The defending Super Bowl 53 champion New England Patriots open Training Camp at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, July 25th. Despite a thrilling run through the NFL Playoffs last year, the Patriots have question marks on both sides of the ball.
The offense that put up 78 points in their first two playoff games has some huge holes to fill due to free agents leaving and retirement. The defense shut down a Rams offense that averaged 32.9 points per game to just three points. (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted) was hit by free agent defections and an almost wholesale turnover of the defensive coaching staff.
Despite all this player movement, the Patriots are favorites once again to compete for the Super Bowl with a number of trades, free agent signings, and a promising NFL Draft class hungry to make their impact on the field in 2019.
To get you ready for Training Camp, let’s go through some of the areas of concern heading into camp and look at what players to keep an eye on over the summer. Part one looks at the defensive end position.
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Probably the biggest loss via free agency for the New England Patriots was a lightly regarded 2015 fourth-round draft pick who barely got on the field in his rookie season. Defensive end Trey Flowers blossomed in 2016 through 2018 to become the vital player on the New England defense.
However, former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia came calling in the offseason with an offer that Flowers could not refuse to play in the Motor City. With over $28 million up front, $40 million guaranteed at signing and $56 million in total guarantees, the Patriots were willing to make a competitive offer, they simply were not going to pay that kind of cash out for any one player.
Instead the Patriots turned to the Philadelphia Eagles and sent a late-round draft pick to snag defensive end Michael Bennett. The twin brother of former Patriots’ tight end Martellus Bennett, the 33-year old had nine sacks for the Eagles last year after piling up 39 sacks in five years in Seattle. Patriots fans will remember Bennett from his relentless pressure in Super Bowl 49 holding the offense in check much of the game.
Bennett is older than Flowers and a short-term solution but capable of being the disciplined pass-rusher that Flowers was in New England. To keep him fresh, the Patriots may limit his role on early downs (as compared to Flowers who rarely left the field). However, even with Bennett on board, the Patriots need additional pass rush help to make up for the loss of Adrian Clayborn who had asked for his release this offseason.
Next in Line:
First in line is third-year defensive end Deatrich Wise. Wise had 4.5 sacks last season and 9.5 in two years after being a fourth round draft pick from Arkansas like his former college teammate and mentor Flowers. Wise has strong pass rushing skills but lacks discipline at times setting the edge against the run which has kept him from a larger role on defense. If Wise shows over the summer he can handle the run game, the Patriots may have the every-down edge defender they need on defense.
Behind Wise are a number of unproven players trying to carve out a role on the defense. Third-round draft pick Chase Winovich comes from Michigan with flowing blond locks and a relentless motor from the edge which drew comparisons to long-time Patriots’ defensive end Rob Ninkovich. Winovich has a lot of work to get up to the speed of the NFL game, but his run-stuffing ability on the edge and infectious attitude should make him an instant favorite of the coaching staff and fans alike.
Look for Winovich to potentially be in position to take the early downs on the edge with Bennett coming on for him in passing situations. The development of Wise is important as his ability to stay on the field in passing and running downs could impact the roles of the rest of the group at defensive end.
Surprise Impact Players:
Last season, after week three the Patriots went out and signed street free agent linebacker/defensive end John Simon who had been released by the Indianapolis Colts prior to the season. Having played in Baltimore, Houston and Indianapolis the veteran impressed with his versatility and ability to create pressure.
The Patriots brought him back this offseason and being able to get a training camp with the team under his belt should help his evolution on defense. Simon plays bigger than his six-foot-two and 260 pounds on the edge and also contributed in the Rob Ninkovich hybrid LB/DE position in certain nickel packages in 2018. His versatility and pass rush ability make him an intriguing player at defensive end in 2019.
Behind Simon is 2017 third-round draft pick (and first player drafted) Derek Rivers. Rivers impressed in camp as a rookie before tearing his ACL in a joint practice with the Houston Texans. Coming back in 2018, Flowers won a roster spot with a strong preseason but played just six games. Rivers had done little in two years to show he deserves more playing time and this training camp and preseason is huge for the 25-year old pass rusher.
Keionta Davis is another young defensive end in danger of being passed by Winovich on the depth chart and fighting for a roster spot. Davis was an undrafted free agent in 2017 who was stashed on the injury list. Last year Davis was a surprise starter at defensive end at the start of the season getting the majority of snaps in the first two weeks. After a rough start in those games, he was relegated to coming off the bench for spot duty.
Davis is intriguing due to his size (six-foot-three and 280 pounds) and impressive athleticism. Davis was a project signing but clearly intrigues the coaching staff. However, he, Rivers, Trent Harris and Ufomba Kamalu are likely all competing for one or two spots on the roster.
Kamalu was signed in November and is another Houston Texan. Another big defensive end (six-foot-six and 295 pounds), Kamalu is more of a 3-4 defensive end and may have to carve out a role with the defensive tackles to earn a roster spot.
Trent Harris, like Kamalu, is a former Miami Hurricane, but is a speed edge option. At six-foot-two and 255 pounds, the undrafted free agent made plays in the preseason and latched on to a practice squad spot. He has a tough road ahead of him to get onto the roster, but in New England the draft position means nothing and production will trump all.
With the changes up front, the defensive end position should have plenty of competition this summer. Keep an eye on the Rivers, Davis, Kamalu and Harris battle as it is likely only one player emerges from that position battle to back-up Bennett, Wise, Winovich and Simon.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage. He covers the New England Patriots and the NFL. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01