If the 2019 New England Patriots are going to make another Super Bowl run, they’ll have to do so without their most consistent defender from the past three seasons.
Defensive end Trey Flowers followed former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to Detroit, signing with the Lions in free agency. The Patriots partially replaced Flowers before he even signed with the Lions, however, acquiring Michael Bennett via trade from the Philadelphia Eagles.
Bennett is one of three roster locks in the Patriots’ defensive end group.
Roster locks: Michael Bennett, John Simon, Chase Winovich
On the bubble: Shilique Calhoun, Keionta Davis, Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise Jr.
Practice squad candidates: Trent Harris
We came very close to including Wise in our group of roster locks, but he was a healthy scratch in the Patriots’ AFC Championship Game win over the Kansas City Chiefs, so we felt we couldn’t. Wise is the most likely candidate out of the roster bubble players to join Bennett, Simon and Winovich in the Patriots’ defensive end rotation.
It’s likely Simon will start the 2019 season as either a starter or pseudo-starter across from Bennett, but Winovich has a chance to leapfrog him on the depth chart by the end of his rookie season. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower also will see plenty of reps on the edge in the Patriots’ front seven.
Bennett likely will kick inside to rush the passer from defensive tackle on third downs. Winovich will probably start the season as a situational edge rusher on obvious passing snaps. If he can prove he can stay patient and set the edge against the run, then he could find himself in a full-time role by the end of the season. The Michigan product is a bit undersized at around 250 pounds so the Patriots might want him to bulk up before the season begins.
Calhoun, Davis, Rivers, Wise and Harris will compete for one or two more roles on the 53-man roster. Given the versatility of Van Noy and Hightower, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Patriots only chose to keep four traditional defensive ends.
Wise played 41.42 percent of defensive snaps last season, Davis played 17.55 percent and Rivers played 7.48 percent. Calhoun played 13.42 percent for the Oakland Raiders in 2018. Wise, Davis and Rivers have practice squad eligibility if they don’t make the roster. Harris showed potential in the preseason last year, and teammates praised him for his performance on the practice squad. Rivers still has the most potential out of that group as a 2017 third-round pick. He missed his rookie season with a torn ACL and played just seven games last season, registering two tackles and two QB hits, including one sack.
It will be fascinating to see how this group shakes out after training camp and the preseason. The Patriots have to hope for major jumps out of Rivers and Davis. Wise has been a mostly consistent defender through his two-year career, but he could improve by either becoming a more well-rounded defender or a more disruptive pass rusher. He’s currently a third-down specialist who hasn’t been consistent enough at pushing the pocket.
It would be tough to argue the Patriots’ group of defensive ends got better this offseason with Flowers gone. But they’ll at least be passable with Bennett and Simon, and Winovich, Wise, Rivers, Davis and Harris all still have upside.