The biggest storyline coming out of Patriots training camp is the slow build-up for the offense, but there's a flip side worth mentioning through seven training camp practices.
Although the offense is experiencing growing pains, New England's defensive front is contributing to those struggles by providing stout and disruptive play in the trenches. In the first two full-contact sessions, the defensive line decisively controlled the line of scrimmage.
For a Patriots run defense that finished in the middle of the pack a year ago, it has been challenging to run the football for Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, and the rest of the Pats backs.
Among the early standouts is second-year defensive tackle Christian Barmore, who had several dominant reps during one-on-ones and is single-handily blowing up plays in team periods.
From this vantage point, Barmore has been New England's best player on either side of the ball through seven practices and is poised to take a major year-two leap in the Pats defense.
Speaking to reporters after Wednesday's session, Barmore documented a conditioning-heavy offseason regiment that took place down in the Texas heat.
"I was training in Texas in the heat. A lot of cardio more than anything, and a lot of footwork drills," Barmore explained. "I rode the bike, ran the hill, and did a lot of curve drills like running [through] the bags. Did a lot of suicides. That's my style."
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick noted that improved physical conditioning is often the case for second-year players since they have an entire offseason in the team's strength and conditioning program.
"Being in condition and having a good offseason program, much better than what most rookies have coming in after the draft. Knowing our defense, his teammates and how to communicate with them, and what the offense does. And having a better idea of quicker recognition, reads, anticipation things like that," Belichick said of Barmore's improvements.
In a very successful rookie season, Barmore logged the second-most quarterback pressures by a rookie interior defensive lineman since 2006 with 48, according to Pro Football Focus.
Whether it's during team drills or one-on-one periods, Barmore's first-step explosiveness and upper-body power to disengage are giving blockers fits. During the Pats second padded practice on Tuesday, Barmore used a push-pull move to dip underneath and beat starting guard Mike Onwenu clean. Then, Barmore introduced rookies Cole Strange and Kody Russey to the NFL by discarding the two first-year offensive linemen in one-on-one battles.
Later, Barmore wrecked two consecutive plays in a team period by firing into his gap to blow up a running play and powering through the pocket right into rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe's lap.
The goal this season for Barmore is to increase his playing time from 55.4 percent as a rookie to a three-down player by improving as a run defender to round out his game.
"Playing the run better, playing the stretch [run] better, is really my number one goal. Getting better with playing the run and the footwork and everything."
In particular, Barmore is focused on improving his technique against combination or double-team blocks to hold his ground in the running game. An area that he says teammate Trent Brown gives him tips on and also gets the better of him from time to time.
"The guy that gives me a little bit of trouble is my guy Trent Brown. He teaches me a lot of things, especially when he comes off the ball and doubles. He's a really good player. I learn a lot from him."
Along with Barmore, veteran Henry Anderson is also in the mix after a season-ending injury halted his first season with the Patriots following signing as a free agent in the 2021 offseason.
With Deatrich Wise limited in practice, Anderson has stepped in at defensive end with the first unit and made a noticeable impact. Along with Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy, the Patriots defense routinely holds the point of attack and plugs gaps.
"It feels great. Getting hurt always sucks," Anderson said on his return to the field this summer. "It makes you realize how much you love the game, so being back out there and being with all the guys again is awesome."
With Anderson working as a base defensive end, his primary responsibility is to stop the run. But he has also shown up a few times in passing situations rushing the quarterbacks. For example, Anderson came through the left side to bat down a Mac Jones pass at the line of scrimmage in Tuesday's fully padded practice.
"Versatile players are incredibly useful in our scheme. I've always tried to excel both in the run and in the pass. I try to work on everything to be someone they can rely on first, second, and third down. Training camp, for me, is all about getting comfortable with the scheme, getting comfortable with all the different checks and play calls we have, and just trying to execute the best I can."
Anderson also added that he feels healthy after a torn pectoral muscle ended his 2021 season after just four games, saying, "it feels 100 percent ready to go, so there aren't any limitations. That arm is getting pulled in weird ways, and it's not an issue."
Although Anderson and Barmore are the two biggest risers in the early stages of training camp, others along the defensive line have also contributed to the groups' strong start to the summer.
Fresh off signing a two-year contract extension, defensive tackle Davon Godchaux has made his presence felt numerous times, while undrafted rookie LaBryan Ray is emerging as a candidate to extend New England's UDFA streak to a 19th season.
We'll need to see more than two days in full pads before saying the defensive line is significantly improved, but Barmore's potential jump and Anderson's presence as a sturdy run defender is a great starting point. Barmore, in particular, blossoming into an every-down force could change the complexion of the entire defense.
As the Patriots move closer to the preseason and back-to-back weeks of joint practices, early returns suggest that their defensive line will be harder to block this season.