The 2017 NFL season hasn’t even begun yet, and the New England Patriots already have lost three of last year’s top four pass rushers and one of their replacements. It’s time for the Patriots to address their their most shallow position.
The Patriots reportedly fear rookie third-round pick Derek Rivers has a season-ending knee injury. That comes after the Patriots lost Rob Ninkovich to retirement plus Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long to free agency. That leaves the Patriots with Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy, Deatrich Wise (head injury), Geneo Grissom, Caleb Kidder and Keionta Davis (neck injury) at defensive end.
The Patriots have two options to find another player worthy of entering their pass rush rotation.
1. They could acquire a player from outside the organization either in free agency, through a trade after Sept. 2 roster cuts. Players like Jared Odrick, Mario Williams, Trent Cole, Paul Kruger and Dwight Freeney still are available. If any of those players were ideal candidates to fill a pass-rushing role, they already would be signed. But the Patriots could be getting desperate.
They could search through team rosters for players with one year or little money left on their contracts to find a suitable trade partner. What would it take to get Kareem Martin from the Arizona Cardinals, for instance? Or maybe Will Clarke from the Bengals? Probably not much.
If the Patriots are willing to wait it out and let their new pass rusher learn on the fly, they could sign a player after the 53-man cutdown. It’s a risk, but a solid player could become available, and the Patriots wouldn’t have to give up a draft pick or player.
2. The Patriots also could get creative with their own roster. Anyone who will make the Patriots’ 53-man roster probably is better than a player they could acquire from outside the organization at this time.
The Patriots do have quite a few outside linebackers that could be forced to play on the edge as a pass rusher/defensive end. The player undoubtedly would embrace it, too. The majority of linebackers prefers to rush the passer rather than drop back into coverage.
Dont’a Hightower is year after year the Patriots’ most productive and consistent pass rusher, though most of his success is found as a blitzer. He absolutely could generate pressure from the edge, which is something he’s been doing since his days at Alabama. And if he becomes a premier pass rusher, then his new contract suddenly looks like a bargain.
Kyle Van Noy, Jonathan Freeny, Harvey Langi and Shea McClellin are other linebackers on the Patriots’ roster who have experience as pass rushers. All four players rushed the passer in college and could be put back into that role in the NFL.
Van Noy showed promise as a pass rusher in 2016 with the Patriots, but he’s also the most undersized at 243 pounds. Hightower is the biggest at 265 pounds, which could give him an advantage. McClellin most closely replicates Ninkovich’s skill set.
The Patriots also could try to use promising undrafted rookie defensive tackle Adam Butler in a pass rushing role, but first he needs to prove he should make the team.
Free-agent addition Lawrence Guy also could take on some of Long’s role from 2016. Long played an interior role at five-technique defensive end, which is a specialty of Guy’s. Guy, a bigger player at 300 pounds, won’t provide the pressure Long did, however.
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images
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