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Offseason preview: Patriots’ interior defensive line could look familiar in 2020

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Related: Offseason preview: Patriots’ interior offensive line could look drastically different in 2020

Cleveland Browns v New England Patriots Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with four teams left standing, the New England Patriots will have to set their sights on the season to come: after being eliminated from the postseason on wild card weekend, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the AFC East champions have a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins on March 18.

With that being said, let’s break down where the team stands at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue with the interior defensive line where the Patriots have six players currently (still) under contract.

Adam Butler

Age: 25

Contract status: Set to enter restricted free agency on March 18.

2019 review: With the Patriots losing Malcom Brown in free agency, Butler resumed a more prominent role along the defensive line. A key piece of the three-man rotation atop the defensive tackle position, the former undrafted free agent appeared in all 17 of New England’s games in 2019 and finished with a playing time share of 46% — 492 of 1,070 defensive snaps — while registering a career-high six sacks and also seeing increased action against the run.

2020 preview: As a restricted free agent, Butler can be tendered at one of three levels by the Patriots: the first-round tender worth an estimated $4.7 million, the $3.3 million second-round tender or the $2.1 million original round tender. In case another team then signs the 25-year-old to an offer sheet, New England would have five days to match or receive the draft pick appropriate for the tender as compensation.

Given Butler’s role in 2019 and growth over his three seasons in the NFL, it would not be a surprise to see New England use the second-round tender on him. After all, Butler served as a core member of the team’s defensive tackle rotation this season and has proven his value to the defense.

Byron Cowart

Age: 23

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Cowart has a salary cap hit of $660,149 in 2020.

2019 review: A fifth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2019, Cowart did carve out a spot on New England’s 53-man roster but saw only irregular playing time during his first season in the NFL: the Maryland product was active for just five games and played a mere 43 defensive snaps all year long — in part because of a concussion he suffered in November, in part because of the depth ahead of him on the depth chart.

2020 preview: While Cowart is under contract for 2020 and carries a comparatively small salary cap hit, he is no lock to make the team. His development and the free agency statuses of Adam Butler and Danny Shelton will have an impact on his long-term outlook.

Lawrence Guy

Age: 29

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Guy has a salary cap hit of $4.97 million in 2020.

2019 review: Even though he saw a heavy workload in 2019 — he played all 17 of the Patriots’ games and was on the field for 572 of a possible 1,070 defensive snaps (53.5%) — Guy was New England’s best interior defender throughout the year. The veteran defender was stout against the run and disruptive versus the pass, and proved himself a regular playmaker: he finished with three sacks, two fumble recoveries and an interception.

2020 preview: Entering a contract year, Guy’s role in 2020 will look similar like the one he held in 2019: he is a core player at the heart of the defensive line and will see considerable snaps yet again. At a salary cap hit of just under $5 million, he also is a solid investment from the team’s perspective — one that might just see a contract extension come its way over the course of the next few months.

Danny Shelton

Age: 26

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 18.

2019 review: Entering the open market one year after joining the Patriots and helping them win Super Bowl 53, Shelton generated little momentum: it took until late May until he re-joined New England on a one-year deal — a good pickup by the team. Over the next few months, the former first-round draft pick did not only beat out Mike Pennel to earn a roster spot, he also established himself as a reliable and durable presence up front that appeared in all 17 games and finished with three sacks.

2020 preview: Hitting free agency once again, Shelton’s market will dictate where he plays next year: while the Patriots would likely not be opposed to him returning to secure the stability up front, the price will decide whether or not he remains with the team. If he comes back, a deal similar to the one he signed last year in terms of annual cap hit — he was brought back on a one-year, $1 million contract — seems like an option.

Nick Thurman

Age: 24

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Thurman has a salary cap hit of $510,000 in 2020.

2019 review: After a short stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April, Thurman found his way to New England but was unable to carve out a role on the team’s 53-man roster despite some flashes as a pass rusher during training camp. Following his release on cutdown day, the Patriots signed him to their practice squad where he spent the entirety of the 2019 season.

2020 preview: After the Patriots’ season came to an end on wild card weekend, they signed Thurman to a reserve/futures contract. He will therefore have a chance to compete for a roster spot in 2020, even though the odds appear to be stacked against him once more. If he can build on his one year on the practice squad and a solid last summer, however, he could find his way onto the team.

Deatrich Wise Jr.

Age: 25

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Wise Jr. has a salary cap hit of $880,140 in 2020.

2019 review: A rotational player ever since his arrival in New England as a fourth-round draft pick in 2017, Wise Jr. saw his playing time decrease for the third straight year: while he did appear in 15 of the Patriots’ 17 games in 2019, he was on the field for just 268 of a possible 1,070 defensive snaps (25%). The team tried to give him more looks as a run defender along the way, but he had his fair share of issues — with his one-dimensionality and inconsistent play contributing to his comparatively limited usage.

2020 preview: Wise Jr. needs a quick turnaround if he wants to get his career in New England back on the track. Not only will he have to prove himself capable of being more than just a rotational pass rusher from the tackle/end position, he also needs to cut down on penalties: the 25-year-old was flagged seven times in 2019, tying Julian Edelman and J.C. Jackson for the team-lead despite playing considerably fewer snaps.