The New England Patriots are either stacked at defensive tackle or even more shallow than they were in 2013.
The Patriots’ defensive line depth began to be questioned last season when CFL import Armond Armstead had surgery to treat an infection just as training camp was starting. It reached a critical point when Vince Wilfork tore his Achilles in September, and by the time Tommy Kelly tore his ACL in October, the Patriots were signing players off the street and inserting them directly into the front four.
Some of those midseason acquisitions are still around in New England, where there isn’t a single sure-thing along the interior defensive line.
Over the next two weeks, NESN.com will look at each position to see how the Patriots’ depth chart stacks up now that the draft and the undrafted free-agent signing period are over. We’ll break down roster locks, players on the bubble and practice-squad candidates.
Check out the Patriots’ depth at defensive tackle.
Roster locks: Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley
On the bubble: Armond Armstead, Tommy Kelly, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano
Practice-squad candidates: Marcus Forston
Wilfork and Easley are the only two players guaranteed to make it past training camp with the Patriots. Both players come with major health risks, however. Wilfork still is recovering from his foot injury, and Easley is limited after tearing his right ACL in September.
Wilfork could return from his injury stronger than ever and regain his 2012 dominance. Wilfork, at 325 pounds and 32 years old, also could never fully recover from the Achilles tear. Easley could be the explosive piece the Patriots need in the middle of the defense, or he still could need a year of recovery and adjustment to the NFL.
Armstead still is a complete unknown in the NFL. He dominated north of the border, but that doesn’t always translate to success in the US of A. Armstead could offer positional versatility and pressure from multiple techniques, or it could be another year of “Sasquatch”-watch as Armstead slinks in and out of the locker room, recovering.
Kelly is 33 years old and recovering from his second career ACL tear. He reworked his contract this offseason, which makes him an easy release if he doesn’t prove himself during training camp. Kelly was dominant at times in 2013 before his injury, but there’s no guarantee he can return to that form in 2014.
Siliga played extremely well, signing with the Patriots off the street after the Seahawks released him from their practice squad. He was a force against the run and brought some occasional pressure against the pass. There’s a reason Siliga floated around the league for his first 2 1/2 years as a pro, however. If he plays this summer like he did late in 2013, he should have no trouble making the 53-man roster as Wilfork’s backup.
Jones and Vellano had up and down moments as they were forced into starting roles when Wilfork and Kelly went down in 2013. Jones stayed a starter for the rest of the season while Vellano relinquished his role to Siliga. With some offseason improvement, Jones could see a Year 2 jump in 2014. But if — and it’s a big if — Wilfork, Kelly, Easley and Armstead leave training camp at full health, Jones and Vellano could be on the losing end of a numbers game.
There will be plenty of competition in training camp if the Patriots’ defensive tackles can regain their health by the summer. Fortunately, the Patriots have plenty of depth if one or two players aren’t healthy by Week 1.