Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent to that area, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a spot where the Patriots are always on the lookout for power and athleticism: interior defensive line.
OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES
HOW THEY PERFORMED
Depends on who you were watching. Malcom Brown may never live up to the impossible expectations some set for him as the team's first-round 320-pounder brought aboard immediately after Vince Wilfork left, but he put together his most consistent season as a pro and was the team's top defensive tackle. It would not be a surprise if the Patriots opted to pick up his fifth-year option for 2019. Lawrence Guy was absolutely solid as the team's other primary interior defender and ended up playing more defensive snaps than anyone not named Trey Flowers or Kyle Van Noy. Adam Butler, the undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt, showed promise as an interior rusher, and Ricky Jean Francois came through with valuable contributions late in the season. Alan Branch, meanwhile, struggled to find his footing after signing a new deal last offseason, and this group struggled against the run. They allowed opponents to average 4.7 yards per carry, which was the second-worst mark in the league. Having another body inside to improve the rotation and help eat up blockers - such as Vincent Valentine, who spent the season on injured reserve - would've helped.
WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Brown, Guy, Valentine, Butler, Branch
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HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?
The need here hinges on a couple factors: 1) Can Branch be a dependable option in 2018, and b) how does the team feel about Valentine's odds of becoming a regular after missing the entirety of his second season? Hard to believe the answer to that first question would be a resounding "yes." He was a healthy scratch down the stretch in the team's biggest games of the season and could be a cap casualty. The perception of Valentine is a little murkier. The Patriots should feel good about what they have in Brown and Guy, and Adam Butler showed flashes of his potential as a sub rusher. An important factor in the equation here is just how frequently Bill Belichick likes to use his edge defenders inside. Flowers has been especially effective in that regard, and Deatrich Wise the ability to beat interior offensive linemen as well. Still, the Patriots could use a player here to help bolster their big-bodied depth up front. They simply can't have another year where they're near the bottom of the league against the run. Some of that falls on linebacker play, but another competent space-eater would help. Let's put this spot at a 6 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay Memorial "How Concerned Are You?!?" Meter.
WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY
A handful of big names hit the open market in March at this position. Carolina's Star Lotulelei may be the best of the bunch (even though he's coming off of a down season) and Atlanta's Dontari Poe isn't all that far behind. There are a few under-the-radar names who could be contributors even if they aren't huge names. Shamar Stephen of the Vikings, Justin Ellis of the Raiders and Bennie Logan of the Chiefs are intriguing options. From a Patriots perspective - and we've suggested this kind of move multiple times in this series - finding an accomplished veteran near the end of his career could pay dividends. Buffalo's Kyle Williams and Detroit's Haloti Ngata are both into their mid-30s, but maybe they could be coaxed into a season in New England as the No. 3 guy on the inside. We all saw just how much it meant to Williams to make the playoffs last season. He may want to ride it out in Buffalo as one of that team's unquestioned leaders, but a season playing under Belichick could be enticing. One more name: Sheldon Richardson. The Patriots are plenty familiar with the former Jets defender, and he'd be a fine on-the-field fit, with a couple of caveats. Is his head is on straight? And what's his market? His talent level and age (27) would suggest he commands big bucks. But if the market is suppressed because teams are worried about whether or not his head is screwed on correctly, does he end up being a relatively low-risk signing? Doesn't seem like someone the Patriots would gamble on, but never say never. Would he take a short-term deal to rebuild his image and then hit the market while he's still in his late-20s?
WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?
The name everyone will be watching, particularly at next week's combine, when his next-level athleticism will be on display for all to see, will be Vita Vea of Washington. He's 6-foot-4, 344 pounds, and he was much more than a clog-the-middle man for the Huskies. He rushed the passer. He even covered punts. He's expected to run a sub 5-second 40...and he'll be long gone by the time the Patriots pick. For a team like the Patriots that may be looking for help against the run? Alabama's Da'Ron Payne is enticing as a run-stuffer and he's a good enough athlete to potentially make some noise as an interior rusher. Michigan's Maurice Hurst and Florida's Taven Bryan have the kind of quick get-off that could make them first-round interior disrupters. One name to keep an eye on because of his rare combination of size and athleticism: Virginia Tech's Tim Settle. He's 6-3, 335 pounds, he's shown great quickness for a player with his frame, and he's only 20 years old.
HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?
The Patriots don't have to do anything drastic here with Brown and Guy in the fold, but another dependable contributor could alter the look of their front-seven and provide a lift against the run. Players like Lotulelei and Poe - and Richardson if another team gets desperate -- could be too pricey to make Belichick and Nick Caserio bite. Williams or Ngata would be solid in the locker room and legitimate top-three options inside if healthy. And someone such as Ellis, in his fifth year out of Louisiana Tech, probably won't break the bank but could be what they need. He's played 16 games in three of his four years in the league. Settle, because he looks like a tremendous athlete with NFL size who's still growing as a player, could be tough to pass on at the end of the first if he's available. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compares him to Vince Wilfork.