The Patriots will be forced to cut down their roster from 84 players to 75 by Tuesday afternoon, and as is the case just about every summer, there will be some difficult decisions that are made. It's an annual rite of the team-building process.
When some positional groups are unusually deep with NFL-caliber talent, those decisions can become even more painstaking. But dealing from a position of strength is a good problem for a coaching staff and a front office to have.
As far as the Patriots are concerned, the number of capable players they have on the defensive line may serve as one of one of those good problems. During a conference call on Saturday morning, Patriots coach Bill Belichick highlighted the work of his defensive front this preseason.
"Defensively we have good depth at some of those positions up front, we have good competition," he said. "Guys are working hard, they're competing well with a number of offensive linemen. We got a couple guys that are banged up, but in terms of numbers, and I'd say overall quality, pretty good depth there so it's really competition when we get any of those 12 or 13 offensive linemen or any of the 14 or 15 defensive linemen . . . It's a pretty competitive group.
"Maybe after one or two guys at the tops of those groups, the rest of those guys are pretty competitive with each other and pretty competitive with the other side of the ball. We've gotten a lot of good work there both ways. But those defensive guys have gotten a lot of reps and they've gotten them against guys that are pretty competitive. We've improved ourselves and we've improved each game on the front in these three preseason games. I'm not talking about the first group but just everybody that's played. That's been good."
The Patriots have a variety of names -- both well-known and not -- that have shown up in positive ways during preseason games or training camp practices over the course of the last month. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones continue to be reliable forces on the edge, and Jabaal Sheard appears as though he's poised to play a significant role on the end of the line as well. Sealver Siliga and the team's last two first-round picks -- Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown -- have flashed at times, and rookies Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom have exhibited good athleticism.
During Friday night's win over the Panthers, the defensive front's play stood out early. On back-to-back third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 plays during Carolina's first drive, linebackers Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins were able to make strong tackles and turn the ball over on downs thanks in part to the play of the line in front of them.
"It's always good to get off to a good start like that," Belichick said. "They had good field position. Looked like on the first one, Sheard kind of got across the line of scrimmage and forced the ball to cut back. Chandler Jones, Mayo, [Alan] Branch were kind of there on the cutback.
"[The Panthers] never really got into the hole they were trying to run into. I think [because of] Sheard's penetration on the end of the line and Malcom at the point of attack, the fullback [Mike] Tolbert couldn't really get through, and it looked like that kind of got clogged up there and so the runner had to cut it back into probably the weaker part of the blocking of the play.
"Then [on fourth down] it looked like they basically flipped the play over. They were trying to combo block with the tackle and tight with Ninkovich and Jamie, and Jamie kind of shot the gap inside of Ninkovich. Nobody blocked him, and then the runner had to stop and cut back he kind of lost his momentum.
"Good play at the point of attack, good back-side pursuit when the ball cut back and the tackle knocked the runner back. Good team defensive plays."
Though Easley didn't factor into those two plays, he made his presence felt later in the game. He finished with three tackles, one sack, two tackles for a loss and two quarterback hits. He said later that he's feeling healthy and looking forward to helping the team no matter how he's used.
During his conference call, Belichick credited Easley for the work he's done this summer.
"He's had a real good training camp," Belichick said. "He's taken a lot of reps, he's improved his technique, his reactions, his recognition. He's an explosive athlete that was very productive in college. Just being able to get on the field and take those reps and practice and improve has helped him get better. It's been key for us -- and for him."
Easley's athleticism and strength on the line allows him to shift to various spots on the interior or on the edge. Belichick explained that many of those players who make up that deep defensive front have done the same in part to make an already deep group even deeper.
"We've done that with all of our defensive linemen really . . . Maybe not all, but most of them," Belichick said. "Trying to get everybody some exposure to some different spots I think it helps them understand the overall scheme, but it also gives us some depth at those spots.
"[Easley] can play outside and inside, and we've done that with Flowers, Rufus [Johnson], Chandler, Sheard, Zach Moore. It's most of the defensive line I think. It's something we've done with a lot of our guys. But [Easley] has done a good job with it. He's experienced and had a lot of production doing that in college at Florida."