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Patriots training camp competitions to watch: Rotational defensive tackle

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The top trio at the position is set, but the spots behind them remain open.

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Matt Stone/Digital First Media/Boston Herald via Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ defensive tackle position remained mostly intact through the 2019 offseason. While former first-round draft pick Malcom Brown left in free agency, the world champions brought ex-New York Jet Mike Pennel on board as a replacement. Pennel is one of three roster locks along the interior defensive line together with 2018 standout Lawrence Guy and third-year man Adam Butler.

This leaves a maximum of two open spots at the position and five men competing for them. Needless to say that defensive tackle will make for an interesting competition in training camp.

The competitors

DT Danny Shelton, DT Byron Cowart, DT/DE Ufomba Kamalu, DT David Parry, DT Nick Thurman

Danny Shelton, who was re-signed two months into free agency, and Ufomba Kamalu both spent time on the Patriots’ active roster last season and therefore have an advantage over the competition when it comes to experience. The same can also be said about four-year veteran David Parry, who joined New England on a futures contract in January. Byron Cowart, on the other hand, has tremendous upside and developmental potential. Ex-AAF defender Nick Thurman, meanwhile, projects to be little more than a camp body.

The deciding factors

Gap discipline: The Patriots’ defensive scheme is based on gap control: linemen are responsible for two gaps and asked to occupy them to create space for the second level defenders to make plays. Being disciplined is therefore a key to playing along the interior; if a player fails to showcase it on a consistent basis it will turn into a disqualifying factor when it comes to making the roster or practice squad.

Versatility: In the past, the Patriots used their edge defenders — most recently Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Derek Rivers — on the inside on obvious passing downs. Being able to line up in numerous spots and techniques could therefore also help a player carve out a role on the team. Cowart and Kamalu, for example, should be able to play both on the edge and in the middle of the formation. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Shelton, who is primarily an early-down run stuffer.

Awareness: The secret behind the aforementioned gap discipline is being able to properly read keys and react to them. Do the offensive linemen zone or man block? Are they giving away any signals pre-snap? In which direction are they moving and what does it mean? Playing defensive tackle is in large parts reactionary. If a player can prove himself in this area by applying the film study on the field, he should be able to improve his odds.

Technique: Fighting off blockers is essential to being successful as a front-seven defender, and it all starts with technique — from footwork to hand usage to pass rushing moves. The more polished a player, the better suited he is to control his gaps at the point of attack. And the more successful he is at that, the better his chances of making the team as a rotational option alongside Guy, Butler and Pennel.

The prediction

Putting all these factors into account and adding them to their career résumés so far, it would not be a surprise if Danny Shelton, Byron Cowart and Ufomba Kamalu emerged as the three frontrunners to earn the fourth and possible fifth spot at defensive tackle. The question will then become what the coaching staff is looking for from the rotational depth . player.

Shelton would be a proven option with a limited ceiling outside of playing the run. Cowart would be a more versatile player with the most potential of the trio but a lower floor — a player that might benefit from more coaching and a year on the practice squad. Kamalu is less of a traditional interior lineman, but has the size and skillset to play both on the edge and as a pass-rushing tackle from the 3-technique spot. Ultimately, all three of them will get every chance to prove they belong on the team.