The defensive line was an area of strength for the Patriots in 2015, and the way things are shaping up, that could be the case again in 2016 — though the cast of characters has changed significantly over the last few weeks and more changes could be in the offing.
The biggest questions entering the offseason were: Could they re-sign Akiem Hicks, and was Chandler Jones’s future in New England?
The answer to both was no, but the team has moved quickly to fill the voids and build depth, signing free agents Chris Long for the outside and Frank Kearse on the inside.
The additions may not be over, as veteran tackle Nick Fairley told reporters Monday he was in Florida to meet with Patriots officials. A first-round pick of the Lions in 2011, the 28-year-old Fairley played in 15 games (zero starts) for the Rams last year, making 29 tackles and a half-sack.
For his career, he has 127 tackles and 14 sacks. Fairley reportedly is talking with the Saints and Rams as well. He would be the fourth former first-rounder to sign with the Patriots this offseason, joining Long, linebacker Shea McClellin, and running back Donald Brown.
Guard Jonathan Cooper, acquired in the Jones trade, in another former first-rounder.
While Long, who signed a one-year deal, isn’t expected to match Jones’s production — the Pro Bowler had 12½ sacks in 2015 — he will be part of a solid rotation on the outside.
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 solid contributor before an undisclosed illness cut his season short. He was tendered for the upcoming year and will get another shot to earn a spot.
Dekoda Watson is a free agent whose biggest contributions come on special teams.
If the Patriots are looking to build more depth through the draft, some edge rushers who may be available include 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 Hicks, Malcom Brown, Dominique Easley, 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 in the operation 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. He was particularly stout down the stretch after Easley went down and was probably the in-house free agent the Patriots would have most liked to retain. He signed a two-year deal with the Bears, though the Patriots were in the running until the end.
Branch, 31, is the grizzled veteran of the group. Branch, who is signed through this season, is great against the run, plays with great 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 has since signed a one-year deal with the Seahawks.
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 (he was a late-season pickup), and Joe Vellano (he signed a future contract after the season).
Other than Fairley, some of the top tackles on the market include 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.