The Patriots addressed their needs on the defensive line this offseason
The Patriots significantly bolstered their first line of defense with the offseason acquisitions of behemoth nose man Danny Shelton and effective edge rusher Adrian Clayborn.
These additions will help the Patriots get the most out of Trey Flowers, their best and most versatile defensive lineman. Flowers likely will team with Clayborn on the edges on early downs and then move inside on passing downs, where his quickness and strength often overwhelm blockers.
Shelton (6 feet 2 inches, 335 pounds) is a space-eating widebody who should immediately help a front seven that struggled at times against the run in 2017. Shelton has impressive upper-body strength and surprisingly nimble feet. He is angry off the snap and can stack and shed blockers quickly and efficiently. Shelton can clog lanes and occupy multiple bodies to allow linebackers a clear path to the ball; Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts are going to love this guy.
Shelton, who was acquired in trade from the Cleveland Browns in a deal that also involved a swap of draft picks, figures to have a prominent presence in an interior rotation that includes Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, and Vincent Valentine.
Brown, entering his fourth season, has a nice blend of quickness and strength and is coming off a solid campaign. He dropped weight during the season but maintained his power and gained speed. Brown is strong at the point of attack but also makes plenty of plays on the back side.
Guy was a consistent and durable force in his first year in Foxborough. He was a bull against the run and finished second in tackles among New England linemen with 58.
Butler was a rookie revelation. A worker bee with a nonstop motor, Butler is instinctive and reactive, and his role should continue to grow.
Following a solid rookie season, Valentine sat out 2017 as he recovered from a knee injury. When healthy, he was a solid contributor. He can overpower opponents with a nifty blend of size (6-3, 320), strength, and quickness.
Clayborn (6-3, 280), who signed as a free agent after playing three years with Atlanta and four with Tampa Bay, has some violence to his game. He bursts off the edge with power and decent quickness. Clayborn doesn’t possess elite speed but turns on the jets when closing in on quarterbacks.
Clayborn has said he’s been “pigeonholed” as a pass-rushing specialist in the past, but he does have the strength to set the edge against the run, and he’ll likely get plenty of opportunities to prove it.
Flowers (team-high 6½ sacks) spent lots of time mentoring Deatrich Wise Jr. last season. Wise collected five sacks as a third-down pass rusher. Wise has long, disruptive arms, and as he refines his techniques (there’s a swim move coming), he will only get better.
There are three candidates looking to make an impact as front-seven pass rushers: Eric Lee, Derek Rivers, and Keionta Davis.
Lee provided some positive glimpses (and 3½ sacks) in limited playing time after being signed off the Bills practice squad in late December.
Rivers missed his rookie season after tearing an ACL during a kickoff drill at a joint practice with the Texans in August. Rivers, the Patriots’ top pick, was stringing together a bunch of nice practices when he was felled. Rivers (6-5, 250) looked pretty healthy by the end of the season and will be expected to be a heavy contributor in 2018.
Rivers has excellent length and relentless closing speed. He possesses the athleticism and versatility that would allow him to play pretty much any front-seven spot.
Davis (6-4, 260) is an interesting prospect. He collected 23½ sacks over his last two seasons at Tennessee-Chattanooga but went undrafted because of a bulging disk in his neck. The Patriots signed him, and he basically spent 2017 as a redshirt season, recuperating and learning the system.
Davis is thickly built, with tremendous upper-body strength, and could develop into a dual threat as both a pass rusher and edge setter.
Veteran Geneo Grissom provides depth all along the line.
Primary 2017 starters: Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy.
Expected 2018 starters: Flowers, Brown, Guy, Adrian Clayborn.
53-man depth chart: DT — Brown, Guy, Danny Shelton, Adam Butler, Vincent Valentine; DE — Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr., Clayborn, Eric Lee, Geneo Grissom, Derek Rivers, Keionta Davis.
Possible draft option: Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama (fourth round). Hand has good size (6 feet 4 inches, 285 pounds) and the frame to get even bigger. Though he played end in college, he could play both inside and outside at the next level. He has violent hands and will get off blocks quickly. Hand is a superb run defender but struggled with consistency.