Training Camp Countdown: Part Four-Defensive Line

The New England Patriots Training Camp starts on July 26th. At that time, the Patriots season will kick off in earnest and go non-stop through (hopefully) February. In this lull, the rest of the sports landscape in Boston sees the Red Sox realizing they at least can't lose any games while on the All-Star Break; the Celtics reeling from Ray Allen's diva act heading to South Beach, and the Bruins seem content to do nothing and hope Nathan Horton is healthy.  

Outside of Tom Brady at Quarterback and the Special Teams Specialists trio, questions abound going into training camp for the Patriots. I want to see how things shake down on offense and who ends up where on defense.  The offensive line running backs, and defensive backs got some lover earlier. Let's jump in to the fourth installment of all things Patriots a look on the other side of field starting with the...


Defensive Tackles/Nose Tackle:
The defense starts with one man in the middle, the big man in the middle: Vince Wilfork. The one true nose tackle, Wilfork is the player the defense revolves around. Teams run away from him, and his size and quickness make him a complete defensive player. Arguably the most irreplaceable player, the Patriots' defense moving to a 4-3 and 4 down linemen nickel schemes  allow Wilfork to do more than simply clog the middle and tie up blockers.  Wilfork can rush the passer, fill passing lanes, and move the pocket more effectively in this role. An all-pro as a 3-4 nose tackle, Wilfork is (along with linebacker Jerod Mayo) the glue in the middle of the line.

Behind Wilfork in the interior of the defensive line is Kyle Love, who opened eyes with his high energy play next to Wilfork.  New arrival Jonathan Fanene should provide good depth and fill-in as needed while keeping Love and Wilfork fresh (especially if the defense keeps giving up 10-12 play drives).  Fanene was a great pick-up who should benefit from getting out of Cincinnati and having a team worth playing for each week.  He has a high-motor and appears by all accounts to be a Bill Belichick kind of guy.  More of an end, he may end up as a Mike Wright type inside lineman, coming in on third down to rush the passer.  With him and Love playing next to Wilfork, expect the middle of the defensive line to stay strong. 

After those three roster locks there is a lot of depth, but nothing but question marks. Brandon Deaderick, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace are three players I have no clue on their status.  All three could make the team and challenge Love and Fanene for playing time, and yet all three could be cut.  Brace was a second round pick from Boston College (playing next to current Packer B.J. Raji at the Heights) who has done absolutely nothing since arriving in 2009. Both Pryor and Deaderick have flashed potential, but have not been able to stay on the field to take the next step like Kyle Love did last season.  Pryor and Deaderick both have the potential to disrupt inside and help move the pocket, but, again, seeing them do it in pre-season games is not the same as seeing them take the next step in the regular season.  Brace has great size, but for some reason has not been able to work his way onto the field. The trio is a mixed bag that will get a lot of attention  from the coaches as they navigate the roster bubble throughout training camp.

Marcus Harrison was signed and on the roster for one whole day last year.  A former Chicago Bear, he has battled health problems and is quite a long-shot to make the roster after not playing in the league last year. Marcus Forston went into last college season ranked in the top three at his position and looking like a first or second day draft pick.  Instead, he was suspended a game down at the U of Miami and then blew out his knee.  From top prospect to walk-on, he faces an uphill battle to make the roster and is likely to be picked-up elsewhere or make the practice squad.

Gerard Warren also returns, and as a steady veteran, like last season, he is likely around only in case of an injury inside. Warren is a run-stuffer and knows the defense. Expect him to be around to provide locker room leadership or be on-call if needed.

Defensive Ends: 
Here's a scary thought: Rob Ninkovich is the only known quantity at defensive end. Think about that for a second.  Ninkovich, a kind of Mike Vrabel-lite, can generate a little pressure and hold the edge, but is neither athletic nor powerful.  He is a guy that knows the defense, is smart, and makes plays.  Behind him are first round pick, Chandler Jones, Trevor Scott, potential huge bust Jermaine Cunningham, third-round pick Jake Bequette, and Justin Francis.

Trevor Scott is expected to be the Andre Carter/Mark Anderson type veteran signed on the cheap who can rush the passer and provide a little bit of toughness and veteran savvy.  Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette are complete unknowns at this point and need all of training camp for the coaches to see if they can contribute at defense this season.  I think the best bet is to get those two on the field on third down and pin their ears back and go at the quarterback, much like Bill Parcells did with a young Tedy Bruschi back in the day.  Learn the defense as the season goes on, but for now provide pure speed and power rush.  

Jermaine Cunningham, a second round pick who hasn't found his way to the field much in two seasons, is walking around training camp this summer with all eyes on him.  Does he take the next step and earn significant playing time and show why he was worth a high pick? Or does he even make the team out of training camp.  With Gerard Warren, Brandon Deaderick, Myron Pryor, and Jonathan Fanene being able to slide outside to end in certain defensive sets, the need at this position could lead to Cunningham being cut loose.  

Justin Francis is an undrafted free-agent from Rutgers. As Bill Belichick loves those UFAs, and since Francis was pals with his son at Rutgers, the kid at least has a shot.  A long-shot, but a shot all the same.  Andre Carter, if healthy, potentially may come back again, but as he is still a free agent and not healthy yet, he stands more likely to sign and join the PUP list, or sign during the season if the need arises.

As the Giants have shown, a front-four/front-seven who can stuff the run and pressure the quarterback can cover-up a shaky secondary.  The Patriots defense starts in the trenches, and these guys are the ones who need to makes some strides to get the defense off the field and let Tom Brady and the explosive offense more opportunities to get to the end zone.  There is a lot to look for on the defensive line as training camp draws near. 


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