The New England Patriots could use depth in some areas, but there”s no doubt that an edge rusher is their biggest need.
Earlier in the offseason, analysts speculated (per the MMQB) that the New England Patriots could be interested in veteran free agent pass rushers Julius Peppers and DeMarcus Ware. Peppers reunited with the Carolina Panthers, where he will likely finish his career, and Ware decided to call it a career. Meanwhile, the Patriots lost their own veteran pass rusher, Chris Long, who signed with the formidable Philadelphia Eagles defense. Their best pass rusher, Jabaal Sheard, is now the Indianapolis Colts second-best player on defense (which says a lot about the Colts defense).
Now left on the Patriots roster are Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, and trade acquisition Kony Ealy. Although the Patriots were roundly praised for trading essentially nothing to the Panthers for Ealy, the truth is that Ealy hasn’t been a consistent player through his first three seasons. With one year left on his rookie contract, Ealy has plenty to prove, but given how well he played in the Panthers Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, he has the potential to be the Pats best pass rusher.
Right now, the Patriots best edge rusher is Flowers. The 2015 fourth-round pick didn’t play in his rookie season, so the 2016 campaign was the explosive Arkansas product’s coming-out party. Flowers led the team with seven sacks last season, but is he really a good enough pure pass rusher to be a team’s best sack artist? What makes Flowers so special is his versatility and ability to play the run, because he can play literally anywhere up front. But is he a marquee pass rusher a la Chandler Jones? Maybe, but maybe not.
The Patriots need to add one more pass rusher into the mix, because putting too much faith in Ealy isn’t wise. Because even if Ealy ends up being a great pick-up, there’s no guarantee he’ll stick around in Foxboro after 2017. New England has found success drafting edge rushers, such as Flowers, so they should reach into the bag again. In truth, it’s nearly difficult to find a great pass rusher after the first round, but it can be done. Flowers and Jacksonville Jaguars promising second-year pro Yanncik Ngakoue are prime examples of this.
As usual, the Patriots have plenty of run-stopping power on the defensive line, and that’s usually a trademark of their defenses. The thing is, their weaknesses at going after the quarterback could be exposed in 2016. Most Super Bowl champions have such a difficult time repeating in the NFL, because other teams are able to hone in on any deficiencies they might have. At the very least, the Patriots should replace Sheard with a rookie sub-package edge rusher for depth’s sake.
Cornerback could be seen as an equally important need in New England, but I don’t see as much urgency there. I have tremendous faith in Stephon Gilmore as a starting cornerback, particularly because he’s shined ever since stepping foot into this league. Meanwhile, Malcolm Butler will most likely stick around for another year, and the Patriots could conceivably replace him with Richard Sherman if the New Orleans Saints were to surprisingly pay a first-round pick for Butler’s services. Behind those two, the Patriots have the rising Eric Rowe and second-year Alabama product Cyrus Jones.
It’s also much easier to find good cornerbacks later on in the draft. Butler is a former undrafted free agent, and Sherman was a mere fifth-round pick out of Stanford. Gilmore and Rowe were high picks, first and second-rounders respectively, but the Patriots top three at the position seems to be set. If they are drafting an edge rusher, they would be getting someone who could fight for significant snaps in their first season. At cornerback, they would be looking for a No. 4 guy to compete with Jones behind Gilmore, Butler, and Rowe.
There’s a lot of speculation surrounding Butler’s future with the team in 2017, but absolutely nothing has changed regarding his status. The Saints haven’t made a strong offer for him, and they are unlikely to surrender a first-round pick for a player who will want a big contract upon signing. And speaking of big contracts, it’s fair to wonder if Butler would even want to sign with New Orleans. The Patriots give him a better chance at winning a third Super Bowl ring in 2017, and if he has another stellar season, he’d be in line for an even bigger contract in free agency in 2018.
As such, we should assume Butler is staying for at least one more year, which means that the depth chart at cornerback is easily more stacked than it is at edge rusher. The Patriots don’t typically rely on a great pass rush, but they did lose both Long and Sheard last season and only replaced them with the far less proven Ealy. They should focus on throwing one more player into the mix. Someone like Daeshon Hall, Trey Hendrickson, or even Tim Williams could be in play for the Patriots with the 96th overall pick.