Sixth in a position-by-position series
Lawrence Guy casts a long shadow.
Literally and figuratively.
The 6-foot-4-inch, 315-pounder (he looks bigger) has had the largest impact of any player on the Patriots defensive line over the last three seasons.
An unheralded free agent signing in 2017, Guy steadily improved and increased his role as a front-line defender and locker room leader every season. He has been the club’s best and most consistent lineman over the past four years.
In 2020, his first season as a captain, Guy was immense, flipping between end and tackle — a staple of his time in New England — and playing through shoulder, elbow, and knee injuries while still producing at a high level.
Guy is the biggest of the Patriots’ in-house free agent defenders (again, literally and figuratively), and striking a new deal with the soon-to-be 31-year-old likely is high on the club’s list.
Guy has expressed that he would “love to return to New England” where he has put down roots and become an active member of the community. It’d be a surprise if the feeling weren’t mutual.
Here’s a look at some of the non-draft options the Patriots could consider this offseason, when an overhaul of the first line of defense could be in order.
The 2020 Patriots
Guy, Adam Butler, Byron Cowart, Akeem Spence, Deatrich Wise, Carl Davis, John Simon, Chase Winovich, Tashawn Bower, Nick Thurman, and Rashod Berry.
Butler: One of the top undrafted free agent signings of the last decade, Butler has a story similar to Guy’s in that he was largely unknown upon arrival but just kept getting better and better every season. His responsibilities consistently increased from interior pass-rushing specialist to dependable three-down defender.
An unrestricted free agent, Butler is tough, smart, and dependable — he played through a shoulder injury all season — and will have suitors. The Patriots will be at the front of the line.
Cowart: An athletic and big interior defender, he saw a big uptick in snaps and production this past season. He is signed through 2023 and has the skills to continue to develop into an every-down player.
Spence: Really enjoyed watching this veteran perform in his late-season cameo. He is wide, deceptively quick, and has a team-friendly deal ($1.075 million base salary for 2021). He’ll be motivated.
Wise: Always a high-energy pass-rushing end, he packed on some offseason pounds to become a more well-rounded defender who could help stuff the run. An unrestricted free agent, the always affable Wise (even his snarl has a trace of a smile) has a good chance of remaining in Foxborough.
Davis: Concussions limited his production, but he was solid when healthy. Could return on a low-cost, prove-it deal.
Simon: One of several ends who also could classify as outside linebackers, the veteran has at times been the Patriots’ best edge-setter, particularly against the run, the last few seasons. Similar to the entire defense, Simon struggled some late in the season. He’s a free agent, and a return engagement is possible.
Winovich: Another end/linebacker hybrid, Winovich has a chance to be a front-seven star in this defense because of his versatility and nonstop motor. His role likely will expand in 2021 as he transitions from precocious youngster to veteran leader. As he gets stronger and refines his techniques, he could turn in a sack machine.
Bower: With another season in the program under his belt, this edge defender could be in line for a major increase in playing time should he put together another solid offseason.
Thurman: An end/tackle tweener at 6-4, 305, he has good athleticism and strength and just needs more seasoning in the program. Like Bower, he could be ready to be a bigger contributor.
Berry: Impressed the coaching staff with a nice transition to full-time defensive end after also playing tight end in college. Spent the majority of the season on the practice squad but could emerge as a regular in the rotation if he continues to develop.
The free agents
DEs: J.J. Watt, Leonard Williams, Jadeveon Clowney, Romeo Okwara; DTs: Ndamukong Suh, DaQuan Jones, Sheldon Rankins.
Watt: Fresh on the market, the highly decorated Watt is a versatile and powerful defender who can make an impact from nearly every front-seven spot. Though frequently injured throughout his career, he’ll have multiple teams banging on his door. The Steelers, who already have a pair of Watt brothers, have to be considered the front-runners.
Williams: Woolly mammoth defender has excellent strength and can both set the edge against the run and pressure the pocket.
Clowney: When healthy, he’s among the NFL’s elite defenders. His superior combination of speed and strength make him close to unblockable one-on-one. Problem is, he’s rarely 100 percent. Clowney likely will need to take a bridge deal to prove he can stay on the field before he gets another crack at a huge payday.
Okwara: Coming off his best season (10 sacks), he would instantly upgrade any team’s pass rush. Has massive and long arms and can rag-doll blockers with his ridiculous power.
Suh: One of the best hybrid two-gap run-stuffing/one-gap penetrators in league history, he is still going strong at 34; it only seems as if he has been around for 34 seasons.
Jones: A massive specimen at 6-4, 322, Jones is the kind of player who can anchor the middle against the run, occupy blockers, and redirect ball carriers into the arms of other defenders.
Rankins: Another large, powerful man, he’s coming off a subpar season and may have to take a short-term team-friendly deal to prove himself and earn a bigger payday down the road. He’s smart and tough and likely highly motivated.
The bottom line
Keeping Guy, Butler, and Wise in the program should be the top priority before supplementing the front line with some cost-friendly veteran free agents.