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For the past five years, the New England Patriots have relied on their offensive firepower to be one of the best teams in the NFL. This year, however, Tom Brady will be without some of his favorite targets, and it’s likely that the defense will have to carry a much greater load. Only two seasons ago, this would have been terrible news, but the Pats’ defense has shown signs of slow yet steady improvement.
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While the defensive unit ranked a less-than-impressive 27th overall in yards allowed in 2012, they only allowed 30 points three times in 18 games, including the playoffs. The New England offense, on the other hand, scored 30 or more 11 times, and seven Patriots opponents failed to reach the 20-point mark. A large reason for that relative success was the play of the defensive line, as the Pats had the 12th best rushing defense in the league, allowing 105.5 yards per game on the ground.
This offseason, the Patriots controversially parted ways with starting defensive tackle Kyle Love (25 tackles, 1.5 sacks in 2012) after he was diagnosed with diabetes, as well as with backup Brandon Deaderick (18 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 sack), who joined Love in Jacksonville. The only other outgoing D-line player is defensive end Trevor Scott, who recorded 14 tackles, 3 sacks and one forced fumble in his lone season in New England.
A glance at the roster reveals significantly greater depth at end than at tackle, where all the backups currently on the roster are either rookies or second-year players. The Pats will hope that at least a couple of the young tackles can contribute enough to avoid an overall dropoff in production. Let’s take a look at the Patriots’ defensive line:
DT Vince Wilfork (48 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 3 sacks in 2012): At age 31 and coming off his fifth Pro Bowl selection, Wilfork should continue to be the Patriots’ defensive anchor in 2013. He’s only missed six games in his nine years in the NFL, and his leadership both on and off the field can be a very big factor in the continued development of the defense. Expect another standout year from the big guy in the middle.
DT Tommy Kelly (45 tackles, 1 sack): Largely ignored in the Pats’ offseason frenzy was the signing of free agent Kelly, one of the best players on an otherwise poor Oakland defense last year. At 32, Kelly is, like Wilfork, a durable veteran who hasn’t missed a game since 2007. He’s already expressed his enthusiasm at finally joining a championship contender, and he won’t have to carry the load as much as he did as a Raider. The Kelly-Wilfork pairing has the makings of a truly formidable one.
DE Rob Ninkovich (58 tackles, 8 sacks, 5 forced fumbles): Ninkovich became a fan favorite after a breakout season, largely thanks to his ability to get in the backfield and strip quarterbacks of the ball. But his career stats reveal that last year wasn’t an anomaly – in fact, his 58 tackles were his lowest total since 2009. He’s increased his sack totals every year and, while it’s probably unrealistic to hope for more than 8 in 2013, there’s no reason to expect that Ninkovich will be anything other than a great player again this season.
DE Chandler Jones (45 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 forced fumbles): The Patriots’ first-round pick in last year’s draft, Jones was very solid in his first NFL season, even looking like a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate early on before fading slightly in the second half. Jones displayed all of the athleticism and skill that made him a college standout in the first place, showing signs that he could be the D-line’s leader in years to come. A sophomore slump is always possible, but Jones certainly showed enough to earn a vote of confidence.
DE Marcus Benard: Benard has been out of the league for an entire year, following three injury-plagued seasons with the Cleveland Browns. He showed flashes when he was healthy, recording 28 tackles and 7.5 sacks in 2010 and, at age 28, he could still have an NFL career. Still, it’s very difficult to predict whether he’ll contribute significantly, or even make the opening day roster.
DE Jake Bequette: A third-round pick out of Arkansas, Bequette only played in three games as a rookie. He was a college standout playing in the always tough SEC, though, so there is hope that he can still become a decent NFL player if he can earn the chance in the eyes of Bill Belichick.
DE Jermaine Cunningham (24 tackles, 2.5 sacks): Cunningham had a decent 2012 season following a very bad sophomore year, despite serving a four-game suspension for PED use. Still, with the Patriots drafting an end and an outside linebacker this year, he has to be feeling the pressure to perform at the level expected of a second-round pick, especially one who was taken in the same draft as Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Spikes. Cunningham will look for a breakout year to earn Belichick’s trust.
DT Marcus Forston: Forston was signed as an undrafted free agent last year and spent most of the season on the practice squad, playing in only one game. He’s very much on the bubble and his future will depend on his training camp performance.
DE Justin Francis (10 tackles, 3 sacks): Francis was, like Forston, undrafted, but he earned a place on the team, appearing in 10 games and recording a remarkable 3 sacks. He is by no means a veteran but, given the team’s lack of experienced players at the position, he’s a good bet to see significant snaps in 2013.
DT Armond Armstead: Armstead suffered a heart attack during his time at USC and wasn’t drafted in 2012. He recovered, however, and was signed by the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, helping them win the Grey Cup while earning an All-Star nod. His performance attracted the attention of NFL teams and he was eventually signed by the Patriots. He hasn’t been at training camp thus far due to an illness which Belichick said is unrelated to his earlier condition.
DE Michael Buchanan: Buchanan was a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft out of Illinois, where he stood out as a pass rusher thanks to his impressive physical tools. Scouts reported a lack of intensity in games, which was a major factor in him dropping all the way to the bottom of the draft.
DT Cory Grissom: An undrafted free agent out of South Florida, Grissom is a longshot to make the roster.
DE Jason Vega: A native of Brockton, Vega has spent the last two seasons in Canada, where he was a solid performer for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, recording 66 tackles and 12 sacks.
DT Joe Vellano: A former Maryland Terrapin, Vellano was signed as a free agent immediately after the draft. Still, his chances of making the final roster are slim.
DT Anthony Rashad White: White, who went undrafted out of Michigan State, was one of the last additions to the roster, being signed last Monday. It is unlikely that he will make it any further than training camp.
Tags: 2013 Patriots Preview, Anthony Rashad White, Armond Armstead, Bill Belichick, Chandler Jones, Cory Grissom, Jake Bequette, Jason Vega, Jermaine Cunningham, Joe Vellano, Justin Francis, Kyle Love, Marcus Benard, Marcus Forston, Michael Buchanan, Patriots, Rob Ninkovich, Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork