The New England Patriots will hold their first open training camp practice on July 26, and are hoping to build off of last year’s Super Bowl appearance by following it up with yet another Lombardi Trophy for Tom Brady and Co. In the meantime, I will be continuing my breakdown of their roster heading to into training camp by looking at the defensive end group.
Long Shots (2): Keionta Davis, Trent Harris
The Patriots entered training camp last year having lost both Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard at defensive end, but the offseason additions of Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise, and Kony Ealy were believed to be enough to fill the void. Unfortunately, the group suffered too many losses early on and were never quite able to recover for the rest of the year. Rob Ninkovich announced his retirement at the end of July, Derek Rivers tore his ACL during a training camp drill, and Kony Ealy’s skill-set did not align well with what the coaching staff wanted him to do, which led to his release.
Without anyone to man the left defensive end spot, the Patriots overpaid and traded a fifth-round pick and cornerback Justin Coleman to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for Cassius Marsh. Marsh never quite fit with the culture or the scheme, which led to his mid-season release after a series of disappointing appearances. For the rest of the year, the Patriots filled the spot by moving Trey Flowers from the right side to the left side, sliding linebacker Kyle Van Noy onto the line of scrimmage, adding Eric Lee from the Buffalo Bills’ practice squad, and eventually signing veteran James Harrison. This patchwork group of players was unable to get any pressure going against the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl 52, which contributed to the Patriots’ defeat.
However, there is some good news heading into the 2018 season: The addition of Adrian Clayborn as well as Rivers’ return from injury will no doubt improve this unit. Clayborn is known for consistently generating pressure, which is a big part of the Patriots’ defensive scheme. In addition, Rivers’ athleticism and skill-set will likely allow him to successfully rush the passer, defend the run, and drop into coverage. Despite the group being unproven — six of Clayborn’s 9.5 sacks last year came against Dallas Cowboys’ backup offensive tackle Chaz Green, Rivers has yet to play a down in the NFL, and Flowers is transitioning to the left side of the defense. Yet it will be hard for the group to be any worse than it was last year. A rotation of Flowers, Clayborn, Rivers, and Wise will likely be just good enough to help the Patriots win the Super Bowl this year.
There isn’t much depth on the roster after the top four guys, though. Geneo Grissom is a career special teamer, Lee needs to improve his run defense, and Davis and Harris have not played a snap in the NFL yet. In the end, I’m guessing that the Patriots will only keep five or six total defensive ends on the roster this year, leaving just one or two spots open. Grissom could make it solely for his special teams value but he won’t be able to contribute much on defense. Lee struggled at times last year against bigger offensive lineman, but is the most proven of the group. Of all the guys who are not locks, I would consider Lee to be the best right now. Harris is likely fighting for a practice squad spot and Davis is a wildcard. Projected to be a sixth or seventh-round pick last year, Davis went undrafted due to an injury that ended up keeping him out all year. If he is able to impress during training camp and the preseason, he might sneak onto the active roster. Having not seen him on the field at all yet to this point, however, I have no idea where he will end up.
Roster (5): Adrian Clayborn, Trey Flowers, Eric Lee, Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise Jr.
Practice Squad (1): Keionta Davis
Cut (2): Geneo Grissom, Trent Harris
In the end, I think Lee will make the roster simply because he is the most proven at this point. While Grissom is a good special teamer, it appears that the coaching staff does believe he is at least somewhat expendable considering that they released him at the end of the preseason the past two years before signing him back to the practice squad. Davis has some upside, but again, it is hard to predict how he will do without seeing him on the field. Harris will have to impress if he wants to stick around. This situation is worth monitoring during the preseason, as just one long-tier injury will likely necessitate either a trade or shifting Dont’a Hightower back down to the edge.
Stay tuned next week, as I discuss the Patriots’ linebacker group!