Patriots Positional Preview: Three Biggest Questions Facing D-Line

The Patriots completely reshaped their defensive line for the better this offseason

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As the Patriots progress through Phase 3 of their offseason program, we’re taking a position-by-position look at New England’s new-look roster. Next up: interior defensive line.

OFFSEASON CHANGES
The Patriots restocked their defensive line, adding free agents Montravius Adams, Henry Anderson and Davon Godchaux, selecting Christian Barmore in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft and re-signing Carl Davis, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise. New England only lost Adam Butler in free agency to the Miami Dolphins and cut 2020 addition Beau Allen, who spent his entire lone season with the Patriots on injured reserve. The team also retained Tashawn Bower, Byron Cowart, Bill Murray, Akeem Spence and Nick Thurman.

The Patriots’ top defensive linemen last season were Wise, Guy, Butler and Byron Cowart. Bower, Thurman, Spence and Davis also played snaps in 2020 as reserves while New England attempted to find a dependable fifth rotational defensive lineman.

On paper, the Patriots upgraded the position in a big way by replacing Butler with Godchaux, Barmore, Anderson and Adams while returning everyone except Butler.

THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Will the Patriots have more luck with their most recent signings?
The Patriots attempted to boost their defensive line via free agency by adding Mike Pennel in 2019 and Allen in 2020. Neither player ever suited up for New England in a regular-season game.

The Patriots will have to hope they’re more fortunate with Godchaux, Anderson and Adams. Godchaux, who netted a two-year, $15 million contract with $9 million guaranteed, was one of the Patriots’ first free-agent signings this offseason. The Patriots signed Anderson, who was cut by the New York Jets, to a two-year, $7 million contract with $3 million guaranteed. Just $50,000 of Adams’ one-year, $1.095 million contract is guaranteed.

Godchaux, 6-foot-3, 311 pounds, is a run-stuffing nose tackle with some ability to provide pressure on third down. He should be a starter next to Guy in New England’s front seven. Anderson is more of a five-technique defensive end at 6-foot-6, 301 pounds who also provides some potential as a pass rusher. Adams was a third-round pick out of Auburn in 2017 who played 45 games with the Green Bay Packers and started three games over four seasons.

2. How soon will Christian Barmore find the field?
Barmore was universally projected to be a first-round pick by draft analysts but dropped to No. 38 overall when the Patriots traded two fourth-round picks to move up eight spots in the second round to stop his fall. He was the top defensive tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft class and has the potential to be a three-down complete defender as a run-stuffer and pass rusher, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he can do that, or anything, right away because of his inexperience.

The rookie will probably begin his career in New England as either a rotational early-down defender or situational third-down pass rusher. He was better as a pass rusher in college, but it certainly wouldn’t be surprising if New England wanted to use his size (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) on early downs against the run.

If all goes well, Barmore will eventually be an impactful all-around defender with Pro Bowl potential, but we know head coach Bill Belichick won’t rush things.

3. Will New England’s run defense improve?
The Patriots had the NFL’s worst run defense, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. They ranked 26th in rushing yards allowed and 20th in rushing yards per carry allowed. They also let up 17 rushing touchdowns, finishing 18th in the league.

The Patriots really missed Allen and departed free agent Danny Shelton and went most of the year without a traditional nose tackle. The only time they had a prototypical run stuffer in the middle of their defense was the three games Davis played. So, assuming things go better with Godchaux than they did with Pennel and Allen, that issue should be fixed in 2021. Davis also serves as depth at nose tackle.

MOST TO PROVE
Cowart. The former five-star recruit has played plenty of snaps over the first two seasons of his career but hasn’t made a major impact as a run defender or pass rusher.

He played out of position last season as a nose tackle at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds. He’s fighting for a roster spot after New England’s offseason additions.

SLEEPER TO WATCH
Davis. There’s not an obvious sleeper in this group, but the Patriots liked Davis enough to sign him pretty early in the free agency process. He was solid as a run-stuffer last season.

More Patriots positional previews: tight ends, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, offensive line

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