Once again, the Patriots defensive line is, top to bottom, the strength of this team.
Each year, it seems this group just gets better. That was the case in 2007, despite a sub-par, injury-plagued campaign from arguably its most talented member – Richard Seymour.
The three first-round picks that head coach Bill Belichickused over the span of four years to acquire Seymour (2001) and then Ty Warren(2003) and Vince Wilfork(2004) have paid significant dividends. In between he used a fourth-rounder on talented sub Jarvis Green(2002). Seymour and Wilfork have become Pro Bowlers; Warren has been playing at that caliber and could be going to Hawaii very soon.
Wilfork's sheer size is noteworthy, but it's his athleticism and quick feet in particular that cause him to stand out. He's done a lot of work over the past two offseasons trying to better condition himself in an effort to stay on the field all three downs, but even if he remains largely a two-down player he is extremely valuable. The team doesn't have anyone on the roster that can do the things he does, which could be a problem if the former Miami Hurricane goes down with an injury.
Seymour has been talking a great deal this offseason about how motivated he is to return to his Pro Bowl form. Beset by injuries the past two years, his performance has suffered, and he has been candid about admitting so. But he has been working out all offseason and appears as healthy as he's been in quite some time.
Warren wasn't quite as dominant as he was in 2006, but he still finished last year second on the team with 83 tackles (47 solos) and added four sacks. Green is perhaps the most overlooked player on the team. He always seems to produce when called on, whether as an injury replacement or in subpackages as a designated pass rusher. He finished 2007 with 6.5 sacks while starting a career-high 10 games.
Mike Wrighthas also proven to be a valuable backup in limited time. An undrafted free agent in 2005, he has steadily improved to the point where he was seeing regular snaps before being lost for the season with a foot injury last December. Wright is capable of playing inside and out in the Patriots scheme, and his athleticism also allows him to play on special teams.
That depth leaves very little playing time for the other backups, but Santonio Thomasand Le Kevin Smithare starting to prove their worth. Smith has spent all of his two seasons on the active roster, yet seen very little playing time. At 6-3, 308, he has the size to play inside and perhaps could serve as Wilfork's top backup should the need arise.
The three remaining defensive linemen on the roster will be long shots to make the club. Second-year nose tackle Steve Fifitawas with Miami last year and made 11 tackles. Rookie Chris Norwell, a 6-6, 303-pound defensive end out of Illinois, and Kenny Smith(6-4, 303), who was with the Patriots last summer, round out the depth chart.
DL – At a glance
No. Player (Pos., Year)
69 Steve Fifita (NT, 2nd year)
97 Jarvis Green (DE, 7th year)
76b Chris Norwell (DE, rookie)
93 Richard Seymour (DE, 8th year)
95 Kenny Smith (DL, 6th year) Out of football
90 Le Kevin Smith (DL, 3rd year)
92 Santonio Thomas (DL, 2nd year)
94 Ty Warren (DE, 6th year)
75 Vince Wilfork (NT, 5th year)
99 Mike Wright (DL, 4th year)
Training camp storyline:
Can Seymour get back to the level of play that earned him multiple Pro Bowl appearances?