One thing we learned from the New England Patriots' Super Bowl loss against the Philadelphia Eagles was that team lacked quality along the defensive front seven to win the battle in the trenches against an elite offensive line. While the unit did feature very good players like Trey Flowers, its depth options – Elandon Roberts, Deatrich Wise Jr., Adam Butler – were too inconsistent to disrupt the Eagles' offensive rhythm.
This was nothing new but instead the culmination of a season-long trend, especially when it came to defending the pass: The Patriots' front seven, according to Pro Football Focus, registered a mere 13.2 pressures per regular season game – the 24th worst number in the NFL. Philadelphia, for comparison, led the league in this category by pressuring opposing quarterbacks an average of 19.3 times per contest.
Needless to say, this is an area in which the Patriots needed some reinforcements. And even though free agency did not bring big names like Ndamukong Suh, Muhammad Wilkerson or Ezekiel Ansah to New England, the team significantly upgraded the unit over the last week-plus. Either through outside additions, re-signings or simply players getting healthy again (*cough* Dont'a Hightower, *cough*), the Patriots were able to bolster their front seven.
Bringing linebacker Marquis Flowers on board again via a one-year, $2.55 million contract is just the latest of those moves. New England also acquired defensive tackle Danny Shelton, who was the 12th overall draft pick just three years ago, from the Cleveland Browns via trade and also signed former Atlanta Falcons defensive edge Adrian Clayborn to a two-year, $10 million free agency deal.
All three should be considered safe bets to make the Patriots' roster five months from now – and all three should play significant roles in the semi-remade New England front seven. Shelton and Clayborn, for example, both add experience and upside to their respective positions. This, in turn, should help the rotations work more smoothly than they did just one year ago and by extension help their productivity.
Bringing Clayborn on board has a trickle-down effect on fellow defensive ends Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Derek Rivers. Another body, one that has proven quality as a rusher in the passing game and an edge setter against the run, should help take the pressure off the young trio, particularly Wise Jr. and Rivers – something New England lacked for the most parts of the 2017 season as Cassius Marsh and Eric Lee were too one-dimensional.
The same should hold true with Danny Shelton, whose addition should help the coaching staff to better manage the snap counts of Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy. The 24-year old is more of a run than a pass defender, yes, but his addition should impact the players joining him on the defensive tackle depth chart: Guy, Adam Butler and/or Vincent Valentine might all benefit from playing more nuanced roles next year.
Marquis Flowers, on the other hand, should himself benefit from spending a whole offseason with the Patriots. He already was the team's best pass coverage linebacker last year and also registered 4.5 sacks – fourth-most on the team – and five quarterback hits. Having him in the fold and allowing him to become more comfortable within the defense should take some pressure off starting duo Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy.
All in all, the Patriots' front seven – despite the subtraction of Shea McClellin and potential exits of Ricky Jean Francois, Alan Branch and James Harrison – is a deeper one than it was prior to the start of free agency. New England can only hope that this depth plus any potential draft additions can help the unit regain strength and the quality it once possessed. The groundwork has been laid.