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Patriots 2021 offseason preview: New England has some work to do along its interior defensive line

Related: Patriots offseason preview: Major changes could be on the horizon for New England’s interior O-line

Baltimore Ravens v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with four teams left standing, the New England Patriots are already in the process of turning their attention towards what lies ahead: after not qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2008, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the 7-9 squad has a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins.

With that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue things along the interior defensive line.

Beau Allen

Age: 29

Experience: 7

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Allen has a salary cap hit of $3.95 million in 2021.

2020 review: Allen originally arrived in New England last spring, when he signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the club. Originally expected to help replace free agency departee Danny Shelton, the big-bodied defender missed the entire full-team portion of training camp for undisclosed reasons. He still made the team’s initial 53-man roster before being moved to injured reserve, though, which was an indication that the team thought he could return.

Return he eventually did: Allen was back on the practice field in late October, opening a 21-day window in which he could either be activated or remain on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. The Patriots took the second route and Allen’s first year with the team ended with zero snaps.

2021 preview: Heading into his second season as a Patriot, the biggest question surrounding Allen is whether or not he will be physically ready to return to the field. If the answer is yes, he should be expected to take over the role the team originally envisioned when it signed him despite a comparatively sizable salary cap hit. If he is unable to return to full strength, however, New England might decide to just part ways instead of waiting for him to get ready again.

Michael Barnett

Age: 23

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Barnett has a salary cap hit of $780,000 in 2021.

2020 review: After not hearing his name called during the NFL’s 2020 draft, Michael Barnett had to wait until late August to find a home in the pros. The Patriots signed him to help bolster the depth at defensive tackle, but eventually waived him with an injury designation on roster cutdown day. The rookie made it through waivers unclaimed, and reverted to New England’s injured reserve list. He spent the entire season there.

2021 preview: Barnett’s future with the Patriots will likely be tied to two factors: his health and the other players currently still on the roster. With Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Carl Davis all headed towards free agency, keeping the youngster around as an emergency option might make sense. That said, he appears to be a player who might get the axe if the Patriots need to create additional roster spots after free agency or the draft.

Adam Butler

Age: 26

Experience: 4

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: Ahead of last year’s free agency, the Patriots decided to place the second-round restricted free agency tender on Adam Butler. The former rookie free agent eventually signed it, making sure that he would be back with the team for a fourth season. While he once again played a prominent role — Butler served as a starter-level defensive tackle — the 26-year-old was also slowed down by a shoulder injury for much of the year.

Like the rest of New England’s defensive tackle group, he also was hampered by the fact that the Patriots did not have a reliable big-bodied nose tackle available following Beau Allen’s mysterious injury. Butler was asked to play a considerable portion of snaps at the nose, but it became obvious that he is undersized to do so on early downs and best suited to line up either in other spots along the interior line. Still, he finished the season with four sacks — all over the final six games of the year.

2021 preview: Headed into unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, Butler is expected to generate a solid market: he has been disruptive as an interior pass rusher throughout his career — despite playing in a Patriots scheme that does limit his opportunities in this area — and also has made some strides as a run defender. The big question will be whether or not he prices himself out of New England’s comfort zone.

Byron Cowart

Age: 24

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Cowart has a salary cap hit of $925,149 in 2021.

2020 review: Cowart saw only limited action during his 2019 rookie season, but took a step forward in 2020 by finishing the season as the number four interior defensive lineman in terms of playing time (behind Deatrich Wise Jr, Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler). Overall, Cowart appeared in 14 games and had his moments as both a run defender and interior pass rusher — all while moving all over the line.

Much like the rest of New England’s DTs, however, he also would have benefitted from a true nose tackle playing alongside him.

2021 preview: Given his strides in 2020 and comparatively low cap impact, plus the fact that the three defensive tackles seeing more playing time are all headed towards free agency, Cowart will be back with the team this upcoming season. It remains to be seen how his role and supporting cast looks like, but he seems to be best suited playing as either a 3-technique tackle or 5-technique end in the Patriots’ scheme.

Carl Davis

Age: 28

Experience: 6

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: Davis’ 2020 season was a tumultuous one. He started it with the Jacksonville Jaguars, spent time on the open market after getting released, eventually returned to his former team, and missed the first four weeks of the regular season due to a suspension. Afterwards, Davis was released again before being signed to the Jaguars’ practice squad. Only two days later, however, he was poached by the Patriots.

In New England, Davis was expected to help fill the vacant nose tackle role. He did show some promise during his first three games with the club, but a concussion eventually ended his season prematurely.

