INDIANAPOLIS – The Patriots front seven featured a lot of bodies working in a number of situations in 2016, and that was certainly the case inside at defensive tackle. A three-man rotation among Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and rookie Vincent Valentine generally provided stiff run defense and occasional pressure on the pocket.
The problem for the Patriots is Branch is a free agent, and depending on the money he is offered on the open market he could be elsewhere in 2017. The Boston Herald reported this week that the team was negotiating with Branch but the veteran expected to hit the market.
That would leave a void in the middle. Undrafted rookie Woodrow Hamilton came off the practice and contributed a bit early in the season when Valentine was injured, but it's likely the Patriots would want some additional depth at the defensive tackle spot in order to continue their preferred rotation.
The draft is definitely stronger on the defensive side of the ball and up front in particular. There is a deep group of edge rushers but there are also plenty of talented and versatile players who project on the inside. NFLDraftScout.com lists 31 defensive tackles as potentially draftable players, and one of them sits at or near the top of the entire class.
Alabama's Jonathan Allen (6-3, 291) has the ability to play inside and out and some believe he could overtake Texas A&M's Myles Garrett as the No. 1 overall pick.
"I think he's one of the two or three best players in this draft," NFL Network's Mike Mayock said. "I think you bang the tables for him, he came back as a senior and had a crazy good year. His tape is outstanding, and it doesn't matter which tape you put in, they're all good.
"What I like about him is he dominates outside in the run game. So you could line this 296-pound guy up outside on first down, if you wanted to, and let him set a physical edge. But I think he's going to make his money as an inside pass rusher. He's quick enough to beat some of those guards and tackles, and he's strong enough to beat those guards and tackles.
"So inside or outside, I think he's a special player, and I think the fact that he came back this year and had the kind of year he did when it would have been easy to come out last year, for me, I think Cleveland, for one, has got to be looking at the kid from A&M, Myles Garrett, and they've got to be looking at Jonathan Allen."
The talent doesn't end there, and considering the Patriots would have to move up with a significant trade involving Jimmy Garoppolo to land Allen that's a good thing. Some of the highly-regarded players offer different skills sets as well.
As an example, Michigan State's Malik McDowell (6-5, 276) is a smaller, penetrating type in the mold of Dominique Easley. If Bill Belichick is on the lookout for that style of player once again, he is listed as a first-round prospect.
Florida's Caleb Brantley (6-2, 297), Clemson's Carlos Watkins (6-4, 312), Michigan's Chris Wormley (6-5, 297), Washington's Elijah Qualls (6-1, 321), Alabama's Dalvin Tomlinson (6-3, 312) and Charlotte's Larry Ogunjobi (6-2, 304) all could be available in the second round.
Caleb Brantley from Florida I think he's intriguing," Mayock said. "He's a quick, one-gap guy. I don't think you want him playing three downs every snap. But as far as an ability to rush the quarterback and get an edge on interior offensive linemen, I think he's got that burst that you're looking for.
"I think Larry Ogunjobi from Charlotte is a really a talented guy. He's probably a second-round pick. He's got some real quick one-gap-and-go possibilities. He's also a tough guy. At Charlotte, he got to two-gap. He's got run game potential, and I think he's got upside as a pass-game guy."
Ogunjobi's school itself is an interesting story. Charlotte just kickstarted its program in 2013 and the potential second-round pick is a member of his first graduating class.
"I'm not the kind of person to shy away from a challenge," Ogunjobi said of his decision to play for the Niners. "I always want to play against the best but it's a blessing to be a part of a starter program was a unique opportunity."
Interestingly, Ogunjobi enjoys playing on the nose, which isn't typically a job most covet. "I like it a lot," he said. "Centers are lighter and being a big, strong, fast player at the center of at all gives me an opportunity to be a dynamic player who can make plays."
Brantley was teammates with Easley with the Gators and actually idolized the former Patriot, along with Sharrif Floyd, another ex-Gator who is currently with Minnesota. The confident Brantley met with the Patriots and was excited about the meeting but like most who meet with the Patriots brass left with little idea of how the team felt but was hopeful.
"I still believe I'm the best defensive tackle in the draft," said Brantley, who likes to emulate undersized DTs like Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins and Kewann Short. "My competitiveness separates me. Most guys are fast or strong. I feel I'm both. I feel like I can improve on finishing and making more big plays."
Qualls is another guy who met with the Patriots, although he said it was an informal meeting.
"You can just tell those guys are different," he said of the Patriots. "They are very intelligent and no-nonsense. It was just different from most of my other meetings."
There's another group of mid-round possibilities who could factor into the mix including Auburn's Montravius Adams (6-3, 308), Iowa's Jaleel Johnson (6-3, 309), LSU's Davon Godchaux (6-4, 293), Tulane's Tanzel Smart (6-1, 296) and UCLA's Eddie Vanderdoes (6-3, 320). Mayock liked several of these prospects.
"As you drop down and talk about a guy like Tanzel Smart from Tulane," he said. "Again, great motor, has some ability to push the pocket. You know, I think Eddie Vanderdoes from UCLA really helped himself. He had a poor year coming off an ACL. I think he was heavy and out of shape. Then he showed up at the Senior Bowl and started knocking people around. He's more of a physical guy. Always going to rush the quarterback with a bull rush. He's not going to beat you with speed. But he's really strong as can be.
"I think there are other guys in the second-third round, Montravius Adams, Jaleel Johnson, there are some guys out there that can help even through the third round. I think there is really good depth in the first three or four rounds for the interior D-line."
Johnson enjoyed his experiences at the Senior Bowl and felt he experience was beneficial. "It was a whole new world," Johnson said. "It was so professional with everyone moving at a different pace. It was great to be a part of.
"I wanted to prove I could get some pressure on the quarterback. Playing the run has always been my strength but I wanted to emphasize my other abilities."
Godchaux is another player who felt his run-stopping abilities stood out, and he has the versatility to play in 4-3 and 3-4 fronts with varied responsibilities. The same could be said of Adams, who has really enjoyed the Combine process.
"Not too many people get a chance to do what I'm doing and I feel blessed to be here," Adams said. "I feel comfortable playing in a 4-3 and a 3-4 and I played some defensive end as well. My ability to be a versatile player, work hard every down, come every day ready to work and sacrifice for the team – that's what I want to show teams I can do."
Vanderdoes is later-round prospect but as Mayock mentioned has the strength to make some noise. "I'm very heavy-handed and quick-footed," Vanderdoes said. "I'm not the fastest but I'm agile and have the ability to collapse the pocket. I feel like I have some versatility to my game."
One mammoth late-round player who stood out was USC's Stevie Tu'ikolovatu (6-1, 350). In terms of pure run-stuffers, it's tough to get any bigger than that in the college ranks.
Defensive tackle is not among the Patriots most pressing needs but it is a position Belichick has targeted often. He's selected 18 interior defensive linemen in his 17 drafts in New England including one in each of the last three. If he's looking for a potential replacement for Branch, there are guys with the size to do so, but there are also some athletic and versatile performers who might make sense as well.