2006: In his third year with the Patriots, the team's heaviest member played big on the inside. Early in the season he spoke about adjusting his approach to the position since entering the NFL, actually slowing his rush to prevent space from opening up in his wake. The adjustment, no doubt a result of Dante Scarnecchia's expertise, allowed the outside pressure from defensive end Ty Warren to be more effective this year than ever before. Wilfork started all but three games this season, posting 81 tackles, four quarterback hurries and a sack during the regular season. His 81 tackles ranked fourth on the team.
Outlook: Wilfork had one of the biggest heads-up plays of the playoffs (perhaps second to Troy Brown's forced fumble against the Chargers) when he grabbed a lateral in the Jets game and rumbled 31 yards with it before being brought down. He's an instinctive player with the size and strength to remain the core of what could end up being the best defensive line in the NFL in years to come. According to the NFL Players Association, he's under contract through 2009.
2006: The big story early in the season was that Wright was big enough to play on the Patriots oversized defensive line and fast enough to get down the field and make open field tackles on special teams. This former undrafted free agent started four games, recording 47 tackles, two quarterback hurries and a sack. He proved he's an excellent backup, and made himself useful on special teams over the course of the entire season.
Outlook: Wright showed marked improvement this season. He's scheduled to become an exclusive rights free agent, but the Patriots will likely re-sign him to be Wilfork's primary backup in a tough system to master.
Le Kevin Smith
2006: The rookie was inactive for much of the season, but stepped in to relieve Wright when Wilfork sat out the last three games of the season. He only recorded two tackles after arriving from Nebraska.
Outlook: A sixth-rounder, Smith spent much of his first season maturing in the Patriots demanding 2-gap defense. Coach Bill Belichick likes to give players as much time to improve as possible, and Smith's under contract through 2009. It seems he'll likely be back in 2007.
2006: Thomas is a practice squad player who hasn't contributed in a regular season game in two seasons with the Patriots.
Outlook: Thomas could stick around, but if the Pats acquire a new defensive lineman, his time in New England could be running out.
Analysis: The Patriots defense requires interior linemen to take up a lot of space and play with more leverage than other systems around the league. These guys aren't chasing glory; they're pursuing collective achievement, encouraging each other by awarding the "Lineman of the Week" (chosen among the group after they study the game film) a heavyweight belt. The Patriots system is designed so that proper execution often means freeing up a linebacker to make the play, but the talented first string of first-round linemen still made things happen on their own this season. Wilfork is extremely agile and strong. If he can continue to work with Warren and Richard Seymour over the next few years, as is expected, this group could be extremely dangerous. Wright proved his mettle, and said he no longer felt nervous after getting three consecutive starts at the end of the regular season.