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2014 Patriots Defensive Line Preview: Jones, Ninkovich, Wilfork, Kelly, Easley

Patriots defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Chandler Jones. (AP Photo)

2013 was an injury riddled season for the Patriots defensive line. Starting tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly had their seasons end in the first five weeks, and the injuries highlighted a tremendous lack of depth on the defensive front.

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The Pats were forced to insert inexperienced players into both tackle spots as a result of these injuries. Joe Vellano and Chris Jones held their own, despite struggling against the run. Late in the season we saw Sealver Siliga (I still don’t know why his name is pronounced sel-ING-ga) inserted into the starting lineup and provide a boost. The experience these three earned last season will be very valuable as they return to reserve roles behind Wilfork and Kelly.

Defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich had outstanding seasons, but both players were forced to play nearly every defensive snap. Jones had a breakout sophomore season, registering 11.5 sacks. However, he struggled late in the year, and had just one sack in the Patriots last seven games (including playoffs). With an improved secondary, Jones will be allowed even more time to turn loose this season, and we could see that 11.5 sack number rise.

New Blood

The Patriots will receive a big boost on their defensive line with both Wilfork and Kelly returning. The team also used its first round draft pick on Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Easley missed last season with a knee injury and has yet to take the field in training camp. It’s likely that we could see Easley begin the season on the PUP list, but when he returns many think he could be a force on passing downs.

The Patriots added rookie defensive end Zach Moore in the sixth round of the draft. Moore comes from Purdue where he had a successful career. If he makes the team, he projects likely as the teams fourth or fifth defensive end.

Veteran defensive end Will Smith was also added to the team in the off-season. Smith missed all of last-season with an injury, but has had a successful nine-year career (all with New Orleans). He’s a shell of the player who recorded 13 sacks in 2009, but he could provide serviceable depth behind Jones and Ninkovich.

Who Makes the Cut?

Judging from the past, the Patriots will likely take nine or ten defensive linemen into the regular season. The starters on the line look relatively set with Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly in the middle next to Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the ends. Kelly has a chance to be a surprise cut, but I think he’s a safe bet to start Week 1.

That leaves us with five to six reserve spots. Look for the coaching staff to keep three reserve tackles, and two to three reserve ends. Easley is a lock to be one of the tackles, so that leaves Vellano, Jones, and Siliga competing for the final two spots. I think Vellano gets cut unless he really impresses in the pre-season. Siliga has shown to be a capable run-defender, and Chris Jones showed strong pass-rushing ability last season with six sacks. Vellano could still make the opening week roster is Easley opens the season on PUP.

Will Smith, Michael Buchanan, Jake Bequette, and Zach Moore likely be competing for two to three reserve defensive end roles. Smith has disappointed so far in camp, but unless one of those other three really impresses the coaching staff I think he’s safe to stay on. Bequette has been a disaster of a third round pick, and I’ll be shocked to see him make the team. That leaves Moore and Buchanan competing for one to two spots. I think both make the team, but either¬†could be a practice squad candidate if the team chooses to only keep nine defensive linemen.

Expectations

This could be a big season for the Patriots defensive line. As always, staying healthy will be goal number one, but this unit has amazing potential. Chandler Jones looks ready to rise to stardom this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up 15+ sacks. The return of Wilfork should help improve the run-defense which was very weak after his injury a year ago.

Fans are also overlooking the potential of Dominique Easley in the middle. The Patriots have never had a real interior pass-rushing force, and Easley could be just that if he can get healthy for the start of the season. We’ve seen rookies in the past struggle to adapt when they miss extended camp time, so let’s hope that the first rounder can get on the field soon.

Assuming Wilfork returns to near his pre-injury level, this defensive line should be a big contributor to what seems destined to be a top five defense.

 

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