The New England Patriots learned their lesson in 2013: Never go into a season shallow at defensive tackle.
That’s why they’re likely to add at least two more defensive tackles before the offseason is over. One of those players will not be Vince Wilfork, who tweeted Monday that he’s agreed to sign with the Houston Texans.
The Patriots currently have Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch, Dominique Easley, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Antonio Johnson on their roster at defensive tackle. They could start Siliga and Branch on early downs and play Easley and Jones on third down, but the Patriots know they have to boost their depth while preparing for the future. That lineup would be serviceable, but without Darrelle Revis’ lockdown coverage at cornerback, the Patriots’ defensive line needs to be more than serviceable.
The Patriots have spent a lot of time looking at defensive tackle prospects at pro days this winter. They showed interest in Oklahoma’s Jordan Phillips and Clemson’s Grady Jarrett, according to a source, and both of those players should be around at the end of the first round of the 2015 NFL draft, where the Patriots are picking No. 32 overall.
Phillips and Jarrett both can play Wilfork’s old nose tackle role, but they’re very different players. Phillips, at 6-foot-5, 329 pounds, also can play five-technique defensive end in a 3-4, while Jarrett, at just 6-foot-1, 300 pounds, projects better in a 4-3 at nose tackle or three-technique defensive tackle.
The Patriots also could add another nose tackle in free agency. C.J. Mosley, B.J. Raji, Red Bryant and Ahtyba Rubin are the best players available on the open market, and while none of those players has Wilfork’s versatility, they all would help contribute against the run.
Rubin started for five years with the Cleveland Browns. Patriots assistant to the coaching staff Michael Lombardi was the Browns’ general manager in 2013, and he could recommend the big nose tackle.
The Patriots showed interest in Bryant when he was a free agent in 2012. Bryant has played defensive end in the Seattle Seahawks’ and Jacksonville Jaguars’ hybrid defensive front, but he could fit into Wilfork’s old role perfectly at 6-foot-4, 323 pounds.
It will be difficult for the Patriots to replace Wilfork on and off the field, where he was a captain and locker room leader. The Patriots’ run defense struggled at times in 2014 even when Wilfork was on the field, so they have to go above and beyond to replace the All-Pro.
The Patriots drafted big defensive linemen in 2001, 2003 and 2004, sparking their first three Super Bowl titles. They drafted Dominique Easley No. 29 overall in 2014, and it might be smart to dedicate another first-round pick to the position in 2015, despite other needs at cornerback and the offensive line, which could be addressed later.
Thumbnail photo via Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
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