Heading into the 2017 season, the Patriots interior defensive line looked like it was going to be one of the best in the league with Alan Branch and Malcom Brown as starters alongside depth pieces like Lawrence Guy. That idea quickly turned on its head as Branch was limited due to an injury and then was a disappointment when he finally returned, and Brown was spotty to start the season. Guy was better than expected, and undrafted rookie Adam Butler was a pleasant surprise, but the Patriots run defense was still in the bottom third of the league. It is certainly a position group that will need improvement this season.
The Patriots 2014 first round pick has had a solid career over his first three seasons. He hasn’t been quite as dominant as many had hoped he would be, but he has great technique and his ability to slip through double teams has made him very effective against the rush. His biggest knock is that he is not a particularly intimidating pass rusher, which has been a glaring issue for New England for a long time. 2018 is a very important season for him, as it is the last year of his rookie contract, and next offseason the Patriots will need to exercise his fifth-year option that will give him a decent pay bump, or allow him to hit free agency. That motivation should prompt him to have a solid season behind a hopefully improved Patriots run defense.
The Patriots signed Guy last offseason in what would surprisingly become one of their most successful moves. After having spent much of his career as a rotational player, Guy was thrust into the spotlight in New England after the injury to Alan Branch, starting 15 regular season games for the team. He had one of his best individual seasons, posting a career-high 58 tackles and one sack. While his pass rush ability is limited like Brown’s, he has an aggressive style of play that allows him to get in on many tackles. The question will be whether he can repeat the success he had in 2017.
Butler was a pleasant surprise for the Patriots in 2017. The undrafted rookie had very little expected of him heading into the season, yet he carved out a rotational roster spot and finished the season with 11 tackles and two sacks. Those numbers certainly do not jump off the page, but they also don’t tell the story of Butler’s visual impact on the field. He flashed around the field and seemed to pop up in some big moments. He is not the next Aaron Donald, but another year of development will make him an even better rotational depth player for New England. What will be interesting will be to see whether or not he can develop a more effective pass rush.
The former first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns is looking to have a strong pre-free agent season in the wake of a disappointing 2017 campaign. While he has not played poorly over his three-year career, he has not lived up to the expectations as the 12th overall pick in 2014. Shelton is an aggressive player, and what he lacks in technique and finesse he makes up for with impressive play strength. He could bring a sorely needed bull rush ability to the Pats interior line that could cause quarterback pressure that was nonexistent for New England in 2017. He could be one of the best moves of the offseason for New England if he can play to his ability in the Patriots system.
The Patriots drafted Valentine in the third round in 2016, and so far he has been a massive disappointment. He started just two games in 2016 and was on the practice squad for all of 2017. Unless there is a massive turnaround in his play during camp, he is an almost guaranteed roster cut.
An undrafted rookie out of LSU, Herron has great size and strength that he uses effectively. He provides depth and scout team reps to the team over the summer. Herron is unlikely to be competing for a top spot, but stranger things have happened.
Atkins is another Georgia Bulldog rookie that the Patriots added this offseason. He was a decent player for the Bulldogs, posting solid numbers against the run game. His size and strength aren’t eye-popping and he has no ability to rush the passer, which makes his potential value to the team severely limited. However, he has talent and time in an NFL system could help him find ways to mitigate his weaknesses.
Until next time – B$