Defensive end Mike Rucker #93 of the Carolina Panthers. Getty Images
Defensive line is one of the strongest, deepest positions on the New England Patriots roster.
Ends Richard Seymour (one of the best in the game when healthy) and Ty Warren team with nose tackle Vince Wilfork (a first-time Pro Bowler this past season), each of whom was a first-round draft pick by the Patriots, to form one of the most formidable units in the NFL.
New England even has quality depth with Jarvis Green,Mike Wright, and Le Kevin Smith interchangeable across the front of the Pats' 3-4 defense. But in head coach Bill Belichick's system, which relies heavily on multiple looks to confuse opposing offenses, you can ever have enough quality defensive linemen.
Which is why you might see the Patriots sign a free agent or two this offseason, despite the fact that many of the premier names have signed elsewhere already.
Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth would have been right at the top of that list, but the Titans applied their franchise tag to him last month. The Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs did the same with their star DEs Terrell Suggs and Jared Allen, respectively.
Versatile DT Corey Williams of Green Bay was also franchised, but the Packers soon thereafter traded him to Cleveland. Ebenezer Ekuban re-signed with the Denver Broncos, and DE Jevon Kearse, cut by Philadelphia this week, was quickly scooped up by his original team, the Tennessee Titans, who lost Antwan Odom to the Bengals.
Cincinnati was in need of an end when their former first-rounder, Justin Smith, signed with San Francisco, while Jacksonville's Bobby McCray joined the New Orleans Saints.
With all that activity, there doesn't leave much left for New England to choose from, but there may still be a few options to consider.
Who's Out There
(Players listed alphabetically)
Marques Douglas, San Francisco
A former Baltimore Raven (he started all 16 games for them in 2003), Douglas had one of the best seasons of his career last year for the 49ers. He started all 16 games, as he had the previous year (and 15 of 16 the two seasons prior), recording 71 total tackles (55 solo), three sacks, and a trio of passes defensed. He'll turn 31 this month, but is playing at his most productive level ever.
Mike Rucker, Carolina
A perennial starter for the Panthers, Rucker had 47 total tackles (33 solo) to go along with three sacks and three passes defensed in '07. His consistent productivity, even at age 32, could be a great addition to the Pats' already solid D-line.
Greg Spires, *Tampa Bay
*Originally a Patriot from 1998-2000, Spires moved on to Cleveland in '01 before finding years of success with the Bucs. At 33, the 6-1, 265-pounder could provide solid depth and versatility in the Pats' scheme. And having already won a Super Bowl ring with Tampa in '02, he may be hungry for another.
Ethan Kelley, *Cleveland
*Kelley is another former Patriot (drafted in 2003) who the team might consider bringing back, although he's coming of a 2007 season that ended with him on injured reserve (Christmas Eve, with a knee injury). If he's healthy enough to take part in training camp, the 6-2, 338-pound Kelley, who knows the Pats' 3-4 scheme from playing in it under Browns coach and former Pats defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, could fight for a backup spot to Wilfork.
Damione Lewis, *Carolina
*The 30-year-old Lewis has never quite lived up to the top billing that earned him a first-round selection by the St. Louis Rams in 2001. His best year was 2004, when he started 10 games for the Rams. Lewis still has the size (6-2, 301) and experience to compete for a job.
Larry Tripplett, *Buffalo
*Tripplett is another high-round choice (second-round by Indy in '02) who may still have some mileage left. He started all 16 games for the Bills the past two seasons before being cut last month. Like the others, he'd be providing solid depth at an already deep position here in New England.