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Patriots 2021 free agency preview: New England will have plenty of options to bolster its defensive line

Related: Patriots free agency preview: Veteran market could help New England bolster its interior offensive line

NFL: DEC 08 Dolphins at Jets Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ defense had major issues against the run in 2020, and those started right up front: the team was unable to find consistent play at its defensive tackle position, in part because it had nobody to reliably man the nose position after the free agency departure of Danny Shelton. Beau Allen sat out the entire season with a mystery ailment, while neither Carl Davis nor Nick Thurman proved themselves viable replacements.

Accordingly, the team was forced to move its personnel around and repeatedly use its linemen out of position. But even those that were used in their usual spots had their issues: Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler were slowed down by injury, with Deatrich Wise Jr. looking solid as a pass rusher but a bit more shaky versus the run. The three saw the most action at the interior D-line spots, but are all headed for free agency.

New England could therefore see some movement either by attrition or addition. Before digging into the free agent options that might be available for the Patriots next week, however, let’s first take a closer look at who the team currently has under contract for the 2021 season at the position:

  • Beau Allen
  • Michael Barnett
  • Byron Cowart
  • Bill Murray
  • Akeem Spence
  • Nick Thurman

The Patriots’ defensive tackle position is a giant question mark in its current shape. While Byron Cowart had his moments as the number four interior lineman in 2020, the rest of the group is either unproven or cannot be trusted in anything but a rotational capacity. Accordingly, New England will have to add some additional players to this list — probably both via the draft and free agency.

Speaking of which, four members of New England’s 2020 roster are headed for free agency once the market opens on March 17:

  • Adam Butler (UFA)
  • Carl Davis (UFA)
  • Lawrence Guy (UFA)
  • Deatrich Wise Jr. (UFA)

Had Carl Davis not struggled with a concussion after arriving in New England mid-season, he might have played a bigger role for the team. The other three, as mentioned above, did just that and led the interior defensive line in playing time. Keeping at least two out of Butler, Guy and Wise Jr. would be big for the Patriots, but they might be forced to look outside their own team to bolster the group.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at free agent defensive linemen — in case you are wondering the order is alphabetical and nothing else — New England might be interested in adding under the right conditions.

Tyson Alualu

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 34

2020 team: Pittsburgh Steelers

2020 statistics: 16 games; 41 tackles (4 tackles for loss); 14 quarterback pressures (2 sacks, 4 hits, 8 hurries)

Alualu will turn 34 in May and may not be a big factor versus the pass, but the former first-round draft pick still has value as an early-down defender capable of controlling his gaps in the running game — something New England struggled to do consistently over the course of the 2020 season. Coming off arguably the best season of his career, but still not expected to break the bank in free agency, he would give the Patriots some much needed size at the nose tackle position.

Henry Anderson

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 30

2020 team: New York Jets

2020 statistics: 16 games; 42 tackles (4 tackles for loss); 18.5 quarterback pressures (0.5 sacks, 3 hits, 15 hurries)

While Anderson would not be a natural fit for the nose tackle position the Patriots will have to address as well, his size — 6-foot-6, 300 pounds — makes him an intriguing target as an end in the team’s 3-4-based fronts. New England failed to win a the point of attack repeatedly in 2020, and Anderson has proven himself capable of doing that especially versus the run: while his pass rush contributions were comparatively inconsistent, Anderson recorded the third-highest run-stuff percentage in 2020, according to NFL NextGen Stats.

The 29-year-old also would not count against the league’s compensatory draft picks formula considering that the Jets released him. All things considered, he appears to be a natural fit to help the Patriots improve their defensive line depth.

Jurrell Casey

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 31

2020 team: Denver Broncos

2020 statistics: 3 games; 14 tackles (1 tackle for loss); 5 quarterback pressures (2 hits, 3 hurries)

His age and injury history — Casey played just three games in 2020 after tearing his bicep — might be an issue for teams, but the veteran does bring an impressive résumé to the table that includes five Pro Bowl selections. He could be a cost-effective factor for a team like the Patriots that uses its defensive tackles in a rotation based on situation; Casey’s exposure would be limited that way which might allow him to stay healthy throughout the year and return to his previous levels of play.

Johnathan Hankins

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 29

2020 team: Las Vegas Raiders

2020 statistics: 16 games; 48 tackles (1 tackle for loss); 14 quarterback pressures (1 sack, 3 hits, 10 hurries); 1 fumble recovery

If the Patriots want to go big up front without overspending, investing in Hankins might be the best course of action. At 6-foot-3, 325 pounds he has the size to succeed in New England’s two-gap scheme, and is stout run defender who would immediately contribute on early downs and in short-yardage situations. The veteran might therefore help fill the nose tackle position the patriots failed to properly man for much of last year.

While missed tackles are a problem — he had 24 of them over three seasons with the Raiders — there is little down he can still be a stout player up front.

Shelby Harris

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 30

2020 team: Denver Broncos

2020 statistics: 11 games; 32 tackles (4 tackles for loss); 29.5 quarterback pressures (2.5 sacks, 11 hits, 16 hurries); 1 forced fumble

Whereas Jurrell Casey would help the Patriots against the run, his Broncos teammate Shelby Harris would likely be brought aboard with pass rush in mind: Harris would help replace Adam Butler and/or Deatrich Wise Jr. should they leave in free agency.

A good fit to fill the end spot in 3-4-looks given his 6-foot-3, 300-pound frame, Harris will likely not break the bank in free agency despite having played some very good football since arriving in Denver four years ago. If Butler in particular prices himself out of New England’s comfort zone, the 29-year-old appears to be a solid contingency option.

