With Patriots training camp set to open on July 24, CBSBostonSports.com will provide a positional breakdown at each spot on offense and defense. Today's breakdown is on the defensive line.
Position: Defensive Line
Major Players: Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Tommy Kelly, Dominque Easley, Will Smith
On The Bubble: Sealver Siliga, Joe Vellano, Chris Jones, Zach Moore, Jake Bequette
While the Patriots' defensive line has plenty of question marks regarding the health of several 300+ pound men, improvements to other areas of the defense will pay off in a big way in 2014.
During the off-season the Patriots went out and signed the best cornerback in football in Darrelle Revis, and followed that up by signing another very good corner in Brandon Browner. With those two added to the mix, the New England secondary is looking like it could be one of the best in the league in 2014.
All of this is very good news for the New England defensive line, who will benefit greatly from those extra few seconds an opposing quarterback has to hold onto the ball with Revis draped over his top receiving option.
Enter Chandler Jones, who is primed for a monster season.
Jones played nearly every snap in his 16 regular season games last year, racking up 11.5 sacks and 79 tackles. He did this with no Vince Wilfork clogging the line for the final 12 weeks, and with several opposing offensive lineman blanketing him in every which way you can imagine throughout the season -- without the benefit of a flag.
Jones has an arsenal of moves at his disposal to use at the line (thank his MMA fighter brother, Jon "Bones" Jones for that), and with the big-bodied Wilfork back to command a hefty amount of attention and the addition of the disruptive Dominque Easley, he and Rob Ninkovich should find life a little easier along the line. That has fans and talking heads alike wondering just how many times Jones will be introducing quarterbacks into the grass this season.
Before we get to the health concerns along the line, enjoy this wonderful photo from last season:
Now to those concerns. Actually, how about another Jones photo:
Now that you're feeling good, we can talk injuries. Wilfork and Kelly are both coming off injury-shortened 2013 campaigns, and Kelly is already on the PUP list heading into camp. Off-season addition Will Smith (who had 67.5 sacks in his nine-year career with the Saints), didn't play in 2013 thanks to a torn ACL. Not enough ACL worries for you? Easley, the Pats' first-round pick, is coming off a pair of ACL surgeries from last season, and is also on the PUP as we hit the start of training camp.
The Patriots defense was able to get by in 2013 without Wilfork on the line (which was compounded by the loss of Kelly a few weeks later and loss of Jerod Mayo from the linebacking corps), though they struggled towards the end of the season with Joe Vellano and Chris Jones trying to clog the holes usually taken up by Skinny Vinny. They filled in admirably with Sealver Siliga, but when the season was over the Patriots had allowed 4.5 yards per rush (24th in the NFL) and 134 rushing yards per game (30th in the NFL). Hopefully with Wilfork and Kelly back, Vellano, Jones and Siliga serve as good depth players when it's needed.
No one knows for sure what Wilfork, who turns 33 in November, will be able to bring to the table after such an injury. All reports say he's looked good so far, and he certainly looked good on Memorial Day. Now we'll see if he can get back to being his normal self on the line, and if he can withstand the rigors of an NFL season.
With a better secondary behind them, and a young disruptive player like Easley to play alongside some of the bigger bodies, it should open up Chandler Jones for a monster season in terms of getting after the quarterback. If Revis can shut down an opponent's attack through the air, Jones and Ninkovich should be able to make a quarterback pay for holding onto the ball too long.
Hopefully we see plenty of this in 2014:
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