2021 preview: While Davis had his moments after his arrival in New England, and helped bolster the interior defensive line especially versus the run, it remains to be seen whether or not the team brings him back in free agency. As far as internal priorities, he certainly ranks below Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler, but could be seen as a contingency player in case they leave and Beau Allen’s 2021 projection is not a positive one. Either way, Davis is not expected to be a hot name on the open market.

Lawrence Guy

Age: 30

Experience: 10

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: Entering the final year of the free agency pact he signed with New England in 2017, Lawrence Guy’s season was business as usual. The veteran, who was voted a team captain for the first time, appeared in 14 games — he missed two because of a shoulder ailment — and served as a starting defensive tackle for the Patriots defense. As such, he saw regular playing time both against the run and the pass.

Guy was once again the most consistent member of the team’s interior defensive line, and one of the few bright spots in the running game. That said, he was still unable to help with some of the issues the Patriots had both on the interior and around the edge.

2021 preview: Guy will be an interesting player to watch heading towards free agency, not just because he has been the Patriots’ top defensive tackle for the past four seasons. He is on the wrong side of 30, but has played a high level nonetheless in 2020. Will he therefore price himself out of New England’s range, or will the team try to keep its All-Decade tackle in town for the foreseeable future? The latter certainly seems like a realistic option.

Bill Murray

Age: 23

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season after signing a futures contract with the Patriots.

2020 review: An undrafted rookie free agent out of William & Mary, Bill Murray was released as part of New England’s roster cutdowns. He was later re-signed to the team’s practice squad and with the exception of a short stint on the Coronavirus reserve list spent his entire rookie campaign there. As opposed to other members of the Patriots’ practice squad, Murray was never elevated to the game day roster.

2021 preview: The Patriots signed Murray to a futures contract after the end of their season, which in turn should give him an opportunity to compete for a roster spot in Year Two. What his role and outlook will look like, however, will depend on his own growth as well as New England’s offseason moves at the defensive tackle position.

Akeem Spence

Age: 29

Experience: 8

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Spence has a salary cap hit of $1.99 million in 2021.

2020 review: Akeem Spence generated little momentum on the open market after his deal with the Jaguars expired in March, remaining unsigned until late November. At that point, the former fourth-round draft pick joined New England’s practice squad. He saw his first game action as a Patriot one week later as a standard elevation, and was ultimately signed to the 53-man roster in early December. All in all, Spence appeared in six games for the team.

2021 preview: Even though he showed some encouraging moments in 2020, Spence’s outlook for the 2021 season is uncertain. As with other defensive tackles on the Patriots’ current payroll, his standing on the team will likely depend on additional moves being made by the club over the coming weeks and months — and by whether or not the team feels he is worth the $1.99 million salary cap hit he is currently carrying into the new year.

Nick Thurman

Age: 25

Experience: 3

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season after signing a futures contract with the Patriots.

2020 review: Coming off a season spent on New England’s practice squad, Thurman’s 2020 campaign also started in the same fashion. The only difference this time was that he was elevated to the active roster four times before eventually being signed to the 53-man team in late October. Thurman was let go again in November and re-signed to the practice squad shortly thereafter. He finished the season with seven in-game appearances.

2021 preview: The Patriots did sign Thurman to a futures pact after the end of the regular season, but he too is no safe bet to remain in New England in the long run. The other pieces along the interior defensive line will play a role in this decision, as will his development after what has been an up-and-down 2020 campaign. As for now, however, the 25-year-old still is in a position to prove his value to the organization.

Deatrich Wise Jr.

Age: 26

Experience: 4

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: No interior defensive lineman on the Patriots’ roster played more snaps in 2020 than former fourth-round draft selection Deatrich Wise Jr. Serving as a tackle/end hybrid against both the run and the pass, Wise Jr. played 565 of a possible 1,012 defensive snaps. While no longer the edge defender he was earlier in his career, he has now developed into a solid and reliable presence at the heart of New England’s D.

As such, Wise Jr. played all 16 games and notched 2.5 sacks as well as a fumble recovery for a touchdown. While the season as a hole was a solid one, he also had some ups and downs holding his own in the running game: Wise Jr. was more productive when playing downhill as a pass rusher than filling his gaps versus the ground game.

2021 preview: The Patriots will have an interesting decision to make when it comes to Wise Jr. heading into free agency for the first time in his career. The 26-year-old did show some solid growth in 2020, was used quite a bit as part of the team’s front seven, and is among the team’s emotional leaders. However, he also has yet to show that he can be anything more than a role player. If New England sees value in this, and the market allows it, the team might decide to bring him back on a comparatively cost-efficient deal.