The story of the Patriots' defensive line took so many twists and turns throughout the course of 2011, starting with the acquisition of Albert Haynesworth and the release of Ty Warren. Throughout most of training camp, the Patriots had about 20 defensive linemen on the roster, give or take, and some who didn't make the team caught on elsewhere.
They played more four-man fronts with one-gap assignments than they've done in the past, and Vince Wilfork stepped up his game once again. Then there was the emergence of both Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, while Kyle Love's stock skyrocketed over the course of the season and Brandon Deaderick showed some intriguing flashes. Aside from Carter, Mike Wright, Myron Pryor and Jermaine Cunningham succumbed to season-ending injuries that ate away at the team's depth.
And the defensive line was a story right until the very end, as Alex Silvestro's promotion cost wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a roster spot just 24 hours before the Super Bowl. The scary thing is that was just the Cliffs Notes version of the last six-plus months.
Defensive Linemen on Final Roster: Vince Wilfork, Mark Anderson, Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Shaun Ellis, Kyle Love, Gerard Warren, Alex Silvestro, Markell Carter (practice squad), Aaron Lavarias (practice squad), Myron Pryor (injured reserve), Andre Carter (injured reserve), Jermaine Cunningham (injured reserve), Mike Wright (injured reserve).
Key Statistic: Anderson (10) and Carter (10) became the third tandem of Patriots to each record 10 sacks in the same season. Tony McGee (12) and Ray Hamilton (10) did it in 1977, and Andre Tippett (16.5) and Garin Veris (10) did it in 1985. Anderson added 2.5 sacks in the playoffs.
Hot Topic: Wilfork continued to raise his level this season as an every-down player who proved to be the most valuable member of the defense. He singlehandedly ripped through the Ravens in the AFC Championship, though he wasn't as spectacular in the Super Bowl. Wilfork gets better every year, but he just wrapped up his eighth season in the league. Since it's such a physically demanding position, how much longer can the 30-year-old play at this level?
One thing that is clear: His teammates play for him, and that was never more evident than after the Ravens game when the Patriots lauded Wilfork for his preparation and his ability to get everyone motivated to play alongside him. Linebacker Jerod Mayo gets a lot of credit for running the defense on the field, as he should, but the last few weeks really showed it's still Wilfork's defense.
Offseason Question: What will Bill Belichick do with the defensive front?
Belichick has to figure out if he'll stick with the 4-3 in 2012 or revert to the 3-4 defense that he's favored throughout his career. Once that decision is made, the Patriots can pinpoint their preference for personnel decisions. For instance, Carter was a tremendously valuable asset in the locker room all season, but he's purely a defensive end in a four-man front. It might not serve the ideal purpose if he's brought back as a role player in sub packages, though it also wouldn't be a bad idea.
Anderson can play in both fronts, but he also might be able to cash in on his 10-sack season, which could cause him to fly out the door. If that happens, there aren't a lot of intriguing options on the free-agent market, aside from Mario Williams, who could be in the running for a $100 million contract, Robert Mathis and Anthony Spencer, among a few others. That should increase the importance of the draft, as well as the development of Cunningham.
The Patriots made it work last year on short notice. Now that Belichick has more time to prepare for the next season, his decision on a base defense will play a key role on this offseason's team-building process.
Postional Reviews: Offensive Line I