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Position Analysis: Defensive Line

Anybody who watched the AFC Championship game had to be thinking, are the Patriots defensive lineman overmatched, hung over, falling victim to the altitude, or has Peyton Manning been covered in the Ebola virus?

This no-show, against a Denver offensive line that was continuously pushed back into Manning’s face two weeks later by Seattle, was unacceptable. This leads to only one logical statement: defensive line is a unit that needs a significant upgrade, especially in the middle.

Vince Wilfork carries the onerous cap number of 11.6 million, with a 7.5 million base salary. Those numbers for a 32 year-old defensive tackle coming off of an Achilles injury, who looked like he ate Danny Woodhead after the injury, screams restructure or cut. While the hope is that Vince will restructure and return, there are no guarantees of this happening.  Does Vince have enough loyalty to Mr. Kraft to take a pounding for half of the money he is currently signed for? If he’s cut, somebody will pay him more than New England will.

Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich essentially got the day off with pay against Denver. While Jones is a star in the making, Ninkovich seems to have been slightly exposed. He made his bones on the defense as a player who made big plays, forced turnovers, and allowed the stadium to exhale. Those big, game-changing plays were in short supply this year. At a five million combined cap hit, they are both, however, a no-brainer to return.

Tommy Kelly had a definite Richard Seymour vibe to him. (NO he was not Richard Seymour- I realize that) Kelly’s longer, leaner interior presence was a nice compliment to Vince. When fully healthy, the Patriots early season defense was a solid unit capable of making a playoff run one game farther than they went this year.

Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga need to be around for their impact on the depth and their potential. As the playing time of these two 23 year olds increased, each showed strength, toughness, and a desire to do the dirty work in the trenches that defensive lineman need.

I believe there is legitimate potential for either or both of these players to become more than serviceable defensive linemen.

The rest of the group (with the exception of Andre Carter, who I’d love to see come back) are a bunch of JAG-types (Just A Guy), who can be replaced by street late round flyers or inexpensive free agents. It’s too bad Jake Bequette, taken two picks before TY Hilton, has been such a colossal misfire. He fits the Patriots mold: a strong player, a captain, from a big-time program- who for lack of better available phrasing, simply cannot play football.

The guy they should sign (interior) : Linval Joseph, defensive tackle NY Giants. At 26 with superior run stopping ability and enough strength and burst to apply pressure up the middle, he is the player that the Pats should target. If they could get him in the 6 million per year range, which would require cutting Vince, they should pull the trigger. Vince has to know it’s simply business; it’s not personal. With Jones and Ninkovich getting legitimate help from Joseph, many woes would go away.

The guy they should sign (edge): Arthur Jones, defensive end Baltimore. Chandler’s brother can flat out play. Baltimore is cap strapped and it would be another key defensive loss for the Ravens. Making this signing would give Ninkovich an opportunity to play without his hand on the ground, opening up possibilities for him to be more of a disruptive playmaker. I realize that Jones and Joseph would be an impossible duo to sign due to cap restrictions-however, signing one of the two is not out of the question.

It should be an expectation that the Patriots draft a defensive lineman in May’s draft (how odd does May sound?). If they fill needs via free agency, they may be unlikely to draft a DL early. Clearly, Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack, and Timmy Jernigan will all be long gone by the time they pick. Additionally, I’m not even going to entertain trade possibilities as I like my head, and I’d rather it didn’t explode.

By the time the Pats pick, every worthwhile first rounder should be off the board. A guy like Jonathan Jenkins from Georgia Tech will still be around. Do the Pats want to use a first round pick on a guy who had only two tackles for a loss in the top-heavy ACC? Let him be somebody else’s reach.

If they don’t want to use a first round pick on the defensive front, they should look at Dominique Easley, DE Florida. Yes, I know he is coming off of an ACL tear, and I know the Gator pipeline hasn’t exactly produced well for the Pats; however, this is a clear example of one of those “eyeball test” guys. He was all over the place for the Gators before the injury and had he stayed healthy, he would have been right in line to be picked at 29, if not higher. He would represent the “value” that is so highly regarded at patriot Place.

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