FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - With a group comprised of versatility, youth and depth, the New England Patirots defensive line was one of team's most productive units in 2004.
The Patriots carried seven linemen on the active roster for most of the season, a group that averaged 25.7 years of age despite the presence of 35-year-old veteran Keith Traylor. The group began the season with Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork in the starting lineup, a trio of former first-round picks younger than 25 that project as the starters again next season. Besides youth and depth, the group also showcases its versatility. Seymour, Warren, Wilfork and reserve Jarvis Green often play both inside and outside in both the 3-4 and 4-3 alignments, allowing the Patriots defensive front to be a chameleon to opposing offenses.
]()Any talk of the Patriots defensive line usually starts with Seymour, who produced another Pro Bowl season in 2004. Seymour, who is now a perennial Pro Bowl player - he has three straight trips - finished with 67 total tackles and was third on the team with 5.0 sacks, tops among the defensive linemen. Statistically, Seymour's numbers may have dropped off from 2003, but his impact was felt just the same. At 6-6 and 310 pounds, he is a force against the run and as a pass rusher, and also has the ability to play inside in 4-3 alignments. He's consistent, has a knack for big plays, and although he's considered the elder statesman and de facto leader of the defensive line, he's still only 25-years-old, meaning his best playing days are likely ahead of him.
Opposite Seymour, defensive end Warren had a breakout year in 2004. In his second pro season and first as a full-time starter, Warren started all 16 regular season games and finished with 64 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. At different points of the season, his production warranted talk that he was playing as the team's top defensive lineman. He recorded a season-high 10 tackles - including six solo - and a forced fumble in the season opener against Indianapolis, and in Week 11 against Kansas City had seven solo tackles, two sacks, a pass break up and another forced fumble. Warren is similar to Seymour in both size (6-5, 300) and age (24) and looks to be living up to the 13th overall pick the Patriots used on him in the 2003 draft.
The Patriots got another solid season from reserve Green, who played in all 19 games this season and started all three playoff contests for the injured Seymour. In his third season, the 6-3, 290-pound Green had his best showing yet, setting career-highs in tackles (28), sacks (4) and fumble recoveries (3). Green's continued development into his role prompted the Patriots to offer the 26-year-old restricted free agent a mid-level tender of $1.43 million in the restricted free agent market.
The Patriots elected to go with a blend of youth and experience in the middle this season with the nose tackle combination of the veteran Traylor and the rookie Wilfork. Traylor, who joined the Patriots as an unrestricted free agent for his 13th NFL season, proved to be a solid fit despite playing in a true 3-4 scheme for the first time in his career. After starting just one of the first seven games, the 6-2, 340-pounder moved into the starting lineup for the final nine regular season games, finishing with 33 total tackles. The 35-year-old Traylor gave the Patriots precisely what they banked on, proving to be an effective run stopper on first and second down, a veteran presence on the line and a player who could bridge the gap to the younger Wilfork.
]()As the Patriots top overall pick in the draft, Wilfork faced high expectations in helping replace Ted Washington in the middle while also learning the two-gap nose tackle position in the Patriots defense. Although he started six games early in the season, he steadily grew more comfortable in the role and was the only Patriots rookie to play in all 16 regular season games. He started the season-opener and recorded seven total tackles, and had a season-high 10 tackles with one sack against Miami three weeks later. Wilfork displayed considerable pass rushing ability from the inside and showed his versatility by also playing defensive end, finishing the regular season with 57 total tackles, two sacks, three passes defended and two fumble recoveries. Wilfork also got the start in Super Bowl XXXIX when the Patriots started the game in an alignment with only two down linemen.
Two of the Patriots other young defensive linemen - rookie end Marquise Hill (22) and second-year tackle Ethan Kelley (25) - didn't see much of the field this season. Hill, the team's second-round pick in the 2004 draft, was inactive for 13 games and only saw action in the final game of the season. While he has intriguing size (6-6, 300) and was a high draft pick, he also has three established players ahead of him on the depth chart. Kelley, who was a seventh-round pick in the 2003 draft and spent all of his rookie season on the practice squad, was inactive for 15 games this season. The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Kelley showed enough in training camp to make the final roster, but spent the season behind Traylor and Wilfork.
One name not to forget is that of defensive end Rodney Bailey, who will be on the radar next season after missing all of 2004 with an Achilles tendon injury. Bailey, 26, signed with the Patriots as a restricted free agent last offseason after three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. While he only started one game for the Steelers, he played in all 16 games three-straight seasons where he had 9.5 sacks in a reserve role. At 6-3 and 306 pounds, Bailey has ideal size for the end position in the Patriots 3-4 scheme.
Position Analysis: The Patriots have an ideal situation along the defensive line, where youth and depth have created an interesting mix of players. Seymour is among the best in the NFL at his position, while Warren and Green both had their most productive seasons in 2004 and Wilfork was solid as a rookie. Bailey ideally will make an impact in his return next season, while Hill and Kelley gained experience this season and should enter 2005 with higher expectations upon them. Factor in the veteran influence of Traylor, who is under contract next season, and the defensive line is the most established unit on the Patriots.