FOXBORO -- Lost amidst the conversation surrounding Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl disappearance was that the Patriots run defense was also missing in action. They got gashed by the Eagles for 164 yards on the ground in that 41-33 defeat.
That served as an imperfect bookend to the way the 2017-18 season started: a loss to the Chiefs that saw Kareem Hunt & Co. reel off 185 yards. With a coach that wants to commit fewer bodies to stopping the rushing attack and more toward eliminating big passing plays, Bill Belichick and his staff could never quite find the right formula or right players.
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So, what did the organization do after those debacles? Get to work remaking the front four. They added veteran Adrian Clayborn via free agency and swung a trade for former first-rounder Danny Shelton. While it's early in camp, both have made an impact and should help solidify what was a porous group prior.
Clayborn has fared okay in pass rushing drills and if he can man one end consistently, that should allow Trey Flowers to kick inside in passing situations and cause havoc on interior offensive linemen. But thus far what’s been more impressive about the former Falcon is his ability to hold his ground against the run. Perhaps it was too much time spent watching players such as Cassius Marsh try and fail a year ago but more likely, it’s just that Clayborn is a solid pro who can potentially be a third-down end. Wouldn’t that be nice?
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As for Shelton, the 343-pounder has gotten consistent first-team reps alongside Lawrence Guy and over another fellow first-rounder, Malcom Brown. Considering the Pats declined to pick up the options on both Shelton and Brown, it seems like this isn’t just a competition for this year but for a future contract as well.
Shelton may have that early edge, displaying excellent lateral quickness for a man that size but also showing the ability to root down and be difficult to move. That’s something that Alan Branch did so well a couple seasons prior. Perhaps had Branch decided to, you know, actually show up last season, maybe the Eagles wouldn’t have sliced and diced the Pats defense...
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As for other defensive linemen who have caught the eye so far, DE Keionta Davis has gotten plenty of reps with the second unit and has had his moments. At 6-foot-4, 280, he's an athletic freak but will it translate consistently? He missed all of last season with an injury. Defensive tackles Frank Herron and John Atkins have also been involved and while they're likely on the outside looking in for a roster spot, they could be in competition for a practice squad spot.