Sixth in a series on the Patriots’ status at each position group heading into training camp.
There’s significant turnover from last season’s Patriots defensive front. Gone from a unit that performed well is former first-rounder Dominique Easley (Rams) and the solid and steady Akiem Hicks (Bears).
On the interior, Alan Branch is strong and powerful. Ditto for second-year man Malcom Brown, who is also deceptively quick and relentless. Can’t really remember a time when he looked like a rookie last season.
Terrance Knighton and Markus Kuhn add depth and a lot of beef up front. Knighton, a native New Englander, has quickly endeared himself to local fans — if there’s a bigger Celtics fan literally and figuratively, I want proof. “Pot Roast” can anchor against the run and will eat space. Kuhn is strong, sneaky quick, and works to the whistle.
Rookie third-rounder Vincent Valentine (6 feet 3 inches, 320 pounds) has mammoth size and a powerful body. He figures to fit into the rotation if he can stay healthy, which was a problem in college (Nebraska).
The Patriots have exceptional depth on the outside, especially if Rob Ninkovich and Shea McClellin remain as on-the-line players. Ninkovich worked as an inside linebacker during the spring. McClellin, who played outside linebacker in Chicago, was at defensive end.
Ninkovich has the chops to play anywhere in this defense. He’ll get to the ball no matter where he’s lined up. McClellin, a former first-round pick, is sturdy and quick. Similar to Ninkovich, he has a nose for the quarterback and the ball.
Jabaal Sheard proved rather quickly that he could make plays from any spot last season after playing exclusively on the edge in Cleveland. He’s an impressive and intimidating presence. The sky’s the limit for him in this defense. Getting him signed beyond 2016 is a priority.
Chris Long is looking for a bounce back after some injury issues in St. Louis. Long is an exceptionally smart player (it’s no wonder he gravitated to Ninkovich quickly), comes from great stock, and if he’s healthy he can still be a force off the edge.
Tough calls on Frank Kearse and second-year players Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom, the latter two having practice-squad eligibility. These three are caught in a numbers crunch and it wouldn’t be a surprise if any or all earned a spot with standout summers.
As rookies, Grissom was hampered by inexperience and Flowers by injuries.
At this point, it’s tough to imagine Woodrow Hamilton, Anthony Johnson, or Joe Vellano ascending the depth chart high enough to make a push for a spot. Strong camps can turn players from long shots to sure shots, however, and there’s always at least one surprise every summer. Like Flowers and Grissom, these three have practice-squad eligibility.
Up next: Linebackers.