INDIANAPOLIS – Vince Wilfork has been the centerpiece of the Patriots defensive line and run defense for more than a decade.
The former first-round pick is a unique force in the middle of Bill Belichick's front. But sooner or later – whether due to simple aging or Wilfork's hefty $8-plus million 2015 cap number – the Pro Bowler's run of success will come to an end in Foxborough.
And while the team tapped Dominque Easley with its first-round selection a year ago, the Florida product is more of an athletic, penetrating type player than a long-term replacement for Wilfork's unique skills.
The rest of the interior depth chart includes former practice squader Sealver Siliga as well as mid-2014 veteran signing Alan Branch. Siliga has been a solid run player when healthy the last two years, but has dealt with multiple injuries. Branch filled a situational role, but like Wilfork is on the wrong side of 30.
Chris Jones is a versatile former undrafted rookie who's more of an athletic option and penetrator to back up Easley moving forward.
So heading into the 2015 NFL Draft season, the idea of adding a stout, run-stuffing defensive tackle might be on the Patriots radar of needs.
According to NFLDraftScout.com there are 28 defensive tackles with the potential of being drafted, although many are of the more athletic penetrating style. That includes the top prospect along the defensive line, USC underclassman Leonard Williams (6-5, 298).
Williams can move all around the defensive line, as he did often for the Trojans, and hasn't given up hope that he might unseat the quarterbacks to vie for the No. 1 overall pick.
"I'm competing with quarterbacks at a really different position than quarterback," Williams said, making his case to go No. 1. "I would say that from the previous years sometimes it's like taking a chance when you take a quarterback. You never know what you're going to get. I would say that I'm going to bring that disruption and physical-ness and I'm going to bring and get after the quarterback and get some sacks."
Williams is the first of what NFLDraftScout.com sees as six defensive tackles with the potential to go in the first round. Next in line is a Washington's Danny Shelton (6-2, 343) who like Wilfork is a run-stuffer with athleticism to go along with it.
The rest of that group of early options includes Texas' Malcom Brown (6-4, 320), Oklahoma's Jordan Phillips (6-6, 334), Florida State's Eddie Goldman (6-3, 334) and Iowa's Carl Davis (6-5, 321).
Goldman is physical, stout force in the middle who also happens to be a student of the game. He's studied many tackles from different eras of football, and even wore No. 81 during his freshman year to pay homage to Minnesota Vikings Purple People Eaters great Carl Eller.
In a game now filled with defensive tackles who fancy themselves more athletic penetrators, Goldman doesn't mind mucking it up in the trenches.
"Just tough, hard-nosed. I can give you a little finesse now and again. But for the main part, I'm a tough, hard-nosed type of guy," Goldman said, emphasizing winning the battles up front. "Point of attack. Everything is important but point of attack is the most critical, critical part. The start of anything is the most critical. That's what I try to work hard at every day."
And Goldman has no problem being considered the top run stuffer in the class of defensive tackles, for whatever that might be worth on draft day.
"It's accurate and I like it," he said.
Davis might be a consideration for New England as well, both due to ties to Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa program and the fact that it's one of the few college teams that two-gaps. Davis had an impressive week of practice at the Senior Bowl and has plenty of confidence in his style, which is both stout and penetrating.
"I feel like I'm a disruptive player," Davis said. "I'm a nightmare who's always in the backfield. I can go through people or around them."
While there are intriguing athletic tackles slated for the second and third rounds, Houston's Joey Mbu (6-3, 313) is more of a run stuffer who might be a mid-round option. Mbu played for three different coordinators in three different schemes in his time at Houston and hopes that will help him transition to the next level. Early in his career he was a 350-pound defensive end, but the playful big fella has settled into a more productive size.
Mbu, a captain at Houston, said he'd already had "pretty good conversation" with the Patriots, talking a lot of Xs and Os with the team. A guy who likes to play with power, Mbu may even do that at a level beyond his natural size and strength.
"A lot of it is technique," he says.
In the latter rounds one smaller-school guy to keep an eye on is Northwestern Louisiana State's Deon Simon (6-4, 329). Simon is certainly a developmental nose tackle type.
'I think I fit in pretty well," Simon said simply of his spot within a class of players from much bigger schools and conferences. "I have athleticism, height, size and strength."
Another latter-round option might be Fresno State's Tyeler Davison (6-2, 315). Davison started 38 games as a nose tackle for the Bulldogs.
"I want to show that I'm the best defensive tackle in the draft," said the confident Davison, who met with the Patriots at the East West Shrine Bowl. "I spent three years at nose tackle at Fresno and I'm looking forward to being let loose. I'd like to penetrate if given the opportunity."
If the Patriots don't go for a true Wilfork type, the options are seemingly endless from top to bottom in terms of the more athletic penetrators in the mold of Easley.
Ohio State's Michael Bennett (6-2, 288) and Washington State's Xavier Cooper (6-3, 293) would certainly fill that bill. Cooper is a very impressive athlete who emphasizes his ability to play any spot across a defensive front.
Cooper jokes that he grew up playing soccer but, "after I got too big for soccer they kicked me off the field. Parents didn't want me pushing their kids."
Now that size and athleticism could be his ticket to NFL success. He is also a former track athlete.
"Running just came natural to me," Cooper says of a strength that should help him in his Combine drills and testing. "I'm hoping to put on a show, hopefully run in the low 4.7s (in the 40)."
An intriguing mid-round athletic prospect is Rice's Christian Covington (6-3, 295). Covington is still rehabbing from a dislocated kneecap that cut his final collegiate season short. Interestingly he's also one of four Canadian players at the Combine, and the son of CFL Hall of Famer Grover Covington.
Covington makes it clear that he expects to win matchups with his athleticism more than anything else.
"I feel it's my quickness is my greatest attribute," he says. "My ability to beat the offensive linemen off the ball and to be able to get my first two steps in quicker than him."
Clemson's Grady Jarrett (6-1, 304) is another mid-round penetrating type. He knows he's a bit shorter than most of his Combine competitors, but also thinks that can be helpful at times.
"I feel like it's an advantage. I don't know about small, but shorter than average, but I feel like it's an advantage to get leverage and just being able to be disruptive in the backfield," Jarrett says. "Guys who are built like me always have a chip on our shoulder. There's always somebody telling you that you can't do it."
One interesting if questionable late-round possibility would be Florida's Leon Orr (6-5, 319). Orr was kicked off the Gators team after finding out he was not going to start a game at Vanderbilt and leaving the team. That's certainly a red flag, especially when it occurred for a coach in Will Muschamp that Belichick has great respect for.
But Orr certainly has some physical tools that might make him a value late-round pick or even priority free agent if he can prove himself to NFL teams.
"It kind of ended the way it ended and it just ended the wrong way," Orr says of his Florida career. "Just trying to move on from it and become a better player from it, but learn more about professionalism and accountability."
Not surprisingly he'd much rather focus on his physical attributes than his questionable history.
"The biggest thing that I feel like I bring to the table is my versatility," Orr says. "So I could play the nose, I can play the 4, I can play the 5 and I can kind of put myself in position to do whatever I need to do to help the team win."
Regardless of what the Patriots might be looking for on the defensive line this April or how important a need the interior line may be, there is a prospect to consider in the draft class.
From big-bodied, athletic playmakers to strong, stout run stuffers willing to eat up blockers, the defensive line crop at the Combine is a diverse group. And one that New England will certainly ponder picking from this spring to help add depth and developmental talent to the team's Wilfork-led defensive front.