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It wasn’t too long ago that the Patriots’ defensive line was the most consistent part of the defense, if not the team. But since Richard Seymour could no longer fit the budget, the void he left has been bigger than any of us expected. Lately, the defensive line has been so questionable that some have even started talking about switching to a boring 4-3 because of a lack of size or speed. Last season the unit saw way too many injuries, as Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren each missing three games, to be considered an example of the defensive line’s full potential.
The whole defense revolves around the big guy. And the Patriots paid him that way too. The Patriots sunk $40 million over the next five years into No. 75, and exiled Richard Seymour to Oakland so they could afford him.
But no one questions the move that made Wilfork the NFL’s highest-paid nose tackle. The only other player that made us hesitate to call Wilfork the best nose tackle in football, Albert Haynesworth, forgot to show up last season. And although Wilfork, as a nose tackle, doesn’t get a lot of tackles, he makes them count when he does. That’s why 31 of his 43 tackles in only 12 games last season were solo tackles. In fact, in his NFL career, he has never had more than 15 total tackles more than solo tackles in a season.
More important than his solo tackles against the run is the effect Wilfork has on his supporting cast. With Vince anchoring the middle in a full season in 2008, Jerod Mayo was able to rack up 128 tackles and a defensive rookie of the year award in a 3-4 defense, which traditionally brings down a middle linebacker’s tackle numbers. Last season, while taking on double teams and occupying the attention of opposing left guards, he opened the door for Mike Wright to tie for second on the team with an unlikely 5 sacks.
Hopefully, Wilfork will stay healthy this season and can put together another consistent year for himself and those around him. Also, expect rookies Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham to benefit off of Wilfork the same way Jerod Mayo and Mike Wright have.
It seems like Ty Warren has been with the Patriots forever, but he’s only one year older than Vince Wilfork. He hasn’t been aging well, though. After missing only one game in his first five season, Warren has missed six games in his last two seasons. He has been steadily declining since his breakout season in 2006, and hasn’t had more than four sacks since then. More recently, he has only three sacks in his last two seasons combined. In the 26 games he played in 2008 and 2009, he has 87 tackles, compared to 137 tackles in 31 games of the two seasons before that.
We could make the excuse that he has been playing through injuries, but that just seems like another sign that his 6’5” frame is wearing down. For the time being, he is still the second best option on the Patriots’ defensive line and has the potential and size to be a quality starter as a 3-4 defensive end. But with Seymour gone we hoped he would have stepped up a little bit more last season. Hopefully this season, he can stay healthy and get back to true form. The consistency of the Patriots’ defensive line depends on it.
Yes, he really did tie for second on the team in sacks last season. With the injuries across the D-line giving him a shot to show what he can do, Mike Wright had somewhat of a breakout season, finishing with five sacks in 16 games. Before that, he had four career sacks in 54 games over four seasons. He also impressed in the recorded tackles department in 2009, collecting 35 total tackles in 16 games. In the two seasons before that, he had 38 tackles in 25 games.
All in all, he stepped up on a battered defensive line and set career highs in every category except forced fumbles. He is currently an option as a starter at defensive end opposite Ty Warren. And at 6’4,” 295 lbs. and coming off a career year, the Patriots could do worse for a starting defensive end in a 3-4. If he can continue what he did last year and keep playing like one, that’s exactly what he will be this year.
The 31-year-old Warren is a surprisingly smart off-season acquisition on the defensive line. As a 6’4,” 325-lb lineman, his addition fills an important need at defensive end who can slide in at nose tackle if Wilfork needs a breather. At one year, $900,000, his contract carries little-to-no risk in case he doesn’t fit in.
He’s been considered a bust in the past, seeing as he was a third overall pick by a Cleveland team that passed up on Richard Seymour. And he hasn’t done much to prove that isn’t a bust. But Warren is coming off two steadily improving seasons, with 74 tackles over that span, and the Patriots defense might be the kind of environment where he can make a contribution. He brings some much-needed veteran experience to a defense with only two other players older than 30. He also brings nine seasons as a run-stopping defensive tackle to a 3-4 defensive end position in which he will need to do the same thing, except against offensive tackles instead of offensive guards. And although he hasn’t had more than four sacks since 2003, he will have more of an effect on the pass rush by opening sack opportunities for Derrick Burgess and Tully Banta-Cain on the outside.
In an off-season in which the Patriots have been saving money to pay Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Tom Brady, and maybe even Randy Moss while trying to maintain talent across the board, Gerard Warren could be a genius move by Belichick at $900,000 this year if he surprises people and plays to his potential.
Who? He’s 32 years old and the Patriots just gave him $1.15 million to come to Foxboro this year from Carolina. Why? He’s coming off of his two best seasons of his career, with an impressive 62 solo and 84 total tackles over 31 games. He’s 6’2,” 301 lbs., and can play in any spot on the defensive line for the Pats.
Overall, he’s a decent free agent pick-up who fills a hole on the defense’s bench. Expect him to get in there occasionally so Ty Warren and Mike Wright can stay fresh.
The 23-year-old is turning out to be an impressive sixth-round draft pick for the Pats. Pryor finished the season with 20 tackles in limited time off the bench over 13 games. Most notably, he stepped up with a five-tackle contribution with Wilfork out of the lineup against Jacksonville in Week 16, and showed up in the playoffs with four tackles off the bench against a tough Baltimore offensive line.
A productive, 310 lb. nose tackle who can perform off the bench is a steal in the sixth round for any team these days. His size makes him a quality option to back up Wilfork this season. Maybe, with Wilfork already at 28 years old, we could see Pryor develop into a capable starter in a few years.
The 2009 second-round draft pick had a pretty decent season considering he was only given limited minutes over just nine games. It should also be pointed out that he is forced to play behind the best player in the league at his position, and may not have had a chance to get into a rhythm of consistent play.
What bodes well for Brace is how he played in limited time last year: eight tackles in a substitute role through only nine games, including a four-tackle performance in Vince Wilfork’s absence vs. Buffalo in Week 15. But if he can’t find his rhythm in the time that is given to him, especially with competitor and teammate Myron Pryor showing a little talent, the Pats might start to reconsider the $2.82 million he is guaranteed from his rookie contract.
As a whole, this season’s defensive line is capable of playing as a steady unit, and has the potential, size, and speed to operate for a 3-4 defense. The big difference is that this year we won’t see a constant line of three linemen (Seymour, Wilfork, and Ty Warren) on the field for the majority of the games. With the personnel this season, expect Belichick to mix and match Mike Wright, Gerard Warren, and even Myron Pryor depending on the situation. It’s not going to be pretty, but this year’s defensive line should get the job done just as well, if not better, than last season.