Latest in an occasional series looking at the Patriots position by position.
The defensive line was an area of strength for the Patriots in 2015, but there are big question marks on the inside (Will Akiem Hicks re-sign? Can Dominique Easley stay healthy?) and on the outside (Is Chandler Jones’s future in New England?).
It was an up-and-down year for Jones, who was at times dominant off the edge and earned his first Pro Bowl nod. However, the 25-year-old’s season was marred by an embarrassing incident during the playoff bye week when he arrived at the Foxborough police station looking for help and was briefly hospitalized after reportedly using synthetic marijuana.
Jones is part of the defensive big four — along with Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Malcolm Butler — who will be looking for new contracts and decent raises as they enter the final year of their deals.
It’s unclear whether the late-season incident will affect Jones’s status with the club. He is set to make $7.8 million for the upcoming season (fifth-highest on the team), and it’s realistic that he could command upward of $10 million per annum on his next deal.
The Patriots do have depth at end, with the steady and versatile Rob Ninkovich (he can basically play anywhere on the front seven) and the young and versatile Jabaal Sheard (he was solid off the edge and in the middle). Ninkovich, 32, and Sheard, 26, are signed through the upcoming season.
Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers are coming off uneventful rookie seasons but are highly thought of and will be counted on to be part of the rotation. Grissom showed he could play on the inside as well, while Flowers was slowed by shoulder and knee injuries. Both are signed through 2018.
Rufus Johnson is an exclusive-rights free agent who had an excellent camp and exhibition season. He looked like he would be a solid contributor before an undisclosed illness cut his season short. It would be a surprise if he didn’t get another shot.
Dekoda Watson is a free agent whose biggest contributions come on special teams.
End wouldn’t seem to be a high free agent priority, but interesting names out there are Randy Starks, Chris Clemons, and Cullen Jenkins.
Some edge rushers who may be available when the Patriots pick are Florida’s Jonathan Bullard, Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun, and Penn State’s Carl Nassib.
On the inside, the Patriots enjoyed excellent production and depth last season with the rotation of Easley, Hicks, Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, and Sealver Siliga.
The rookie Brown grew up fast and will be an anchor for seasons to come. He’s strong, smart, speedy, and signed through 2018 with a team option for ’19.
Easley is quick and athletic and was showing signs of becoming a vital cog until he was again bitten by the injury bug and was placed on injured reserve in December with a thigh ailment. He is signed through 2017 with a team option for ’18.
Hicks was a hit (literally and figuratively) after arriving via trade with the Saints and is probably the in-house free agent the Patriots would most like to retain. He was particularly stout down the stretch after Easley was sidelined. According to a league source, the Patriots have reached out in an attempt to re-sign him.
Branch, 31, is the grizzled veteran of the group. The Patriots will pick up Branch’s $400,000 bonus due Wednesday, locking him in through 2016. He is great against the run, plays with emotion, and is great in the locker room.
When asked at one point during the season why he was so effective against the run, Branch quipped, “I just hit the dude in front of me.’’
Siliga was a solid run stuffer but fell on the depth chart as the season progressed and he won’t be back.
Other tackles on the roster signed through 2016 include Chris Jones (he spent the year on the physically unable to perform list), Ishmaa’ily Kitchen (a late-season pickup), and Joe Vellano (he signed a future contract after the season).
Other than Hicks, some of the top tackles on the market include Nick Fairley, Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, Chris Canty, and Brandon Mebane.
Draft names to keep in mind are Ohio State’s Adolphus Washington, yet another Chris Jones, this one from Mississippi State, Texas’s Hassan Ridgeway, and Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day.
Jim McBride can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.