INDIANAPOLIS – The Patriots enjoyed a tremendous transformation in 2014. After suffering near the bottom of most defensive rankings over the previous five years, New England improved immensely with the arrival of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the secondary last year.
The changes improved the entire unit, helping the Patriots capture their fourth Super Bowl title earlier this month in Arizona, and virtually overnight the defense became a team strength.
But for all of the improvement, the pass rush remained virtually unchanged. In 2013 the Patriots managed 47 sacks on the season with Chandler Jones (11.5) and Rob Ninkovich (8) leading the way. Last year that number actually dropped to 40, and once again it was Jones (6) and Ninkovich (8) at the top, along with linebacker Dont'a Hightower (6).
So, for all of the improvements across the entire unit, the pass rush wasn't really a strength at any point during the championship season. If Bill Belichick wants to try to improve that area, he will have some opportunities to do so in the upcoming draft.
NFLDraftScout.com lists 29 defensive ends and 31 outside linebackers with draftable grades, and the vast majority of them were on hand for the Combine. Depending on what Belichick is looking for, and with all of the changes his alignments have seen in recent years that's a pretty wide range, there are some interesting alternatives to choose from.
Assuming he'd want to find someone in the mold of Jones and/or Ninkovich, he may look at Utah's Nate Orchard (6-3, 252), who some scouts have compared favorably to Ninkovich himself. Orchard enjoyed a tremendously productive final season with the Utes, racking up 18.5 sacks, 21 tackles for loss and 84 total tackles.
When asked what would make him stand out among the group of pass rushers, Orchard replied, "consistency. Sacks win games and that's what teams are going to bring me in for."
Orchard endured a difficult childhood, running away several times before he embraced his guardian parents Dave and Katherine Orchard. After he got his life settled he arrived at Utah as a 195-pound wide receiver. He quickly transitioned to defense and watched his weight rise to 210-215 as a sophomore, 225-230 as a junior and 255 last season.
He credits his marriage and fatherhood (18-month-old Katherine) to improving his eating and training habits. But he also clearly didn't lose much of his athleticism and believes he can perform as a 4-3 end or 3-4 outside linebacker.
"I dropped in coverage quite a bit last season, probably about 10-15 times a game," he said. "I've done a lot of dropping but I've been playing with my hand in the dirt for the last 10 years and that's where I'm most comfortable."
Clemson's Vic Beasley (6-2, 246) and Florida's Dante Fowler (6-2, 261) both project as outside linebackers in the NFL but have the versatility to perform as defensive ends in 4-3 looks. Each is considered a potential first-round pick, but Beasley has more modest goals in mind.
"I just hope to get drafted," he said. Later he was asked about his ability to perform in a variety of roles and whether he felt he could function in the Patriots system, which sometimes requires players to handle both defensive end and linebacker duties.
"I enjoyed watching the Patriots defense, Chandler Jones is a long guy coming off the edge," Beasley added. "I'd definitely be comfortable playing a versatile edge role."
Fowler, who played for Belichick confidant Will Muschamp's for the Gators, impressed the media with a smooth and easy press briefing. His upbeat personality was evident and he answered virtually every question with a smile.
"I'm really loose," he said when asked about his fun-loving persona. "This is a dream come true. I want to show teams that I'm a coachable guy, I'm a team player and I can turn a team around and fit in. You act all grumpy and mean and get wrinkles on your face."
Fowler's personality aside, his athleticism and versatility should make him a valued commodity, albeit most likely too rich for the Patriots blood.
A few others slated to go high in the draft are Nebraska's Randy Gregory (6-5, 235), Missouri's Shane Ray (6-3, 245) and Kentucky's Alvin "Bud" Dupree (6-4, 267).
Dupree is one of the many hybrid-type edge defenders available and he feels his versatility will be a plus. "I've gotten more comfortable dropping back this year and I've played some inside linebacker at Kentucky as well," said Dupree, who also mentioned that he's met with the Patriots this week.
One guy the Patriots might be able to get their hands on is Oregon's Arik Armstead (6-7, 296). Armstead is in the mold of a 3-4 end and enjoyed a productive 2014 with 46 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks despite facing constant double teams.
Armstead is a terrific athlete who actually spent time as a member of the Ducks basketball team before dedicating himself completely to football prior to the 2014 campaign.
