The New England Patriots lost some major talent along their defensive edge this offseason: Trey Flowers, who played 72.9% defensive snaps in 2018 and led the club with 76.5 combined quarterback disruptions (9.5 sacks, 29 hits, 38 hurries), signed a free agency contract with the Detroit Lions; Adrian Clayborn and his fourth best 30.5 pressures (3.5 sacks, 17 hits, 10 hurries), meanwhile, were released after just one year.
As a result of the two departures, the Patriots will field a new-look edge defender group this season. Three of its current nine players can be classified as roster locks: offseason trade acquisition Michael Bennett is the premier candidate to take over Flowers’ role as the number one, with third-year man Deatrich Wise Jr. projected to return as the rotational second option alongside him. Rookie Chase Winovich, meanwhile, will serve as an additional layer of depth.
The remaining edge defenders on the team are therefore left to fight for what appears to be a maximum of three, more likely only two spots on the team.
DE John Simon, DE Derek Rivers, DE Keionta Davis, DE Trent Harris, DE Shilique Calhoun, DE Nick Thurman
John Simon, who the Patriots re-signed on the first day of free agency, is the favorite to earn one of the remaining open spots on the team given his contributions in 2018 and the experience he brings to the table. While he still needs to prove his value to the club during training camp and the preseason, it would be a surprise to see the other players listed here make the 28-year-old expendable.
Speaking of those other players, two among them stand out.
Derek Rivers is a former third-round draft pick that showed his talent in flashes but has been unable to carve out role on the team since his ACL injury early in his first NFL training camp. Now in year three, he appears to be in a make-or-break situation. The same can be said for Keionta Davis, who like Rivers saw some action in 2018 but failed to earn consistent playing time in the process. The duo will get more chances this summer, and needs to take advantage.
Trent Harris, Shilique Calhoun and Nick Thurman, on the other hand, project to be little more than depth options at this point in time. They are, however, candidates for the practice squad and as such have plenty to work for over the next few weeks.
The deciding factors
Discipline: New England asks its edge defenders to not only attack the quarterback from various techniques — ranging from 3 on the outside shoulder of the guard to 9 split wide over the tight end — but also to set the edge versus the run. Being disciplined in both aspects and not sacrificing one for the sake of the other is a key here, and could end up being a deciding factor when it comes to make the roster or practice squad. Just ask Cassius Marsh.
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 of a technician a player is, the better suited he is to perform consistently both as a pass rusher or when asked to hold his ground against offensive linemen in the running game. Trey Flowers was outstanding when it came to technical side of playing the position, now his successors need to develop in similar fashion.
Versatility: In the past, the Patriots regularly used their edge defenders — most recently Flowers and Wise Jr, but also 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. The same goes for special teams: John Simon saw regular action in the kicking game in 2018, for example.
Awareness: New England’s edge defenders need to be able to properly read their keys and react to them. Does the offensive line use a zone or man blocking scheme? Is the running back getting the football or faking a hand-off? Are there any signals pre-snap? Playing defensive edge in New England’s scheme is reactionary to a part, and players need to be able to make the right decisions based on what is happening in front of them.
Considering all the deciding factors, it would not be a surprise if 2019’s defensive edge group looked similar to 2018’s when all was said and done — with the exception of what was basically a Bennett-for-Flowers and Winovich-for-Clayborn trade-off: John Simon, as mentioned above, is the favorite to earn the fourth spot alongside the top three and offer veteran rotational depth just like he did last season.
Beyond Simon, Derek Rivers should still be seen as the guy to beat out. He did show his talent in flashes during the 2018 season; one that was primarily about getting a feel for the game again coming off season-ending injury. If Rivers can build on those flashes over the course of training camp and preseason, he should find his way on to the Patriots’ 53-man squad. If not, however, New England will not hesitate to give his spot to a worthy challenger.
Keionta Davis might be just that. While not possessing the same ceiling as Rivers, he is certainly a candidate to take a step forward two years removed from a season-long stint on the non-football injury list. Whether this can earn him a spot on the team remains to be decided, but it would not be surprising to at least see him give Rivers a run for the final edge spot on the roster.