Adrian Clayborn Among Patriots’ Five Potential Free-Agent Pass Rushers

The New England Patriots might want to plan ahead in 2015.

The Patriots were painted into a corner last season when Chandler Jones went down with a shoulder injury in Week 7. They quickly had to pick up the phone and find a replacement edge rusher. They found one on the Tennessee Titans in Akeem Ayers, who was benched after a defensive scheme change, and the Patriots were able to go 5-1 in Jones’ absence. Such a player might not always be available in a pinch, however.

The Patriots went into the season with second-year pro Michael Buchanan as their third pass rusher, but he rarely found the field, playing just 25 snaps in two games before being placed on injured reserve, and he likely wouldn’t have been ready for a full-time role.

They signed veteran defensive end Will Smith before training camp, but it was obvious he had lost a step after a torn ACL. Jones and Rob Ninkovich rarely come off the field, so the No. 3 defensive end role isn’t necessarily an important spot on the Patriots’ roster, but as Ninkovich gets older, perhaps it’s time to lessen the wear and tear on his body throughout the season and insert a rotation at the position.

If the Patriots choose to rotate in a third pass rusher, or just use him situationally on third down, here are some free agents on the open market:

It’s unclear what kind of market Ayers will see as a free agent, but if he can find a guaranteed role, then it wouldn’t be surprising to see him leave the Patriots. He was seeing starting snaps while Jones was out then was used sparingly at the end of the season.

Ayers is the perfect type of player, however, because he can rush the passer and serve as a backup linebacker — another role the Patriots sorely lack.

Any former Tampa Bay Buccaneers player should at least be kept in mind for the Patriots in free agency because of the Greg Schiano connection. Schiano, Bill Belichick’s close friend, coached Clayborn for two seasons, and the Patriots practiced against the Buccaneers during training camp.

Clayborn actually beat Patriots left tackle Nate Solder during a joint practice rep and hit quarterback Tom Brady hard, giving Patriots fans a brief scare that he had a knee injury in 2013.

Clayborn, who missed 15 games last season with a torn biceps tendon and 13 games in 2012 with a knee injury, could come cheap on the open market. The former first-round pick isn’t the most consistent pass rusher, but at 6-foot-3, 280 pounds, he could play a number of roles in the Patriots’ defense.

Clayborn is an Iowa product, where he played under former-Belichick staffer Kirk Ferentz.

Freeney only recorded 3.5 sacks last season, but he consistently was able to rush the passer with 53 total pressures. The former Indianapolis Colts star is 35 years old and entering his 14th NFL season, so he shouldn’t draw much interest beyond a one-year contract.

If he’s willing to take a decreased role, Freeney can still do some damage coming off the edge on third down.

Kiwanuka has struggled the past two seasons as a starting defensive end, but if the Patriots were willing to give Smith a shot last summer, then perhaps they could give Kiwanuka a low-risk contract to see if he can earn a role this season.

Kiwanuka has experience at defensive end and linebacker, which could help, given the Patriots’ lack of depth at both positions. If the Patriots signed Kiwanuka, then it likely wouldn’t happen until late in the free-agency process.

Moats is a similar player to Ayers in that he can rush off the edge or drop back into coverage at linebacker.

He was used as a pass rusher in 2014 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, as an inside linebacker in 2012 and 2013 with the Buffalo Bills, and in both roles in 2010 and 2011.

At 6-foot, 246 pounds, Moats could provide depth at linebacker and pass rusher with the Patriots, as Ayers did in 2014.

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Thumbnail photo via Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports

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