Jaleel Johnson

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: Minnesota Vikings

2020 statistics: 16 games; 44 tackles (3 tackles for loss); 8.5 quarterback pressures (1.5 sacks, 2 hits, 5 hurries)

Capable of playing both on the nose or from the 3-technique alignment, Johnson would add versatility to the Patriots’ front line at relatively little cost. After all, the former fourth-round draft pick has had a pretty average career so far in Minnesota. While he did get plenty of action and started all 16 of the team’s games last year, a change of scenery might be the best for both him and the Vikings alike.

DaQuan Jones

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 29

2020 team: Tennessee Titans

2020 statistics: 17 games; 52 tackles (5 tackles for loss); 27 quarterback pressures (3 sacks, 1 hits, 17 hurries); 1 forced fumble

With neither Beau Allen nor Carl Davis able to replace the big-bodied Danny Shelton last year, the Patriots might want to start over and bring in a guy like DaQuan Jones. At 6-foot-4, 320 pounds, the long-time Titan would fit the mold the team is looking for at the defensive tackle position. He also offers the versatility to align not just over the center as a 0-technique but over the guard in a 3-technique position as well.

This positional flexibility would allow him to take over for Lawrence Guy should he decide to leave New England after four seasons.

Larry Ogunjobi

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: Cleveland Browns

2020 statistics: 17 games; 50 tackles (5 tackles for loss); 25.5 quarterback pressures (2.5 sacks, 6 hits, 17 hurries)

While Ogunjobi is not the same type of player as Shelton or Allen due to his somewhat smaller frame — he is listed at 6-foot-3, 305 pounds — his ability to attack upfield from various techniques along the defensive line could help give the Patriots another rotational option at the position. The 26-year-old will likely not be a massive upgrade over the 2020 personnel, but could serve as a cost-effective role player.

Corey Peters

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 33

2020 team: Arizona Cardinals

2020 statistics: 9 games; 15 tackles (3 tackles for loss); 16 quarterback pressures (2 sacks, 4 hits, 10 hurries)

The Patriots have never shied away from bringing older players in to serve as run-stuffing nose tackles. Corey Peters joining the likes of Ted Washington, Keith Traylor, Gerard Warren or Alan Branch would therefore not be a surprise — especially considering how the 6-foot-3, 335-pounder would help address one of the biggest needs on New England’s current roster.

Peters also would likely be a comparatively cheap player to bring in. Not only is he and older player and more of a one-dimensional space-eater in the running game than a pass rusher, he also is coming off a season that ended on injured reserve due to a knee injury. If the Patriots feel confident in Peters’s ability to return to full strength and perform in a rotational early-down role, bringing him aboard would be a solid plan.

Sheldon Rankins

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: New Orleans Saints

2020 statistics: 14 games; 23 tackles (4 tackles for loss); 28.5 quarterback pressures (2.5 sacks, 11 hits, 15 hurries)

Despite missing five games due to an MCL sprain, Rankins was a productive player for the Saints last season. While his run defense can be suspect at times and he does not have the frame to consistently contribute on early downs at 6-foot-2, 305 pounds, he can have value as an interior pass rusher — filling a role similar to the one Adam Butler played during his four seasons with the Patriots.

Roy Robertson-Harris

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Chicago Bears

2020 statistics: 8 games; 10 tackles (1 tackle for loss); 12 quarterback pressures (5 hits, 7 hurries)

Deatrich Wise Jr. was a bit of an odd fit in the Patriots’ front following a defensive transition to more 3-4 principles in 2019, but he still played a valuable and versatile role while aligning anywhere from the 1- to the 5-technique. If the team wants to fill that spot again in case Wise Jr. departs as a free agent, Robertson-Harris could be a target. He is a bit leaner than New England’s usual interior linemen, but could help boost the pass rush from inside the offensive tackles.

Kawann Short

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 32

2020 team: Carolina Panthers

2020 statistics: 3 games; 6 tackles; 2 quarterback pressures (1 hit, 1 hurry)

His age and recent injury history are definitive concerns — he played only five games over the last two seasons — but Kawann Short could be what the Patriots need at the nose position: he has the size to succeed as a two-gapper in New England’s scheme and provide value on early downs versus the run. He also would come relatively cheap and as an added bonus would not count against the compensatory draft picks formula after getting released by the Panthers earlier this offseason.

Dalvin Tomlinson

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: New York Giants

2020 statistics: 16 games; 49 tackles (8 tackles for loss); 31.5 quarterback pressures (3.5 sacks, 10 hits, 18 hurries)

A stout run defender and able pass rusher, Tomlinson is on the upper end of the price range for defensive tackles available in free agency this year. If the Patriots, who are among the league leaders in salary cap space, feel confident in spending upwards of $10 million per year on a defensive tackle, adding the former second-round draft pick would make sense: he can be an immediate difference maker for New England’s front seven.

Of course, his price tag in combination with other moves made along the defensive line will be the deciding factor. Tomlinson’s abilities and consistency cannot be denied, however.

Patriots outlook

Few positions on the Patriots’ current roster are as hard to project heading into free agency as defensive tackle. With last year’s top three all headed for the open market — Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise Jr. — the group could look drastically different. How New England approaches them will also have an impact on further investments that might be made elsewhere.

While the best-case scenario would be keeping all three in the fold, the Patriots should feel good if they can retain Lawrence Guy on a reasonable pact and also add some size at the nose and end positions. Whether that is done via the draft or free agency remains to be seen, but the veteran market does offer some intriguing options that are not expected to put too much pressure on New England’s salary cap.