By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- It's been a healthy debate since the Patriots traded Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals: how will the team perform on the defensive line without one of their pass-rushing stalwarts? Thursday's Patriots preseason debut against the New Orleans Saints was an indication, however minor it may be, that the front-seven will be just fine as it transitions away from the Jones era.
One major part of that new transition is former Chicago Bear Shea McClellin, who will face his former team as the Patriots and Bears hold three joint practices leading up to their preseason tilt on Thursday. McClellin showed off his versatility in the first quarter, beating blockers both on and off the defensive line and generating good pressure on the quarterback. He finished with four total tackles in the game.
When asked about figuring out McClellin's role in the defense, head coach Bill Belichick downplayed his versatility when speaking to reporters after Sunday's practice.
"We use training camp to try and build our depth on our roster and have players do different things, have them do different jobs, build their versatility, so that's part of pretty much everybody's role," said Belichick. "Not everybody but most everybody, so I don't think it's really that much different for [McClellin] than it is a lot of other players."
Despite Belichick's typically coy nature when assessing McClellin as an individual player - as he does with just about everyone - it was clear how much potential the linebacker has in the Patriots defense as a Swiss Army Knife-type of player, able to line up in a multitude of spots in the front-seven and execute whatever assignment he is given. McClellin's performance against the Saints supplemented Jabaal Sheard, who consistently disrupted the Saints offense on almost every snap and made one of his two total tackles with McClellin's assistance. Offseason free-agent addition Chris Long also had a strong game working on the edge, as did second-year defensive end Trey Flowers.
Still, despite the apparent depth and versatility on the defensive line, Belichick sees plenty of work still to be done as the team moves forward with Jones out of the mix and Rob Ninkovich injured for at least the remainder of the preseason.
"We've only been practicing two weeks. We'll see," said Belichick. "They've got a long way to go."
Certainly, one quarter of one preseason game is far from enough to assess the Patriots defense as a whole. Their performance against an inferior Bears team in joint practices and preseason action probably won't teach you too much, either. But the Patriots had almost the entire projected starting defense playing against the Saints and they looked strong-to-quite-strong as a unit, regardless of the competition. If that group has a "long way to go," then the arrow is pointing way, way up for the Patriots defense in 2016.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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