikely to be available at 31, but a player who is worth trading up for), Florida’s Taven Bryan, and Virginia’s Andrew Brown, just to name a few.
This free agent class of interior defensive lineman also possesses some big names like Dontari Poe, the recently released Muhammad Wilkerson, and Bennie Logan — all who can provide a spark of penetration on the inside.
Then there is the prospect of adding a piece like Seattle’s Michael Bennett via trade — a move well worth a thorough investigation from the Patriots’ front office. Opportunities to acquire a versatile veteran with excellent production and a team-friendly contract for three future seasons rarely present themselves in today’s NFL.
The focus needs to shift. We are witnessing the greatest era of defensive line talent that the game of football has ever seen — and the Patriots have fallen behind. Regardless of how they Patriots this talent issue, they must make strides to do so. If not, it may not matter who starts at linebacker in 2018.