State of the Position: Defensive Line

On a defense full of unfamiliar faces, Vince Wilfork is the one constant.

The burly 325-pound nose tackle has gone from a first-round pick to a four-time Pro Bowler while playing alongside some all-time greats.

However, as he enters his ninth year with the Patriots, it’s clear there’s a youth movement along the defensive front.

Chalk that up as welcomed news.

After the heartbreak of ’07, the Patriots’ defense quickly lost many of its stars—Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel among them—and Bill Belichick hasn’t been able to adequately replace them.

But as the 2012 season rolls around, it seems the defense—particularly the d-line—has been restocked.

For a dominant nose tackle like Wilfork, the addition of youngsters like Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette can only be welcomed with open arms.

Although the Patriots enjoyed much of their success with a stout 3-4 front, this year’s squad features more athletic, hybrid players, which enables defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to play both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.


Defensive Tackles

Whatever scheme Patricia and Belichick draw up, there’s one man they can always count on: Big Vince.

The former Miami Hurricane starred as a 4-3 defensive tackle in college, and although he didn’t become an instant impact nose tackle right away, he’s far and away the best at his position.

Pigeon-holing Wilfork as strictly a nose tackle is a crime. Despite his girthy midsection and shorter frame, his uncanny agility and rare power have led the coaching staff to employ him as a 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle.

His physical presence and leadership are extremely valuable for a young group.

Playing next to Wilfork is another stout run defender in Kyle Love.

Measuring in at 6’1”, 315 pounds, Love is just another one of many former undrafted free agents to make an impact for the Patriots.

The former Mississippi State player has quietly developed into an immovable object at the point of attack. Surprisingly, the third-year pro even managed to rack up three sacks in addition to 33 tackles in 2011.

Behind Wilfork and Love, the defensive tackle depth is pretty solid.

By all accounts, Ron Brace—a former second-round pick—has flashed spurts of dominance in training camp. Myron Pryor—a sixth-round selection in 2009—has yet to be activated from PUP, but could be activated in the middle of the season a la Brandon Deadrick in 2011.

Speaking of Deadrick, the 6’4”, 305-pounder earned a starting role as a defensive end last season, but with the Patriots transitioning to a more typical 4-3 front, I’d expect him to spend more time along the interior.

Deadrick doesn’t possess the requisite quickness or speed to be a pass-rushing threat as a defensive end.

The rest of the defensive tackle group features a former highly-coveted high school recruit in Marcus Forston, a steady veteran in Gerard Warren and an athletic former SEC star in Marcus Harrison.


Edge Defenders

While the defensive tackle group features a lot of big bodies, the defensive end group features a ton of athleticism.

Headlining the group is the 6’5” Chandler Jones.

Belichick’s top target in the draft has managed to exceed expectations after the team traded up to No. 21 to select him.

Possessing excellent length, quickness and hustle, Jones was expected to be a project after playing just seven games as a junior.

However, the team’s top pick has shown an impressive array of pass-rush moves while displaying the ability to set the edge in the run game.

If Jones is just scratching his potential, it’s scary to think how good he’ll be within a few years.

The battle to be Jones’ bookend wages on as veteran Rob Ninkovich looks like the favorite to start.

I’ve always been a fan of Ninko because of his intelligence, versatility and toughness.

During his time with the Pats, he’s been solid as a pass-rushing defensive end, 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 strong side linebacker.

The seventh-year pro was one of the unsung heroes of last season, piling up 74 tackles, 6.5 sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles.

Ninkovich’s chief competitor for the starting spot might just be former second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham.

After breaking into the starting lineup as a rookie out of Florida, Cunningham was basically nonexistent in 2011.

However, the athletic 255-pounder has been lightning quick off the edge in training camp and could finally emerge as a pass-rushing threat.

Two other edge players to keep an eye on are former Oakland Raider Trevor Scott and third-round pick Jake Bequette.

Both players have great length, but have some holes in their game.

Scott flashed serious pass-rushing skills in his first two seasons, racking up 12 sacks in 32 games.

A knee injury derailed his 2010 season and he hasn’t regained his pre-injury form.

Bequette racked up 23.5 sacks at Arkansas and is highly regarded for his motor.

He might not be a superior physical talent, but I expect Bequette to make some noise as rookie.

Rounding out the defensive group is free agent pickup Jonathan Fanene and undrafted free agent Justin Francis.

Fanene’s status is up in the air as he’s missed most of training camp with a leg injury. When he signed with the Pats, he was expected to be a starter, possibly at defensive tackle.

Francis is a try-hard type of player, but it’ll be tough for him to make the roster if he doesn’t show up more in preseason games.


Season Outlook

Overall, the Patriots have done well to re-stock the defensive front.

Between Jones, Wilfork and Love, they have a dangerous trio.

The combination of Ninkovich, Cunningham, Scott and Bequette should provide a pass-rushing boost from the other spot and gives the team the flexibility to play multiple fronts.

Belichick and the Patriots may have neglected the defense over the past few years, but the defensive line should carry the unit in 2012.

State of the Position: Defensive line

State of the Position is a new weekly Foxboro Blog feature that will examine the post-draft status of each position and take a look at what needs still need to be filled before the season opens up.

Today we will examine the defensive line.

When the Patriots were at their best, they had a dominating front seven.

These days, that is not the case.

In Bill Belichick’s 3-4 defense, the defensive line is key to stopping the run and tying up blockers to allow the linebackers to make plays.

During the early part of the decade, Belichick invested three first-round picks on the d-line.

The results speak for themselves.

Richard Seymour was a perennial All-Pro defensive end who set the standard for five-technique play, Ty Warren is an underrated Pro-Bowl caliber 3-4 end, and Vince Wilfork is among the top nose tackles in the league.

While those players built the foundation of a strong front-three, today’s roster doesn’t feature the same type of talent or production.

At nose tackle, Wilfork continues to be the team’s most important player. He plays with great power, technique and has good agility for a player his size. He also showed his versatility by lining up at defensive end last season when the team’s depth was tested.

However, the situation gets murky at defensive end.

Ty Warren missed the entire 2010 season with a hip injury, and he has been hard to count on the past few seasons.

Prior to 2008, Warren was a great run stopper with some ability to collapse the pocket, but now he may be nearing the end of the road as his body is breaking down.

His return to the lineup will play a huge factor in the evolution of the young defense.

At right end, I see it being an open competition between four players: Marcus Stroud, Mike Wright, Brandon Deadrick and Ron Brace.Stroud is a household name, but his play doesn’t match his hype anymore. He had a poor season in Buffalo playing in the 3-4, but maybe Belichick can get some Gerard Warren-like production from him.

Wright emerged as a good interior pass rusher early last season, but went down with a concussion. It might be hard to count on him at this point, and he has proven to be most effective as a situational player.

Brace has been underwhelming as a second-round pick although he does have the prototypical size and power to be an effective 3-4 player. If he doesn’t have a strong preseason and training camp (assuming those happen), he will likely be cut.

Deadrick will be battling for a spot after gaining some playing time as a rookie and may be competing with Brace for the top backup spot.

Besides Wilfork, the defensive line is a real question mark. The two Warrens may not play to the same levels as in years past, Stroud has more bark than bite and the rest of the depth chart is filled with lower-round picks who aren’t high-caliber starting talents.

The best solution may be to work a rotation in different packages, and the open competition for both end spots should bring out the best in all players.

State of the Position Grade: C+