By: Kyle (@GimRari)
New England’s defensive line is coming off a season where they struggled as a unit. There were inconsistencies against the run, playing well against Baltimore but following it up with a disaster against the Los Angeles Rams. The defensive line wasn’t protected by the linebacker play at all, but weren’t blameless in the overall inconsistency in these games. The Patriots will need to upgrade the overall unit this offseason.
The good news is that this free agent class has plenty of options that can help revamp the defensive line. Improving the defensive line will have ripple effects on the second and third level, and the defense could have a bounce back season after all of the ups and downs last year.
Patriots Free Agents
Adam Butler (27 years old – 6’5 300 – 34 total tackles, 6 TFL’s, 4 sacks in 2020)
Adam Butler is coming off an encouraging season with the New England Patriots and may be looking to get paid in free agency. Butler has been a key member of the Patriots defensive line for his four years in the league, and one of the reasons why third down defense can be so good. Butler is a productive pass rusher and he does great work on stunts to help free up other rushers. Retaining Butler and his one-gap penetration would help the pass rushers and blitzing linebackers around him.
Lawrence Guy (31 years old – 6’4 315 – 57 total tackles, 4 TFL’s, 2 sacks in 2020)
Lawrence Guy has been one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL since he signed with the Patriots in 2017. Guy does all the little things that go unnoticed during the game including his ability to split double teams in the run game. Despite his age, re-signing Guy should be a priority for the Patriots to help the depth of the interior and provide a veteran presence in the locker room. If New England decides to go younger at the position, they could end up letting Guy walk.
Deatrich Wise Jr. (27 years old – 6’5 275 – 49 total tackles, 2 TFL’s, 2.5 sacks in 2020)
Deatrich Wise Jr. is an interesting player to keep in mind for the Patriots. He’s had occasional struggles against the run but flashes of dominance there, and he’s been a pretty good pass rusher for New England in terms of pressure and win rates. Despite that, his production has always been relatively modest and New England could be going in a different direction with their defensive line talent. Wise only played 56% of the defensive snaps last season, so he’s ultimately a solid rotational player that could be upgraded with some of the available options in free agency.
Carl Davis (29 years old – 6’5 320 – 3 total tackles, 1 TFL, 0 sacks in 2020)
The Patriots defensive line struggled against the run and part of the reason why was the lack of true nose tackle. With Beau Allen missing the entire season, New England rotated undersized players at the position with mixed results. Carl Davis was a midseason signing and when he was able to play, he added a big body to the middle of the defense and helped soak up blocks. Unfortunately, Davis couldn’t play consistently because of concussions, but the team could look to retain him on an inexpensive and short-term contract. The Patriots need a backup nose tackle as last year proved how detrimental it can be when the depth is tested.
Free Agent Defensive Line Fits
Derek Wolfe (31 years old – 6’5 285 – 51 total tackles, 6 TFL’s, 1 sack in 2020)
The front seven for the Patriots needs an injection of talent and Derek Wolfe could immediately help that. The Patriots and Wolfe have had their fair share of battles throughout the years back when he was on the Broncos, and the two sides reportedly had discussions about Wolfe joining the team before he ultimately landed in Baltimore. Now that the team is loaded with cap space, Wolfe’s addition would be one that provides short-term upside for a team in need of it.
DeMarcus Walker (27 years old – 6’4 280 – 18 total tackles, 3 TFL’s, 4.5 sacks in 2020)
Another former Bronco, DeMarcus Walker is a bit younger than Wolfe after just finishing up his rookie contract. Walker, a former second round pick, could benefit from a change in scenery and a more consistent role if signed as a replacement for Deatrich Wise. Walker didn’t get a ton of playing time last season, but has talent and the Patriots could be an opportunity for an expanded role.
Tanoh Kpassagnon (27 years old – 6’7 289 – 28 total tackles, 2 TFL’s, 1 sack in 2020)
Another member of the 2017 draft class, Tanoh Kpassagnon is a massive individual and would add size to a Patriots defensive line that needs it. The Chiefs don’t have a lot of cap space, meaning the Patriots should be able to outbid them for Kpassagnon’s services. His position coach, Brendan Daly, was the defensive line coach for the Patriots for three seasons before he departed for the Chiefs. That connection could help matters, and Kpassagnon may be searching for an opportunity for consistent reps as his snap counts declined as last season progressed.
