Grading Each Position Group: Defensive Line, Edge, Linebackers
The upcoming NFL season feels like the beginning of a new era for the New England Patriots. For the first time in nearly two decades, the Patriots will be entering a season with a new starting quarterback. While we wait for the return of an uncertain NFL season, we decided to grade every position group on the roster as it stands right now. In the fourth and final part, we cover the Patriots’ interior defensive linemen, edge defenders, and linebackers.
- Part one of the series covering the skill positions can be found here.
- Part two covering the offensive line and special teams can be found here.
- Part three covering the secondary can be found here.
- A = High-level starters with good depth
- B = Good group, only a few concerns
- C= Not sure what to expect and a number of questions
- D = Very little talent at the position
Lawrence Guy, Beau Allen, Adam Butler, Byron Cowart, Nick Thurman, Deatrich Wise Jr., Bill Murray, Nick Coe, Courtney Wallace
The interior defensive line was the weakest position group on the defense last season. By no means was the group in the bottom tier of the NFL, but they were simply average. The Patriots didn’t make too many significant changes to the position this offseason. The biggest change came when Danny Shelton signed with the Lions. The Patriots replaced him with Beau Allen from Tampa Bay. While no draft picks were used on the position, the Patriots added three undrafted free agents: Bill Murray, Nick Coe, and Courtney Wallace.
The interior defensive line is led by one of the most underrated players in the NFL, Lawrence Guy. He may not get Aaron Donald-like sack numbers, but that’s not his job. Guy’s job is to stuff the run and help others get the sacks. We expect another strong season from Guy in 2020. After Guy, the Patriots really only have one player who played significant snaps last season. According to Pro Football Reference, in his third season, Adam Butler played 47% of the Patriots defensive snaps. Butler finished with 6 sacks. As a pass rusher, Butler is one of the most underrated interior defensive linemen in football. A majority of Butlers snaps come in obvious passing downs, but he has seen an increase in snaps against the run over the years. The potential is there for Butler to have a highly successful and long NFL career.
After Guy and Butler, the Patriots have some question marks. The most recognizable names are Beau Allen, Deatrich Wise Jr., and Byron Cowart. Allen has been used primarily as a run stopper throughout his career. Last season, Allen saw limited action and ended the season with 10 tackles. Allen will fill the Danny Shelton role.
While Allen can fill a role, Wise likely doesn’t have one in a changing defense. After showing promise his rookie year, the Patriots switched to faster and more athletic edge rushers, pushing Wise to the interior. Wise has seen his snap count reduced in each of his three seasons in the NFL. We talked about Wise and his roster hopes here. Our favorite player among the backups is Cowart. Cowart was a 5th round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft. He made the roster his rookie season but rarely saw the field. We expect Coward to get more playing time in year two.
Between Nick Thurman, Bill Murray, Nick Coe, and Courtney Wallace, we believe Murray and Coe have the best odds of making the roster. All four will face an uphill battle to make the roster. The Patriots have good starters, but beyond Guy and Butler, the interior defensive line faces some uncertainty. The Patriots should look to add another run-stopper.
John Simon, Anfernee Jennings, Josh Uche, Chase Winovich, Tashawn Bower, Shilique Calhoun, Derek Rivers
The Patriots lost a couple of key edge players this offseason. Both Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy spent a lot of the 2019 season playing at the edge position. Replacing Collins and Van Noy will be tough, but the Patriots have a lot of promising young talent at the position. Chase Winovich will have a significant role this upcoming season. In his rookie season, Winovich showed big-time pass rush ability. Winovich finished with 5.5 sacks on the year. He spent most of the season as a situational pass rusher, but we expect an expanded role in year two.
Starting the season opposite of Winovich at the edge, we see underrated veteran John Simon. Simon may never get nationally noticed but the Patriots love what he brings to the table. According to Pro Football Reference, Simon played 48% of the defensive snaps and 42% of the special team snaps last season. He finished with 4 sacks and 44 tackles. He’ll bring a veteran presence to a young group.
The depth at edge is very promising. The Patriots spent a second-round draft pick on Josh Uche and a third-rounder on Anfernee Jennings. We expect both players to get playing time in year one. Uche is more of a hybrid between edge and linebacker. He has the athleticism and speed to play in coverage, but his best trait is his pass rush. Uche has the potential to be a big-time pass rusher. We see him getting a situational pass-rushing role in year one.
Jennings is the complete opposite of Uche. Jennings will get playing time because of his ability to stop the run. The Patriots could use some help setting the edge in the run game. Last season, the Patriots struggled against good running teams like the Ravens. Jenning doesn’t have the same potential as Uche, but he should be a contributor right away. We wrote about Uche and Jennings potential roles here.
The rest of the backups at edge consist of guys on the roster bubble. Due to the new draftees, Shilique Calhoun, Derek Rivers, and Tashawn Bower are all in danger of being cut. Calhoun has the best odds of making it. We see a ton of potential at the position, but because some of it is unproven, the edge position gets a B.
Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Brandon Copeland, Brandon King, Cassh Maluia, Kyahva Tezino, De’Jon “Scoota” Harris, Terez Hall
Just like on the edge, the linebackers suffered great losses this offseason. While Collins and Van Noy were lost on the edge, both players also took snaps as off-ball linebackers. Run-stuffing linebacker Elandon Roberts joined the list of linebacker departures when he signed with the Miami Dolphins. Our projected starters at linebacker are Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Hightower is the heart and soul of the Patriots linebackers group. Last season, Hightower played 15 games while wracking up 71 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Hightower may be getting older but he’s still an extremely valuable piece to the Patriots defense.
The loss of three key linebackers brings a great opportunity for Ja’Whaun Bentley. Bentley has the chance at an expanded role and a breakout season. We’ve seen flashes from Bentley and now it’s time to see it in expanded playing time. Generally known as a run-stopper, Bentley surprised us with his coverage capabilities. The coverage skills allow the Patriots to use Bentley on all three downs. We sense 2020 will be a big year for Bentley.
The depth is a little shallow for the linebackers, but something to remember is some of the edge rushers can also shift over to play off-ball linebacker. With that being said, Brandon Copeland was one of the more underrated free-agent signings the Patriots made this offseason. Copeland can play edge and linebacker. Copeland also plays a huge role on special teams.
The rest of the backups are largely unknown. Brandon King is listed as a linebacker but his role remains on special teams. Next you have this year’s sixth-round draft selection, Cassh Maluia. The route for Maluia to make the team will come through the special teams unit. The Patriots only spent one draft selection on a traditional linebacker, but they signed two undrafted free agents in Kyahva Tezino and De’Jon “Scoota” Harris. Filling out the linebacker position is Terez Hall, an undrafted free agent in 2019. Between Maluia, Tezino, Harris, and Hall, we think it comes down to Maluia and Harris for a roster spot. We talked about Harris’ chance at a roster spot here.
The linebackers have good starters, and while the depth appears weak, the versatility from other positions will help them out. Plus, Copeland gives them a nice veteran backup. The linebackers get a B in our grading.
6 thoughts on “Grading Each Position Group: Defensive Line, Edge, Linebackers”
I’ve discovered your web site a couple weeks ago
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Thanks for all the support! That really means a lot to us.
I expect Patriots to add to their interior D line. There one injury away from D grade in my book. Also would love to see them add more speed at linebacker. Missing that causes a concern
Yea added depth would be nice. Could see them adding another run stuffer up front.
I project the 3 linebackers drafted make a difference
Thanks Victor! Hopefully, this Patriots draft class can make a big impact in year one.