FOXBORO -- It's been a revolving door at defensive end for the Patriots in 2017. You know the moves by now: Rob Ninkovich out; Derek Rivers hurt; Kony Ealy cut; Cassius Marsh signed; Dont'a Hightower in; Hightower out; Hightower back in; Harvey Langi injured in a car wreck; Hightower out again.
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?There has essentially been one constant at the position. Week after week. Snap after snap after snap. Trey Flowers has been a mainstay for the Patriots up front, finding himself near the top of the list of the league's edge defenders in terms of playing time. He's arguably the most valuable player on Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense at the moment because without him, their issues on the edge would be dire. And he hasn't just played outside. Flowers has played over the nose and as a defensive tackle, all things he did last season successfully.
But this year, with so many moving pieces, the third-year player out of Arkansas has been forced to occasionally drop into coverage. Not because it's where his skill set is best deployed, but because given the depth at the position he's simply better suited than others to execute those responsibilities. He's dropped back 33 times this season, according to Pro Football Focus, which is already more than the 26 times he was used in coverage in 2016.
In Week 8 against the Chargers, Flowers was often employed as an interchangeable end opposite Kyle Van Noy. Together with off-the-ball linebackers like Elandon Roberts and David Harris, they would coordinate their rush and coverage responsibilities to help confuse the Los Angeles offensive line and quarterback Philip Rivers.
We went into detail on some of those plays in this space last weekend.
"Trey's done some things like that for us in the past. Not as much as he has this year," Belichick said on Wednesday. "This year we've had some, had some different situations at the defensive end position at various points in time. Trey has a lot of experience -- or the most experience of our defensive linemen, and is also athletic and can handle a degree of versatility and responsibility.
"I'm not sure that's always the best thing for him, but sometimes he's the best we have at it. He does a good job and works hard at it, does what's best for the team, which is one of the things you love about Trey is how committed he is to the team, how willing he is to do whatever it takes and whatever we need him to do. And he does a pretty good job of it."
Van Noy is the best replacement for Hightower as a true linebacker-slash-end hybrid, and Marsh -- a very good athlete who contributes extensively on special teams because of his combination of size and speed -- may be the next closest thing. But the Patriots obviously feel comfortable using Flowers, their top pass-rusher, in a variety of roles because he's dependable.
Deatrich Wise has had an impactful rookie season, but he's more of an end-slash-tackle hybrid, not someone who is going to be used to cover the flats -- at this point in his career, at least. Linebackers like Marquis Flowers and Trevor Reilly could potentially give the Patriots some depth at that versatile end spot, but they are primarily special-teamers with limited experience defensively. Shea McClellin would have been an ideal fit for the role Flowers has found himself in more frequently this season, but Belichick confirmed on Wednesday that McClellin will not be activated off of injured reserve.
With the trade deadline passed and McClellin out of the mix, it looks like the Patriots picture at end is what it is, which means it could be more of the same for Flowers for the remainder of the season. It's probably not his best role, but given the Patriots circumstances at end, their hands are kind of forced.