The New England Patriots’ front-seven saw some major turnover this offseason, with one of the players being lost serving as the team’s top outside option in 2019. Kyle Van Noy played 81.9% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps last year — third most behind defensive backs Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore — with the majority of them coming from the defensive edge: he served primarily as an outside linebacker on the line of scrimmage after New England moved away from its 4-3-based scheme to incorporate more 3-4 looks.
With Van Noy now being a member of the Miami Dolphins, however, the Patriots will need to find a way to replace his role and production. Luckily, the team does not just have veteran move linebacker Dont’a Hightower at its disposal still, but also selected Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings on the second day of this year’s draft. Both rookies are capable of aligning both on the edge and off the ball in a move role that also is played by Hightower and was part of the game of ex-Patriots Van Noy and Jamie Collins.
Together with returning pure edge linebackers John Simon and Chase Winovich, Hightower, Uche and Jennings will help replace the talent the Patriots lost over the course of the offseason. That said, there are other players on the current 80-man roster who too are competing for a job and who could contribute on the edge as well.
LB Shilique Calhoun, LB Derek Rivers, LB Brandon Copeland, LB Terez Hall, LB Tashawn Bower, LB/DE Nick Coe
The five edge/move options named above — Hightower, Simon, Winovich, Uche, Jennings — are all guaranteed their roster spots already, with six other men fighting for what could be as little as one or two spots on the 53-man squad. The group itself contains a healthy mix of experience and youth, which should make for an interesting practice competition over the next few weeks (especially considering the absence of preseason games).
On the one hand, you have players such as Shilique Calhoun and Brandon Copeland, who are entering their fifth and eighth season in the league, respectively. On the other hand, you have youngsters such as Derek Rivers, Terez Hall, Tashawn Bower and undrafted rookie Nick Coe. The four of them have just seven in-game appearances at the NFL level on their collective résumés — all of which accomplished by Rivers during his 2018 season.
The deciding factors
Discipline: New England asks its edge defenders to not only attack the quarterback from various techniques — ranging from the 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 making the roster or practice squad.
Awareness: The Patriots’ edge defenders also 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 pre-snap signals being sent on the other side of the line of scrimmage? 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.
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. Kyle Van Noy was consistently impressive 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 in other spots as well — be it off the ball as move linebackers or inside the formation as de facto defensive tackles 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: Shilique Calhoun saw regular action in the kicking game in 2019, for example.
Coverage: When the Patriots moved from a 4-3-based defense to one built around 3-4 principles last summer, they also slightly altered the responsibilities on the edge: players no longer needed to just push the pocket or play contain, but also drop back into coverage every now and then. While the ability to hang with tight ends or running backs will not make or break a player’s chances at making the team, it could be another factor tied into the versatility aspect mentioned above.
As previously noted, only one or two members of the competitors group identified above appear to have realistic chances of making the team. Hall, Bower and Coe all have upside and could eventually carve out niches in the NFL, but it seems as if they will be on the outside looking in come roster cutdown day: the lack of offseason workouts and preseason is going to hurt them more than the experienced edge defenders on the team. Accordingly, the prediction is that Calhoun, Rivers and Copeland will fight for the remaining open spot(s).
Who will make it, though?
Calhoun and Rivers have been on the Patriots’ 53-man roster before and have had their moments despite being mostly used in a rotational role. Copeland, meanwhile, has played in more NFL games than the two combined and is experienced both as a defender and special teamer. Based on track record, the offseason acquisition should therefore be considered the favorite at the time being. If past training camps have taught us one thing, however, it is that a lot can quickly change over a few weeks.