Deatrich Wise

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

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 at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have plenty of bodies but an unknown number of difference-makers: Edge defender. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


No position group saw greater change through training camp than Bill Belichick's group of edge players. Rob Ninkovich retired. Kony Ealy was cut. Shea McClellin and Derek Rivers had season-ending injuries. When Harvey Langi was injured in a car accident and Dont'a Hightower suffered a season-ending pectoral injury, the team was dangerously thin on the outside. The Patriots tried to fill in over the course of the season with a series of Band-Aids. Cassius Marsh got the first crack but was eventually sent packing. The Patriots plucked Eric Lee from the Bills practice squad. They signed James Harrison late. By season's end, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise saw more pass-rush work than anyone else. Wise flashed his potential but also experienced some rookie growing pains. Flowers was really, really good in 993 snaps -- more than any Patriots defensive lineman since Ninkovich played 1,040 in 2014 - but he didn't have much in the way of consistent help on the other side. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Hightower, Flowers, Rivers, Wise, Lee, Shea McClellin, Trevor Reilly, Harvey Langi, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis

WHO ISN'T?
Harrison

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


The Patriots have numbers here. But there are questions that need answering. How healthy will Hightower and McClellin be in 2018? And will they be better suited to play off the line or on the edge? What will Rivers look like after tearing his ACL? How will Wise and Langi develop? If everyone's back and they're all ready to play significant roles, is the need really all that dire? In reality, the Patriots could probably use another addition here, maybe a free agent who's a known commodity. The Patriots have plenty of lottery tickets that could hit in 2018, but adding a dependable option to play opposite Flowers would make sense.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


The two top edge defenders in free agency will be Demarcus Lawrence (25 years old) of the Cowboys and Ezekiel Ansah (28) of the Lions. The Patriots would have to be willing to commit serious money to either one. More cost-effective options would be Alex Okafor (who tore his Achilles late last season), Trent Murphy (who might be a good fit in New England's multiple fronts), Adrian Clayborn (capable against both the run and the pass), Connor Barwin (missed just two games in the last seven seasons), Jeremiah Attaochu (former second-rounder who may still have some untapped potential) and 38-year-old Julius Peppers (a potential stop-gap while young Patriots pass-rushers grow into pros). Options there. But because this isn't seen as a particularly strong draft class when it comes to edge players, there will be competition for each.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


NC State's Bradley Chubb is the early favorite to be the first edge defender off the board this spring, but he's not viewed by everyone to be a game-changing pass-rush talent. Pro Football Focus has compared him to Bills 2016 first-rounder Shaq Lawson. Behind him? Question marks abound. Marcus Davenport from Texas-San Antonio was dominant last season...but against seriously inferior competition. LSU's Arden Key may be the most talented pass-rusher available, but he left the team last spring, leading to questions about his commitment to the sport. Boston College's Harold Landry looked like a top-15 pick before last season, but he was slowed by injury in 2017, his production fell, and now so has his draft stock. Maybe the Patriots can find a physically-gifted edge-setter or pass-rusher in the middle rounds -  as they did with Flowers in 2015 - but there doesn't seem to be a ton of certainty at the top of the class here.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Because the Patriots are well-stocked with young players at this spot - Flowers, Rivers, Wise and Langi will all be 25 or younger when the 2018 season begins - snagging a reliable veteran for the rotation might be the best course of action. Would Barwin be willing to jump coasts after a year with the Rams in order to join the Patriots while Belichick's 20-somethings grow as professionals? What about Peppers? Could the Patriots coax him to leave Carolina for a one-year deal? He hasn't missed a game in 10 years, and he's missed just six total in his career. Maybe Belichick and Nick Caserio will be willing to go big here and shell out long-term dough to make sure they have both edges locked down for the foreseeable future. But with other needs to fill, and with myriad options already on the roster, it wouldn't be surprising if the team stood pat. It really all depends on how they view their youngsters. If they believe, there's little use in spending on, say, Lawrence or Ansah. If they don't, then there could be a splash coming. 

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Gronkowski, Patriots continue to recover as Super Bowl nears

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Gronkowski, Patriots continue to recover as Super Bowl nears

The most potent offensive weapon the Patriots possess is showing signs of being ready for Super Bowl 52.

Rob Gronkowski was spotted on the practice field for the second straight day. This means his concussions symptoms have subsided and he is not far from being cleared by an independent neurologist. 

Anyone who watches football knows just how important 87 is to the Pats offense. This is a great sign for the team heading towards the final game of the season.

Important defensive tackle Malcolm Brown was also at practice. He had suffered a foot injury recently, but it looks like he will also be available in Minneapolis.

One impressive rookie returned to practice on Sunday: Deatrich Wise Jr. He looked to be dazed and confused after being drilled into the ground during the AFC Championship game. Wise Jr. is hoping to pass through concussion protocol before returning as a full practice participant. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Gronkowski, Wise back at Patriots practice

Gronkowski, Wise back at Patriots practice

Eight days before Super Sunday, the Patriots and their fans got some very good news Saturday.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski was back on the practice field at Gillette Stadium. Gronkowski has been out since suffering a concussion in the AFC Championship Game victory over the Jaguars last Sunday. Here's how he looked, via NBCBoston's Perry Russom:

The Jags' Barry Church, by the way, was fined $24,309 by the NFL for the helmet-to-helmet hit that injured Gronkowski, according to ESPN's Mike Reiss. 

Defensive lineman Deatrich Wise, who also sustained a concussion against the Jags, was also back. The Boston Herald reported that despite practicing, Gronkowski still is out of the NFL's concussion protocol. Being cleared to participate in non-contact practices is the fourth step of a five-step process. 

Defensive lineman Malcom Brown (foot) was the only player absent from practice Saturday. 

Still, it's a good sign that Tom Brady's top target is back on the field more than a week before the Pats take on the Eagles in Minneapolis.

Brady practiced without a glove on his throwing hand for the first time since he injured it at practice in the week leading up to the AFC title game. He had the black tape across the cut below his thumb just as he wore in the victory over the Jags. 

The Patriots will practice in Foxboro Sunday before leaving for Minneapolis on Monday after a send-off rally at Gillette Stadium at 9 a.m.

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