Patriots Offseason Outlook: Improving D-Line Must Be Priority For New England

Run defense was a major issue for the Patriots in 2020

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As the NFL calendar officially flips to 2021, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2020, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.

Next up: the defensive line.

UNDER CONTRACT
Beau Allen
Michael Barnett
Byron Cowart
Bill Murray
Akeem Spence
Nick Thurman

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Adam Butler
Carl Davis
Lawrence Guy
Deatrich Wise

(Note: Chase Winovich, John Simon and Tashawn Bower are listed as defensive ends but play outside linebacker in New England’s defense. We’ll tackle them Tuesday in our linebacker overview.)

2020 SEASON REVIEW
Injuries to established Patriots like Julian Edelman, Stephon Gilmore, Isaiah Wynn, David Andrews and Rex Burkhead garnered more attention over the course of the season, but the loss of Beau Allen had a gigantic impact on New England’s suddenly porous defense.

Signed last spring to replace departed 2019 standout Danny Shelton, Allen suffered an injury early in training camp, then a setback midseason that prevented him from appearing in a single game.

There’s no guarantee Allen, who was buried on the depth chart in Tampa Bay the previous year, would have been an impact player had he been available. But losing the 327-pounder left the Patriots without a true nose tackle — a key position in their 3-4 scheme.

With injuries also hindering Guy and Butler for long stretches and the Patriots relying on players signed off or elevated from practice squads to fill out their D-line rotations, New England’s run defense nosedived.

According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, which measures a unit’s overall efficiency, the Patriots were the worst team in the NFL at defending the run in 2020. They ranked 26th in rushing yards allowed per game and 20th in yards allowed per carry. They allowed more than 150 rushing yards in five games — and lost all five.

The worst of these performances came in Week 15, when a Miami Dolphins team that ranked 22nd in rushing offense and 23rd in rush offense DVOA piled up 250 yards on the ground.

New England also surrendered:

— 197 yards to a San Francisco 49ers team that was down to its fourth-string running back.
— 190 yards to a Buffalo Bills squad that ranked outside the top 20 in rushing offense and rush offense DVOA.
— 186 yards to the Los Angeles Rams, including 171 to rookie Cam Akers alone.

The Rams and Dolphins losses came in back-to-back weeks in December, officially eliminating the Patriots from playoff contention.

Couple these issues up front with an inexperienced linebacking corps that had to replace Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, and you can see why the Patriots’ defense went from first in overall DVOA in 2019 to 26th in 2020. Bolstering both of these groups needs to be an offseason priority for New England.

TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
Don’t think defensive line is one of the Patriots’ biggest offseason needs? Just take a look at the six players they currently have under contract for 2021.

Allen, as we noted earlier, didn’t play at all in 2020. He also only played 16 percent of defensive snaps for the Buccaneers in 2019 despite being active for 13 games. Barnett and Murray have yet to make their NFL debuts. Spence was out of the league for months before he latched on with the Patriots’ practice squad in late November. Thurman has spent the majority of the last two seasons on the P-squad.

Of the six, only Cowart (14 starts) saw consistent playing time this past season, and advanced stats paint an unfavorable picture of his performance. The 2019 fifth-round draft pick was Pro Football Focus’s 100th-highest-graded interior defender out of 122 qualifying players.

Not ideal.

The Patriots first must determine which of their internal free agents they’ll attempt to re-sign. The two biggest names there are Guy and Butler.

Guy, a team captain this past season and one of the team’s best defensive players since he arrived in 2017, has said he would “love” to stay. He turns 31 next month and could be open to a team-friendly contract. Butler, a pass-rushing specialist, struggled during the first half of 2020 but came alive down the stretch after shaking a bothersome shoulder injury. All four of his sacks came in the Patriots’ last six games.

The Patriots also have a decision to make on Wise, the lone remaining member of their 2017 draft class. Wise remains an awkward fit for his role as a 3-4 D-end despite bulking up last offseason, but he ranked second among Patriots defenders in total pressures, per PFF, trailing only Winovich.

Davis provided a jolt to New England’s run defense after arriving midseason, but concussions limited him to just three games.

As for outside reinforcements — which will be needed regardless of how the Patriots handle Guy, Butler, etc. — notable unrestricted free agent D-linemen include J.J. Watt, Kawann Short, Dalvin Tomlinson, Shelby Harris, Ndamukong Suh, Leonard Williams, Tyson Alualu, Sheldon Rankins, Derek Wolfe, DaQuan Jones, Steve McLendon and Brent Urban.

Watt would be an ideal addition, but he seems more likely to join an obvious Super Bowl contender. Harris (eighth), Alualu (ninth), Williams (15th), Urban (21st) and Tomlinson (25th) all received top-25 PFF grades among interior defenders. Wolfe, in whom the Patriots reportedly showed interest last offseason, was PFF’s fifth-highest-graded run defender. Suh (six sacks) remains disruptive at age 34.

Watt and Short both hit the market early after they were released before the start of free agency — a fate that will befall many well-paid veterans in the coming weeks as teams scramble to get beneath the shrinking salary cap. Shelton and fellow ex-Patriots D-tackle Malcom Brown both are cut candidates, as is five-time Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey.

With roughly $63 million in available cap space — more than all but three NFL teams — the Patriots have the resources necessary to add high-quality talent this offseason.

It also would not be surprising to see New England use a high draft pick on a defensive tackle. Christian Barmore, a product of noted Patriots prospect factory Alabama, has been mentioned as a first-round possibility at No. 15 overall. Other notable prospects include Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike, North Carolina State’s Alim McNeil, UCLA’s Osa Odighizuwa, LSU’s Tyler Shelvin, Iowa’s Davyion Nixon, Florida State’s Marvin Wilson, USC’s Marlon Tuipuloto and Tulane’s Cam Sample.

Bill Belichick historically has a high success rate when selecting front-seven defenders in first round, hitting on Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower and getting a solid contributor in Brown. His lone miss: D-tackle Dominique Easley, who lasted just two seasons in Foxboro after being drafted 29th overall in 2014.

Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images

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