Patriots Offseason Outlook: Why D-Line Could Look Very Different In 2020

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Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month in Indianapolis, we?re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We?ll examine which players stood out in 2019, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.

Next up: the defensive line.

UNDER CONTRACT
Lawrence Guy
Deatrich Wise
Byron Cowart
Tashawn Bower (practice squad)
Nick Thurman (practice squad)

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Danny Shelton
Adam Butler (restricted)
Keionta Davis (restricted)

TOP PERFORMER
Guy was solid again this season, but the real surprise was Shelton, who went from a healthy scratch late in 2018 to a key contributor for the NFL’s best defense. Playing in every game for New England, the 345-pounder set career highs in tackles (61) and sacks (three) and tied his personal best in quarterback hits (six).

Butler also had his best season yet as an interior pass rusher, tallying more sacks (six), QB hits (nine) and batted passes (five) than he had in his first two seasons combined. Among Patriots front-seven defenders, only linebacker Jamie Collins had more passes defended (seven).

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
An awkward fit for the Patriots’ new 3-4 defense (more on that below), Wise posted career lows in sacks (two), QB hits (10), tackles for loss (three) and defensive snaps played (23 percent) in 2019. His numbers have declined in all four of those categories in each of the last two seasons. He also was tied for the team lead with seven penalties, including three roughing the passer calls.

We also didn’t see much from fifth-round draft pick Byron Cowart, who played just 43 defensive snaps as a rookie and was a healthy scratch nine times. Cowart made some splash plays last preseason, though, and will be a player to watch this summer.

TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Will Danny Shelton and Adam Butler re-sign? Shelton boosted his value immensely after re-signing with the Patriots on a modest one-year, $1 million deal last offseason. It’ll be interesting to see how his market develops once free agency opens March 18.

Butler is a restricted free agent, meaning the Patriots will have the opportunity to tender him at a first-, second- or original-round level. Since Butler was undrafted, if New England chooses the latter, it would not receive compensation if it declines to match another team’s offer sheet.

An original-round tender would cost the Patriots around $2.1 million for the 2020 season, according to Over The Cap. A second-round tender would be worth roughly $3.4 million. Butler made $645,000 this season in the final year of his rookie contract.

Even if Shelton and Butler both re-up, the Patriots could benefit from adding another big-bodied defensive tackle, either in free agency or through the draft. Opponents had success running on their base defense this season, as evidenced by the Tennessee Titans’ repeated targeting of Wise in the wild-card round.

TCU’s Ross Blacklock has been mentioned as a potential first-round target for the Pats.

2. Will the Patriots stick with the 3-4? New England’s preponderance of talented linebackers prompted a scheme change last summer. Now, with Kyle Van Noy and Collins both headed for free agency, Bill Belichick could opt to move back to a 4-3 in 2020. That switch would have a significant impact on edge defenders like Chase Winovich and Derek Rivers, who practiced with the ‘backers this season but would be hand-in-the-dirt defensive ends in a 4-3 scheme. Wise also is better suited for a 4-3.

3. Who will coach this group? The Patriots currently are without a defensive line coach after Bret Bielema left to join Joe Judge’s newly formed New York Giants staff. It’s unclear how New England will replace Bielema, but one potential fix would be to reassign outside linebackers coach DeMarcus Covington to the D-line and have inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo assume control of the entire linebacking corps.

The Patriots also could promote coaching assistant Brian Belichick, who worked on the defensive side of the ball in 2019, or hire a replacement from outside the organization. Joe Kim has tutored Patriots pass rushers for the last two seasons and likely would continue to assist whoever steps in for Bielema.

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