Shelby Harris (30 years old – 6’2 290 – 32 total tackles, 4 TFL’s, 2.5 sacks in 2020)
Another former Bronco on the list! Shelby Harris is a talented player that made a noticeable impact when the Patriots took on the Broncos last season. Harris finished the game with two pass deflections (one that resulted in an interception), a quarterback hit and three total tackles. Harris has quietly been one of the better defensive lineman in the league for the Denver Broncos, and Belichick likes to add players that have played well against the Patriots.
Sheldon Rankins (27 years old – 6’2 305 – 20 total tackles, 3 TFL’s, 1.5 sacks in 2020)
Sheldon Rankins is a former first round pick that has been battling injuries over the past three seasons, dealing with a torn Achilles, an ankle injury and a MCL sprain. Rankins is a talented player when he’s able to play, and he would be an instant upgrade for New England’s front seven. With the Saints being in a salary cap nightmare, they’ll likely have to let Rankins walk and the Patriots could sign him to a prove-it deal with incentives.
Kawaan Short (32 years old – 6’3 315 – 6 total tackles, 0 TFL’s, 0 sacks in 2020, 3 games)
The recently released Kawaan Short is coming off of consecutive shortened seasons, dealing with shoulder injuries that have limited him to just five games over that span. When Short has been able to play, he’s a productive pass rusher and would boost New England’s defensive line. Adding a healthy Kawaan Short could give the Patriots one of the scariest third down defenses in the NFL. Short can provide pressure up the middle, likely leading to move takeaway opportunities. Short shouldn’t break the bank with his injury history, but his presence would be an instant talent injection.
Carlos Watkins (27 years old – 6’3 297 – 27 total tackles, 4 TFL’s, 2 sacks in 2020)
Carlos Watkins isn’t a well-known player, but he’s been a solid rotational defensive lineman. Watkins had an impact against the Patriots when New England took on the Houston Texans, batting down a pass. Playing in that Texans system would give Watkins a sense of familiarity with the Patriots defense, as former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has been on the Texans staff during Watkins’ entire tenure.
Jurrell Casey (31 years old – 6’1 305 – 14 total tackles, 1 TFL’s, 0 sacks in 2020, 3 games)
Jurrell Casey was one of the best defensive linemen of the 2010’s and he could still be a force for the interior of a defense. Casey’s 2020 season was cut short because of torn biceps, but getting Casey on a short-term contract could be beneficial for both parties. The Patriots would be signing a premiere defensive lineman to help fix a weakness on the team, and Casey would be put in a great situation to rebuild his stock and set himself up for one last payday.
Davon Godchaux (26 years old – 6’3 311 – 16 total tackles, 1 TFL’s, 0 sacks in 2020, 5 games)
New England is familiar with Davon Godchaux, as he’s been a key player on the Miami Dolphins for a couple of years now. With Godchaux’s ability against the run, experience in a similar defensive system playing for Brian Flores, and flashes in games against New England, he’s a candidate for New England to sign. One hurdle could be the price-tag as Godchaux’s market is a bit of a mystery. For less than $9 million per year, the Patriots should be in on him.
DaQuan Jones (29 years old – 6’4 322 – 49 total tackles, 4 TFL’s, 2 sacks in 2020)
Nose tackle is an underrated but critical part of New England’s defense, and DaQuan Jones could fill that hole. There is no telling if Beau Allen will remain on the Patriots roster, and New England needs another nose tackle for depth purposes anyway. Jones could be that player, as he’s a mountain in the middle of the defense. He can control the line of scrimmage, freeing up the second-level that needs all of the help they can get. Jones could get a pretty wealthy contract on the open market, but getting a strong nose tackle under contract should be a priority for New England.
Poona Ford (25 years old – 5’11 310 – 40 total tackles, 8 TFL’s, 2 sacks in 2020)
The only restricted free agent to appear on this list, Poona Ford is another candidate to be the Patriots next nose tackle. Ford is on the shorter side of defensive tackles, but he’s an effective player in the middle of a defensive line. He would immediately be an anchor and building block for the defense. The Patriots level of interest in Ford will be determined by which tender the Seahawks place on him. The Seahawks have three choices here, they can either place a first round tender, a second round tender, or just the right of first refusal. New England is only likely to be interested if Seattle places a right of first refusal tag on Ford, as Bill Belichick is unlikely to surrender draft picks to secure him.
