FOXBORO -- It's safe to say Bill Belichick likes the overall depth of his 90-man roster.
Over the last few weeks, the Patriots coach has praised the top-to-bottom competition at receiver, tight end and safety. The defensive tackle spot was the latest to be publicly praised as one of the deepest groups he's had over the course of his years in New England.
"It's competitive. It's as much depth as we've had at that position as I can remember," he said. "Good competition. We have some young guys, have some guys with experience . . . We have some different play styles in there so it's not quite apples-to-apples with each comparison, but they've all been productive. They can all do something pretty well to keep them in a competitive situation. One guy may do something better than another player [and] vice versa. But in the end, everybody's been able to do enough to keep going in there and keep it competitive."
The interior of the defensive line has been manned primarily by last year's first-round pick Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Terrance Knighton, Markus Kuhn and third-round rookie Vincent Valentine. Joe Vellano, Woodrow Hamilton and Anthony Johnson have also factored in and received reps in training camp.
One reason that position group may come into focus this week is because the Bears are in town for three joint practices, and the Patriots lost one of their top contributors at defensive tackle to Chicago this offseason. Akiem Hicks, acquired by the Patriots in a mid-season trade last year with the Saints, became a free agent after playing in all 13 regular-season games and both postseason games while on the New England roster. He recorded three sacks, four quarterback hits and 15 quarterback hurries in a Patriots uniform and then signed a two-year deal with the Bears.
In order to help make up for the loss inside, the Patriots added Knighton and Kuhn as veteran free agents and drafted Valentine. In terms of build, none of those players checks in with the same kind of measurements as Hicks (listed at 6-foot-5, 336 pounds). Valentine (6-foot-3, 320 pounds) and Kuhn (6-4, 315 pounds) may come closest, but players like Hicks are hard to come by.
"I'd say it's just supply and demand. Guys that have a lot of length in there and are able to play in there, a player like Richard Seymour, the guy was the sixth pick in the draft," Belichick said. "A lot of players playing that position just don't have those kinds of qualities. They have other qualities: Size, maybe quickness, maybe height's not one of them. But I think if you could get that in there -- if you could get a bunch of 6-5 defensive tackles that are as athletic and powerful as you want them to be -- there's probably not too many teams that would turn those guys down. They're usually drafted pretty high, but there's not as many of them. The Vince Wilfork's and Malcom Brown's are a little more, I'd say, common. They just come out more like that than they do like some of those 6-5 guys, 6-6 guys."
Hicks, a third-round pick of the Saints in 2012, may have one of those rare frames -- and the Patriots will be re-introduced to him this week -- but it sounds like Belichick wouldn't change a thing about the defensive tackle group he has on his roster at the moment.