UCLA's Owamagbe Odighizuwa (6-4, 267), LSU's Danielle Hunter (6-6, 240) and Florida State's Mario Edwards (6-3, 294) also factor into the mix. Odighizuwa is a versatile athlete who feels he'd be equally effective as a linebacker or end.
"The 3-4 teams see me as an outside linebacker and the 4-3 teams see me as a defensive end," he said. "I played the weakside at the Senior Bowl and it's ideal for me because at UCLA I was able to play multiple positions and feel comfortable because of my understanding of what we were doing as a defense."
Odighizuwa underwent surgery on both hips but says his range of motion was not affected and that he was looking forward to doing the drills at the Combine to show the coaches he's at full strength.
An interesting local product to keep tabs on is Harvard's Zack Hodges (6-2, 250), who received a fourth-round grade from NFLDraftScout.com. Hodges lined up everywhere for Tim Murphy's and showed the ability to play standing up or as a down lineman.
"It doesn't matter where I am or how I line up," Hodges said confidently. "They have to try to stop me. I get to hit people either way."
Hodges said balancing his studies and football at Harvard was challenging and is relieved to be taking the current semester off to concentrate solely on his career. He does plan to return to Cambridge next spring to complete his thesis, however, with a double major in government and philosophy.
"I'm here to win this thing in the long run," said Hodges, who added that he watched Ravens fullback and Harvard alum Kyle Juszczyk similarly return during the offseason to resume his studies. "I know it's great to be here with all this flashy stuff right now, but two years from now when half my class don't make it I plan on being here.
"I know how to win. You look at my record you look at my life you look at my history I know how to be successful. I know to win and get the job done when it matters."
Moving further down the list doesn't necessarily eliminate talented options. Arkansas' Trey Flowers (6-2, 268), Mississippi State's Preston Smith (6-5, 270), Kentucky's ZaDarius Smith (6-5, 270), Norfolk State's Lynden Trail (6-6, 262) and Memphis' Martin Ifedi (6-2, 275) offer a blend of speed and bulk that should be available in the middle rounds.
Preston Smith can rush the passer from the inside, similar to what the Patriots hoped to get from last year's first-round pick Dominique Easley. Most teams see him as a hybrid option and that suits him fine.
"I like the way the Packers used Julius Peppers last year," he said. "He does a lot of standing on first and second down and then plays with his hand in the dirt on third down and gets after the passer. I feel I can perform well in a role like that, but honestly anything they need me to do I'll be ready."
Trail began his collegiate career at Florida but left after Urban Meyer quit. He didn't even begin playing until he was nearing his teens due to epilepsy. He played with Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater growing up, and is just scratching the surface of his potential.
"Lynden certainly stands out on the field with his size and ability," an AFC East executive told NFLDraftScout.com. "In my opinion, he's still discovering how good he can be and as he learns better reaction to movement and better recognizes what blockers are doing, this player should get better. A lot of football left in his future."
Ifedi was involved in an ugly on-field brawl at the conclusion of Memphis bowl win over BYU but says he does not want the incident to define him.
"It was something that was building throughout the game, with one player. One mistake can mess you up in life. I made a mistake but that's not who I am," said Ifedi, who added that the 3-technique is likely his best position but felt, like so many others, that versatility was his strong suit.
One interesting prospect to keep an eye on is Michigan's Frank Clark (6-2, 270). Clark was dismissed from the team by former Wolverines coach Brady Hoke following a November arrest for domestic violence, therefore his draft stock plummeted.
However, prior to the arrest he was considered one of the best defensive end prospects in the country. Before his season ended he had recorded 42 tackles, 13.5 for a loss and 4.5 sacks and was considered a future star. Obviously the league's decision-makers will have to vet Clark's background extensively in light of the horrific season the entire NFL just went through – particularly regarding the issue of domestic violence.
"I'm just grateful for the opportunity they gave me and I'm hoping to show teams they can rely on me," said Clark, who also mentioned former Patriots and Wolverines linebacker Pierre Woods as a person he's leaned on during this process.
Clark may not even get drafted as a result but a team willing to roll the dice and bring him in may get an absolute steal if he's able to keep his troubles in the past, although it would be more than a mild surprise if the Patriots did so.