This article originally appeared in the July 18 issue of Patriots Footall Weekly. To subscribe, click here.
There were a lot of heroes responsible for the Patriots improbable victory over Atlanta in Super Bowl LI. James White immediately jumps to the top of the list alongside Tom Brady, Danny Amendola and Dont'a Hightower.
While it may not get the same type of recognition, it would not be a stretch to put the defensive line in a similar category. In reality, there wouldn't have been enough time for the Patriots to mount their miracle comeback without some game-altering plays on defense, and most of them came from the guys up front.
Trey Flowers had 2.5 sacks while Alan Branch added a key fumble recovery to go with a half sack of his own. Hightower's game-changing strip sack was recovered by Branch while Flowers' final sack knocked the Falcons out of field goal range late in the game.
Without any of these plays the Patriots would have been hard-pressed to win. The question now is, will the group be able to continue that productive play? On paper there doesn't figure to be much of a difference between last year's cast of characters and the current crop. Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long left via free agency but neither provided much production a year ago.
In their place are Kony Ealy, thanks to a trade with Carolina, and free agent addition Lawrence Guy. Guy is more of an interior presence but he's shown the versatility to work outside as well and could provide depth in both spots. Add in draft picks Derek Rivers (third round) and Deatrich Wise (fourth) and the Patriots could see a net gain overall up front.
But there are some concerns as well. Branch, who was the unit's top performer a year ago, especially against the run, is banged up and will begin training camp on PUP after re-signing as a free agent. His availability is in question and his absence would create a hole at defensive tackle.
That could be mitigated somewhat by the presence of Malcom Brown, who is entering his third season after being selected in the first round in 2015. However, Brown hasn't developed as quickly as hoped and has shown long stretches of inconsistency during his time in New England.
Because of that rookie Vincent Valentine was thrust into a larger-than-expected role a year ago and he performed reasonably well. Guy will also be in the mix for an interior spot, leaving four options for the two positions depending on health and how Bill Belichick chooses to employ his talent.
Woodrow Hamilton appeared in two games as an undrafted rookie a year ago before injuries shortened his season. He showed some promise in limited action and could join Darius Kilgo, a third-year player who spent one game on the active roster in 2016, in a fight for a spot. Rookies Josh Augusta and Adam Butler round out the depth chart on the inside.
Outside things aren't any clearer. Ealy is looking to establish himself after three uneven seasons with the Panthers. The former second-round pick enjoyed a dominant Super Bowl 50 in a loss to Denver but otherwise has been rather enigmatic in his short career.
He started just six of 16 games last year and finished with 5 sacks, most of which came down the stretch. He'll need to show more consistency and effort if he is to earn and keep a starting position in New England.
If he can't lock down the job look for Flowers to keep the spot he finished the season with. He came on strong midway through the year and finished with 7 sacks while starting eight of 16 games. He will be the likely starter assuming Ealy works as a pass rush specialist, but he will also need to deal with the added attention he's likely to receive after his breakout performance.
Veteran Rob Ninkovich will likely handle things on the other side depending again on how Belichick chooses to approach things. Ninkovich can play end or linebacker and has always been strong setting the edge against the run while providing timely pressure on the passer.
He is nearing the end of the line, however, as he enters his 12th season with plenty of wear on his tires thanks to some incredibly durable stretches that saw him play almost every snap for multiple seasons.
It will be interesting to see where the draft picks enter the equation. Rivers has the athleticism to work in a specialist role if he picks things up. Wise isn't strictly a pass rusher and he was seen dropping off the line at times during the spring, which is perhaps an indication that the coaches view him as having some versatility.
Geneo Grissom has been largely a special teams player to this point but the third-year man out of Oklahoma has the athleticism to do more at some point. His time on defense has been quite limited, however.
Overall it's a varied group of defensive linemen with the versatility Belichick often craves. The key may be Ealy, who missed some time during the spring for unspecified reasons. If he performs like Sheard did in 2015 the Patriots may have something. If he continues to confound his coaches, the pass rush could suffer and the front would lose some luster.
DE Kony Ealy (Trade, Carolina), DL Lawrence Guy (FA, Baltimore), DE Derek Rivers (3rd round, Youngstown State), DL Deatrich Wise (4th round, Arkansas)
Chris Long (FA, Philadelphia), Jabaal Sheard (FA, Indianapolis)
Trey Flowers -He'll receive a lot more attention after his terrific season a year ago and will need to produce in similar fashion.
Will there be enough depth on the edge to provide pressure on the passer?
Alan Branch's age and health are concerns, especially if Malcom Brown doesn't emerge as a front-line talent, and as a result the front could lack the depth it displayed a year ago.
DE Rob Ninkovich
DE Trey Flowers
DT Vincent Valentine
DT Malcom Brown
Brendan Daly, 4th season with Patriots / 12th NFL season
|NO.||PLAYER (POS., YEAR)||GP/GS||TT||UT||A||S/YDS.||FF||FR|
|72||Josh Augusta (DT, rookie)|
|97||Alan Branch (DT, 11th year)||16/16||49||26||23||1.5/0.5||1||0|
|90||**Malcom Brown (DT, 3rd year)**||**16/16**||**50**||**24**||**26**||**3.0/28.0**||**1**||**0**|
|70||Adam Butler (DL, rookie)|
|94||Kony Ealy (DE, 4th year)||16/6||32||19||13||5.0/19.0||2||0*|
|98||**Trey Flowers (DE, 3rd year)**||**16/8**||**45**||**23**||**22**||**7.0/45.0**||**0**||**2**|
|93||Lawrence Guy (DT, 7th year)||16/10||28||14||14||1.0/3.0||1||1^|
|92||Geneo Grissom (DE, 3rd year)||11/0||1||0||1||0.0/0.0||0||0|
|74||Woodrow Hamilton (DT, 2nd year)||2/1||3||1||2||0.0/0.0||0||0|
|96||Darius Kilgo (DT, 3rd year)||0/0||0||0||0||0.0/0.0||0||0|
|50||**Rob Ninkovich (DE, 12th year)**||**12/11**||**32**||**17**||**15**||**4.0/24.0**||**1**||**0**|
|95||Derek Rivers (DE, rookie)|
|99||**Vincent Valentine (DT, 2nd year)**||**13/2**||**19**||**11**||**8**||**1.0/3.0**||**0**||**0**|
|91||Deatrich Wise (DL, rookie)|
Stats for 2016 - bold indicates projected starter
*-with Carolina; ^-With Baltimore