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, no bigger transaction than future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski’s retirement. Also, for the second consecutive season, there is a gaping hole at the most important position on the offensive line–left tackle.
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. The loss of heart-and-soul edge rusher Trey Flowers is a big loss.
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. These new players are ready to step in for their chance to win a championship and push the established veterans who already have their jewelry.
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 looked at the defensive end position. Part two focuses on defensive tackle.
The New England Patriots have had steady–if unspectacular–play out of their 2015 first-round draft pick defensive tackle Malcom Brown. Brown never put up the gaudy statistics expected of him after his draft position, but was a solid run stopper and occasional pocket pusher for much of his tenure in New England.
Brown’s play dropped off in 2018 and three solid seasons. Brown played best when Alan Branch was at his best drawing double-teams. Without that additional attention elsewhere, Brown was too often moved off the line of scrimmage and struggling to maintain gap discipline. It was interesting to note that the three teams most familiar with Brown (Patriots, Dolphins and Lions) had little interest in signing him.
Despite having tons of cap space, the New York Jets made the head-scratching move to let unheralded defensive tackle Mike Pennel leave in free agency. While the Jets were deep on the defensive line and spent their first-round draft pick on another defensive tackle, letting Pennel walk was hard to fathom. Pennel is playing for peanuts (two years for $5 million) during his prime seasons (age 27 and 28).
Pennel is big and strong (six-foot-four and 332 pounds) and is a monster against the run. What the Patriots expected from Brown or Danny Shelton last year they should get in Pennel. In addition, Pennel is capable of penetrating when necessary due to his quick feet and excellent hand technique. Paired with Lawrence Guy, this should be a great one-two punch in the middle of the defensive line.
Next in Line:
Lawrence Guy was the darling of the analytical types following a strong 2018 season in New England. ProFootballFocus.com rated him as the 11th best defensive tackle in the league with an elite 90.1 grade. Guy was an unheralded signing from the Ravens in 2017 and has established himself as an essential part of the defensive line rotation.
Guy has bounced around the league for years and finally has put it all together. He is excellent against the run and excellent at pushing the pocket in the pass rush. Not even 300 pounds, he is strong and a technician who understands leverage and hand placement and is able to always seem to do the little things to get the job done. Guy is rapidly approaching being discussed among the best at his position.
Surprise Impact Players:
Adam Butler was an afterthought when he joined the New England Patriots in 2017 after five years at Vanderbilt and going undrafted. The Patriots–more interested in his three-cone time than his 40-yard dash–took a flyer on the converted offensive lineman in training camp. Butler impressed from minicamps with his quickness and surprisingly made the roster.
Butler is a regular in the sub-rushing package using his quickness inside to disrupt the pocket and pressure opposing quarterbacks. Not called on often to help out in the run game, Butler has improved in that role and may be in line for a bigger role in 2019. With five sacks over two seasons, the pocket-collapsing Butler could be in line for an uptick in sacks with Guy likely to get more attention.
The Patriots invested a fifth-round draft pick in the 2019 NFL Draft on Maryland defensive tackle Byron Cowart. At six-foot-three and 297 pounds, the former top high school prospect left Auburn due to family medical issues and spent a year as a JUCO, hurting his draft stock. Last year he went to Maryland where he played in the 3-4 as a defensive end.
Cowart has a long build with good strength and arm length suited for defensive end but the size and power to play inside at tackle. With his movement from Auburn and “tweener” status on the defensive line, his value to the Patriots was likely much, much higher than where he would fit on another team in the NFL.
Late in free agency the Patriots brought back defensive tackle Danny Shelton on a team friendly deal. Shelton was a disappointment in 2018 but flashed his talent and power that made him the 13th overall pick in 2015 at times. That promise (see his tackle for a loss of C.J. Anderson in the Super Bowl) is what brings him back for another season in New England.
At the back-end of the roster the Patriots have another potential depth player in Dave Parry. Parry is an under-the-radar signing as the veteran has played just four games over the past two seasons after starting 32 games in two seasons in Indianapolis. Parry comes in with low expectations and could be a sleeper for a role.
Despite the turnover at defensive tackle, the Patriots look like they have upgraded a position of importance in 2019. The addition of Pennel to pair with Guy gives them a solid starting duo. Butler is the designated pass rusher and Cowart, Shelton and Parry may be battling for just one spot on a 53-man roster that has 60-plus NFL-ready players trying to join the Super Bowl champions as they try to repeat.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage. He covers the New England Patriots and the NFL. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01