Potential Patriots: Defensive Line

During the first four drafts of Bill Belichick’s tenure, the Patriots selected Richard Seymour, Jarvis Green, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork and Marquise Hill within the top four rounds. While Hill never reached his potential (and unfortunately passed away), Green developed into a solid rotational player while Seymour, Warren and Wilfork developed into three of the top 3-4 linemen in the league.

Heading into the 2012 draft, Wilfork is the lone man remaining, albeit the biggest one. The defensive line proved to be one of the team’s biggest strengths due to the excellent production from Mark Anderson and Andre Carter.

However, both players are free agents and Carter is coming off a serious quad injury. Besides Wilfork, the defensive line rotation is shaky. Kyle Love emerged as a quality run stuffer, but can he be a difference maker? Brandon Deadrick was also solid, but doesn’t fit the mold as a 4-3 end. Ron Brace, a former second-round pick, has been largely disappointing and is on the roster bubble along with 2010 second-rounder Jermaine Cunningham who disappeared after a solid rookie campaign.

One of the big issues, besides a lack of talent, is the question of what system the team will play. Due to the lockout, Belichick switched to a 4-3, but history indicates he would prefer a 3-4 look. The roster has some big-bodied run stuffers, but lacks a dynamic athlete with the size to impact both the run and passing games.

Big Vince is a dominant nose tackle who has proven to be versatile and dependable. But the big man is getting up there in age and needs someone else to draw some attention.

Next week we’ll examine the hybrid players, but here are five potential pure defensive linemen who could fit in New England’s system.

1. Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Don’t let his 6-foot-4, 298-pound listing fool you. This guy can move. The near 300-pounder ran a 4.79 forty and put up 30 reps on the bench press, proving he’s both strong and athletic. Cox is a disruptive player who has an excellent burst, quickness and motor. His combination of pure athleticism, intangibles and production make him an intriguing pick. Before the combine, the Patriots had an outside shot at him with the 27th pick. They’ll have to move up if they want him.

2. Kendall Reyes, DT, Connecticut: The Patriots were burned by the local connection in ’09 when they made Darius Butler the 41st pick. Reyes has some position versatility, playing both tackle and end in college, but would project to the five-technique position in New England. At 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, Reyes ran a 4.95 and pushed out an impressive 36 reps. He isn’t a great pass rusher at this point, but did show some raw ability at the Senior Bowl. He could be a target with the 48th pick.

3. Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson: Prior to the start of the 2011 season, Thompson was pegged as the top senior defensive tackle in the nation. His stock has slipped after some inconsistent play, but the upside is still there. He’s known as a relentless worker in the weight room, evidenced by his 35 reps at the combine and school-record 370-pound power clean. He has a plus get-off and strong hands, but needs to play on his feet more. Thompson was once viewed as a first-rounder, but probably will be selected early in round two.

4. Jaye Howard, DT, Florida: While he isn’t graded as highly as some of the other prospects on this list, it’s hard to ignore the Florida connection when it comes to Belichick. Howard was the senior leader on a young defense and put together a productive year with 65 tackles, 10 for loss and 5.5 sacks. Howard projects as a three-technique at the next level and has a good burst off the line of scrimmage. He displayed solid speed with a 4.84 forty at 6-foot-3, 301 pounds. He’s a mid-round prospect who could carve out a role as an interior rusher.

5. Derek Wolfe, DT, Cincinnati: It’s fitting that with Mike Wright leaving the Pats could bring in another Cincinnati lineman to replace him. Wolfe and Wright have similar builds with good length and athleticism. However, Wolfe is a much higher rated prospect due to his impressive production as a three-year starter. After posting 41 tackles and five sacks as a sophomore, he had 48/4 in 2010 before a monster senior year with 70/9.5. With a 6-foot-5, 295-pound frame, Wolfe could add weight and become a viable five-technique and slide inside in pass-rush situations. He could be someone to target after round four.

Potential Patriots: Defensive Line

While the Patriots teams of the past were built on strong play from the defensive line, the talent and production level of the front three has taken a toll over the past few seasons.

With the departure of Richard Seymour via trade in 2009, the right end spot has been a particular problem. Seymour made his mark drawing double and sometimes triple teams from opposing offenses, freeing up outside linebackers Mike Vrabel, Roosevelt Colvin and Willie McGinest for big sack opportunities.

Without Seymour’s pure power and experience in the lineup and the loss of Ty Warren to a season-ending hip injury last season, the defensive line was largely a makeshift group. Outside of Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork, 10-year veteran Gerard Warren filled in admirably, but is long in the tooth and is purely a stopgap player at this point in his career.

Armed with two picks in each of the first three rounds in the 2011 Draft, the Patriots have the ammunition necessary to draft a true replacement for Seymour. And luckily for the Patriots, this draft is extremely deep with defensive linemen who can play in the 3-4 system.

 

Here are five realistic options who could be on the horizon for the Pats in the first two rounds.

1. Marcell Dareus, DE, Alabama – Perhaps Alabama’s best defensive player, Dareus left for the draft after his junior season in which he was named First Team All-SEC after recording 34 tackles, 11 for a loss and 4.5 sacks. Dareus brings a good combination of size (6-foot-4, 307 pounds) and athleticism that bode well as a 3-4 end. He has experience playing in that system under Nick Saban and commanded constant double teams during his time in Tuscaloosa. He is projected to go early in the first round and if the Patriots want him, they will definitely have to move into the top 10 to get their man.

2. Cameron Jordan, DE, California – Simply put — Jordan is a man amongst boys. The 6-foot-4, 283-pound senior was a steady presence for the California Golden Bears over the past four years, improving his tackle total every year. He finished his collegiate career with 161 tackles and 17 sacks while playing defensive end in the Golden Bears’ 3-4 system. This past week at the Senior Bowl, Jordan was the best player on the field. He dominated against highly touted offensive tackles such as Anthony Costanzo and Gabe Carimi while showing a blend of strength and speed that should make him an ideal fit in any system. His performance in Mobile may have solidified him a spot as a top 15 pick.

3. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin – The 6-foot-6, 292-pound junior is projected to go anywhere from the mid to late first round. His strong play this past season at Wisconsin earned him second-team All-America honors and he was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection. Watt made plays in the backfield, recording 21 tackles for loss and seven sacks. His size and playmaking ability make him an ideal fit as a defensive end in the 3-4.

4. Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State – Heyward returned to Ohio State for his senior season after earning second-team All-Big Ten honors for his junior campaign. Although he did not play as well his senior year, he displayed his talent in the Buckeyes’ biggest game of the year in the Sugar Bowl, racking up 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack. His 6-foot-6, 288-pound frame makes him a perfect fit at the five-technique. He has great strength and is a strong run defender with adequate pass rush ability. While he probably won’t flash as much as Jordan, he is a very solid, probably more in the mold of Ty Warren. He is a late first or early second-round pick and where he ends up going will heavily rely upon his recovery from a late-season elbow injury.

5. Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple – At 6-foot-5, 305 pounds, Wilkerson possesses prototypical size and length to play the five-technique in the 3-4 system. He entered the draft after a great junior year where he recorded an impressive 68 tackles and 10 sacks after posting 58/6 as a sophomore. He was named first-team All-MAC twice and was the team’s defensive MVP this season. He is a little more under the radar, but could present good value with the Patriots’ No. 33 pick.

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