Saturday, June 14, 2014

Patriots' defensive line status up in the air while injuries mend

There was something wrong even before his Achilles tendon snapped like a taut rubber band.

Prior to the 2013 season, Vince Wilfork had missed a total of six games in nine years, amassing 323 solo tackles and disrupting three times as many plays before they even had a chance to get started - his girth not so impressive at times as what he could do despite his size, his unique athleticism on display weekly.

Such burst he had off the line for a big man, he could find the gap before the guard had a chance to slide over most times, and on the others he would just shove his double team back with sheer brute strength and re-establish the line of scrimmage three yards deep in the pocket...
If Easley is healthy, he can play anywhere along the defensive line

...his singular dominance earning him first team All Pro honors following the 2012 season after amassing four second-team All Pro team selections in the previous five seasons, truly becoming better with each passing year.

But when last season began, it was obvious and apparent that the big man wasn't displaying his normal burst, not driving his blocker back into the pocket, not able to disengage when the run came right up the middle, which happened more and more the more he played, as he was pretty much rendered stationary - and not even the presence of wing man Tommy Kelly could mask the struggles that Wilfork was going through.

Then on the first defensive series of the game in week four at Atlanta and the Patriots backed up inside their own five yard line, Wilfork took a step toward Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan and suddenly crumpled in a massive heap on the Georgia Dome turf, and his season was over.

Kelly followed Wilfork to the shelf the following week with a knee injury - linebacker and defensive signal caller Jerod Mayo the week after that - and the results for the defense were predictable.

Was Vince dealing with a partial rupture prior to it tearing?  It really doesn't make any difference now, as for partial tears rest, ibuprofen and a professional tape job will keep the athlete competing while scar tissue forms and the tendon knits itself back together - but in that scenario the tendon continues to be compromised until complete immobilization can be achieved...

...or until surgery is indicated and performed, which quite often can return the player's full range of motion with proper rehabilitation and physical therapy - and from the reports coming out of the New England Patriots' Organized Team Activities, this has been accomplished - though the real test will come during mini camp and training camp when pads go on and the trench warfare starts in earnest.

Missing both of their starting defensive tackles and their weakside, sideline-to-sideline linebacker left the Patriots with a gaping hole in the middle of their defense in 2013 - a void that affected every level of the defense as Belichick was forced to plug and play rookie free agents Joe Vellano on the nose and Chris Jones as the three tech and bringing in Issac Sopoaga from Philadelphia to bolster the middle.

But the try-hard Vellano just didn't have the bulk to take on double teams and Sopoaga was a classic bust from the moment he put on the Patriots' uniform, and it wasn't until career practice squad nose tackle Sealver Siliga was plucked from the ranks of the unemployed and inserted in the middle that the proverbial tide was stemmed.

In fact, the 6' 2", 325 pound Siliga stabilized the interior defense to the point that the rest of the defense gained enough autonomy to become a reasonable facsimile of what the unit was supposed to be.  He took on the double teams which enabled Jones to penetrate opposite and gave the Patriots linebackers a little bit better defined idea of which gaps to shoot.

It wasn't perfect, but they made it work all the way to the AFC Title Game, where they bent plenty, but only broke twice, surrendering just 26 points to the Denver Broncos' record-setting juggernaut offense but still losing the game because the Patriots were unable to overcome issues on the offense side of the ball.

In both instances, the Broncos controlled the line of scrimmage - on defense because the offensive line just couldn't stop the Denver pass rushers once their run defense had rendered the Patriots one-dimensional, and on offense because once Denver wide receiver Wes Welker took out New England's top cover corner, the ends were forced to chip the Broncos' receivers before initiating their pass rush.

The answer to this would have been to have quality depth everywhere, which they didn't have then, but appear to have now - particularly on the interior, where the Patriots' offseason roster features no less than nine tackles vying for what will probably be five spots, while the defensive end depth chart sports six players with just four spots open.

A healthy Wilfork and ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are the only true locks on the chart, with Siliga and Kelly probables to retain their roster spots, leaving ten players fighting for just four slots on the final 53 man roster - with the spots, more than any other level on the defense, dependent on health in determining who makes it and who doesn't.

First round draft pick Dominique Easley is coming off a torn ACL, as is Kelly and former Saints' defensive end Will Smith, who also may figure in the linebacker competition - while the much rumored, Howard Hughes-like presence of tackle Armond Armstead is still shrouded in mystery after missing all of last season with a flesh-eating infection.

Second year end Michael Buchanan spent his rookie year playing underweight thanks to a broken jaw in his senior season at Illinois, and is expected to be able to show exactly what made him such a pass rushing force in college now that he's a had a fully healthy offseason to get his body right.

Ends Jake Bequette and Zach Moore  are buried deeply on the depth chart while the same is true for tackles Marcus Forston and L. T. Tuipulotu, with seventh round selection Moore the only one with a fighting chance to be with the team past August, but probably as a practice squader.

Easley, a certain top 10 pick had he not torn his knee up, can play anywhere along the line, even on the nose at just 290 pounds as many scouts profess that he plays with violence and leverage that add another 20-30 pounds of force behind his drive - and the same is supposed to be true with Armstead, but neither have been regular participants in OTAs.

If healthy for camp, both would be locked in for spots along the line thanks to their versatility, but the caveat remains for the time being, and renders the defensive line depth chart as seen below, with the probables to make the final roster in bold:

LDE:  Rob Ninkovich  Will Smith  Jake Bequette  
DT:    Tommy Kelly  Chris Jones   Dominique Easley  Armond Armstead  Marcus Forston
NT:    Vince Wilfork  Sealver Siliga   Joe Vellano   L. T. Tuipulotu
RDE:  Chandler Jones   Michael Buchanan   Zach Moore 

Of course, the aforementioned health status for Wilfork, Easley and Armstead will dictate this list on final cutdowns, as will the health and depth amongst the linebacking corps, where Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins could figure into the mix as nickle rushers on the strong (left) side.

This is part 7 of 9 wrapping up the Patriots' offseason.  Part 8 will focus on what could possibly be one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL.

Part 1 of 9: New England Patriots' philosophies morphing back to a simpler time
Part 2 of 9: New England Patriots' offensive philosophy - Heavy on substance, not sexy style
Part 3 of 9: Patriots surround Brady with talent, just not how most envisioned
Part 4 of 9: Patriots' incumbent backs no roster locks as rookies ready to compete
Part 5 of 9: Belichick takes a mulligan with Patriots' pass catchers
Part 6 of 9: Belichick in the spirit (of 76) in regard to offensive line

Follow Michael on twitter: @MichaelHammpub



    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and to comment! It is much appreciated!