A series of prominent free agency departures as well as the Coronavirus opt-out of the unit’s leader, Dont’a Hightower, left the New England Patriots’ defensive front seven in a difficult spot heading into the 2020 season. Role players and rookies were forced to take on more responsibilities while learning the job on the fly, and depth proved to be an issue both along the line and on the second level.
The Patriots aggressively trying to upgrade in free agency did therefore not come as a surprise. Not only did they have needs all over the group, they also had the financial means again to make some splashes. And splashes they did make by signing four outside free agents and also keeping a pair of in-house options in the fold over the first few days of legal tampering and free agency.
So far, New England has seen eight moves up front with an additional four players remaining on the open market:
- Signed/Re-signed: DE Henry Anderson, DT Carl Davis, DT Davon Godchaux, LB Matthew Judon, LB Kyle Van Noy, DE Deatrich Wise Jr.
- Departed/Released: DT Beau Allen, DT Adam Butler
- Unaccounted for: LB Shilique Calhoun, LB Brandon Copeland, DT Lawrence Guy, LB John Simon
The Patriots’ front seven looks drastically different after those moves as well as Hightower’s expected return off the Covid-19 opt-out list. And as a closer look at it shows, the depth across the board has improved even as four players remain on the open market (including New England’s best defensive tackle of the lasts four years, Lawrence Guy).
First, however, a look it helps to keep the terminology of defensive line techniques in mind to better understand responsibilities and roles — and even then this scratches just the surface, as a lot of the usage depends on the fronts (3-4/4-3; over/under) being used in regards to the different situations. However, this should still give a general overview of the roles New England has in mind for its current group of front seven defenders:
With that out of the way, let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
Interior defensive line
The players listed here are aligning on the line of scrimmage, primarily in a three-point stance (one hand in the dirt) and usually attacking from between the offensive tackles — anywhere from the 0- to the 3-technique spots.
Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise Jr, Henry Anderson, Byron Cowart, Carl Davis, Akeem Spence, Nick Thurman, Bill Murray, Michael Barnett
The Patriots’ moves along the defensive line suggest that they will incorporate 3-4-based looks at an even greater number than they already attempted to do last season — from letting Adam Butler leave on a comparatively modest deal to bringing back Deatrich Wise Jr. as a potential 3-technique end. When broken down like this, the linemen can be divided into two groups: 0-technique nose tackles and ends.
The nose group, which could also align in 1- or 3-techniques in other fronts, will be led by Davon Godchaux and also includes Carl Davis and Michael Barnett. Tweeners such as Akeem Spence, Nick Thurman and Bill Murray will also see some time at the nose occasionally.
On the end, meanwhile, Wise Jr. will be joined by Henry Anderson and Byron Cowart. If the Patriots elect to re-sign Lawrence Guy, he would be well-suited to join this group.
The players listed here typically are used in a two-point stance on the end of the line of scrimmage, no matter if there are three, four or five men aligning on the line. They usually play from the 4-technique to the outside.
Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, Tashawn Bower, Rashod Berry
Even though they have shown plenty of positional flexibility so far in their respective careers, Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy project as outside linebackers at the time being. The two veterans will likely be employed on all three downs with former Michigan teammates Chase Winovich and John Uche being brought onto the field in passing situations to attack the pocket and get after the quarterback.
Both youngsters have looked good in this area in 2020, even though they will ideally improve their run defense as well. Judon and Van Noy set a stout edge in the running game — something New England struggled to do consistently last season. Winovich and Uche have yet to get to that level, but learning behind the two veterans could help them while also leaving the Patriots’ early-down defense unexposed.
The players listed here play both as traditional inside/middle linebackers off the line of scrimmage and as outside linebackers on the line. Their usage is dependent on formation, play call and personnel group.
Dont’a Hightower, Anfernee Jennings
Theoretically, three of the Patriots’ outside linebackers — Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy and Josh Uche — can also be added to this group. Their recent usage with their respective teams, however, points to New England primarily keeping them on the outside. That cannot be said about Dont’a Hightower and Anfernee Jennings.
The veteran and the former third-round draft pick split their time between the edge and the off-the-ball positions, depending on where the Patriots need their presence.
Obviously, Hightower is much more experienced in this role after essentially having played it each year since arriving as a first-round draft choice in 2012. Jennings, meanwhile, showed some growing pains during his rookie campaign. However, his role at Alabama — Hightower’s alma mater as well — suggests that the Patriots might give him another shot at the move role.
The players listed here spend most of their time off the line of scrimmage as inside/middle linebackers in the Patriots’ usual 3-4, 3-3, 4-3, 4-2, and 5-1 looks.
Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall, Cassh Maluia, Michael Pinckney, Brandon King
Just like the interior defensive line, the pure off-the-ball linebacker group also needs some additional reinforcements. Ja’Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall are nice role players to have, but they lack the athleticism to be trusted beyond specific situations such as early downs and short yardage (the same that can be said for Cassh Maluia and Michael Pinckney, let alone career special teamer Brandon King).
The Patriots using safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger in the “star” linebacker role alongside this group shows how much it lacked depth last year. While the front-line was updated and both Hightower’s return and Jennings’ potential growth should help as well, New England needs to add more high-upside quality.