Potential Cap Casualties
Malcom Brown (27 years old – 6’2 320 – 27 total tackles, 3 TFL’s, 1 sack in 2020)
The former Patriots first round pick back in 2015, Malcom Brown is one of multiple former Patriots who could find themselves back in New England. With the Saints way over the salary cap right now, they’re going to have to make tough decisions on the middle of their roster. Brown was an above average player during his time in Foxborough, and the defensive line needs all the help they can get. Bringing Brown back would be a realistic addition, as he’ll help solidify the unit.
Michael Brockers (30 years old – 6’5 305 – 51 total tackles, 5 TFL’s, 5 sacks in 2020)
The Rams are in a tight spot cap with the salary cap, and moving Michael Brockers would free up money this year and next. Bill Belichick and Sean McVay have a good relationship and the two teams have history doing trades, most notably the Brandin Cooks trade that sent the receiver to Los Angeles for a first round pick. That relationship could be beneficial once again, even though it would be difficult for the Rams to trade a player who has spent his entire nine-year career with the franchise. Brockers is an outstanding defender against the run, a need for the Patriots. It could be a one or two year rental for New England, but he could help stabilize the front-seven.
Carl Lawson (26 years old – 6’2 265 – 36 total tackles, 4 TFL’s, 5.5 sacks in 2020)
Carl Lawson is an up-and-coming defensive end who has 20.0 sacks in 51 career games. He’s flown somewhat under the radar during his career due to a second-year injury and the Bengals failing to contend for the playoffs. Lawson is coming off a productive season and will be looking for a long-term deal after playing four years on a fourth round pick rookie contract. The Patriots usually don’t target pass rushers that could be as expensive as Lawson, but he would be worth it. His potential ceiling is that of a pro bowler, and New England needs the pass rush to go along with their elite secondary. Lawson is a long shot to be signed by New England because he’s a player just waiting to break out. His market could result in a bidding war.
Romeo Okwara (26 years old – 6’4 263 – 44 total tackles, 11 TFL’s, 10 sacks in 2020)
Romeo Okwara is entering free agency at the perfect time, coming off the best season in his NFL career. Okwara was one of the lone bright spots on a dreadful Lions defense last season, posting a career-high 10 sacks. With Matt Patricia back in New England, the Patriots will be able to get an unique look at the former Lion. Patricia figures to recommend Okwara, meaning we might see him end up signing a long-term deal with the Patriots. Okwara should have a long list of suitors and New England will need to be willing to break the bank for him.
Larry Ogunjobi (27 years old – 6’3 305 – 46 total tackles, 5 TFL’s, 2.5 sacks in 2020)
Larry Ogunjobi has been a very productive interior pass rusher during his time in Cleveland, producing consecutive seasons of 5.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 2018 and 2019. Now slated to hit free agency for the first time in his career, Ogunjobi will be looking for a reasonable payday. Adding Ogunjobi to the Patriots defense could be beneficial, as he’ll push the pocket for athletic edge rushers Chase Winovich and Josh Uche. Ogunjobi will have a long list of teams interested in his services, and he may prefer to remain in a defense that wouldn’t ask him to two-gap like the Patriots will.
Dalvin Tomlinson (27 years old – 6’3 318 – 49 total tackles, 8 TFL’s, 3.5 sacks in 2020)
Dalvin Tomlinson has been a rock in the middle of the Giants defense over the past couple of seasons. Tomlinson will have a strong market, as he’s been a stout run defender and hasn’t missed a game in his four-year career. Like many others, Tomlinson has connections to the Patriots defensive system, as his current defensive coordinator is Patrick Graham, who coached in New England from 2009 to 2015 and was defensive coordinator for Brian Flores first year in Miami. Tomlinson doesn’t provide that much upside in the pass rush, which may limit how much New England is willing to offer. If Tomlinson is looking for a team to pay him north of $10 million, expect New England to look for other options.