Adding a third pass rusher was thought to be one of the New England Patriots’ biggest needs heading into the 2014 season, but apparently head coach Bill Belichick didn’t agree.
The Patriots signed a 10-year veteran with a bum knee and drafted a player coming off a seven-sack season in Division II. That’s not to say that Will Smith or Zach Moore won’t contribute in 2014, but both players are far from guarantees. It appears it will be another year with starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich getting the bulk of the snaps on the edge.
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 how the Patriots stack up at pass rusher.
Roster locks: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich
On the bubble: Will Smith, Michael Buchanan, Jake Bequette
Practice-squad candidates: Zach Moore
Jones proved to be a solid starter in 2013, and there’s an argument to be made that Ninkovich deserved a Pro Bowl nod while recording eight sacks, 91 tackles and 86 total pressures from left defensive end and, occasionally, outside linebacker.
Smith could turn out to be a savvy signing by the Patriots, but he’s coming off an ACL tear, and his last full season was the weakest of his career, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Perhaps Smith can be more effective in a rotational role, and at the very least, he should be an improvement over Andre Carter, who served that role last season.
The Patriots likely are hoping that Buchanan can take the leap from Year 1 to Year 2, however. Buchanan started the 2013 season as the rotational third-down defensive end, but after an up-and-down start to the season, he was benched after Week 9.
Buchanan has loads of potential, and he showed glimpses of it in both the 2013 preseason and start to the regular season.
Bequette wasn’t expected to make the 53-man roster after playing just 29 snaps as a rookie in 2012 after being selected in the third round of the NFL draft, but a strong fourth preseason game pushed him onto the roster, and he played just 14 total snaps in two games in 2013.
Bequette won’t be expected to make the roster yet again in 2014, but he and Belichick have surprised us before. He must look great in practice, but not quite good enough to be active for games.
Moore could make the 53-man roster, but he might be better suited to start his Patriots career on the practice squad. The transition from D-II Concordia-St. Paul won’t be an easy one.
Second-year pro Jamie Collins and 2012 first-round pick Dont’a Hightower will be listed as linebackers, but we’d be remiss not to mention both players here. Either player could see an increased role rushing the passer on third down with Jerod Mayo back from a torn pectoral muscle. Both players said they prefer to rush on third down over being used in coverage, and Jones could slide over to defensive tackle, where he shined in 2013, on third down.
If Smith works out, the Patriots are in good shape at defensive end, but if he doesn’t, New England will have to hope Buchanan takes the Year 2 leap, and that he keeps up his strong play for an entire year. He could benefit from adding strength and improving his pass-rushing technique.