An under-the-radar area where the New England Patriots could use some help this offseason is on the interior of the defensive line.
At various points of the season, especially early on, the Patriots were run all over. Following some improvement, New England was gashed again late, giving up 174 yards on 29 carries on the ground against the Buffalo Bills in a 47-17 loss to end its season in the wild-card playoffs.
Top 2022 NFL free agents by position: QB | RB | WR | TE | OL | EDGE | LB | CB | S | K | Top 25 overall
On the year, the Patriots were 22nd in the NFL in yards allowed per game on the ground (123.7) and 23rd in yards per rush (4.5). If New England is going to improve upon those numbers, here are some names for the team to consider along the interior of its defensive line, where Davon Godchaux and the promising Christian Barmore are already set to return to in 2022.
10. Sheldon Richardson
2021 stats: 2.5 sacks, 39 combined tackles
The 2013 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year saw his usage dip considerably in 2021 in his second stint with the Minnesota Vikings, appearing in 17 games but starting only seven and taking 57 percent of the team's defensive snaps, also a career-low. Still, Richardson has something left to offer, as evidenced by his 13 QB hits -- the fourth-most of his career.
9. Linval Joseph
2021 stats: 1 sack, 57 combined tackles
Joseph, who won Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots with the New York Giants, shows few signs of slowing down through a dozen years in a league. He's not the force he was with the Minnesota Vikings, where he made back-to-back Pro Bowls in 2016 and 2017, but there's still a place in the league for someone who can clog the lanes at 6-foot-4, 330 pounds. He's spent the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers.
8. Jarran Reed
2021 stats: 2.5 sacks, 43 combined tackles
His 10.5 sacks in 2018 for the Seattle Seahawks were an outlier, but Reed has nonetheless established himself as a disruptor in the middle of the defense. After spending last season with the Kansas City Chiefs on a one-year, $7 million deal, Reed should have a healthier market this offseason.
7. Quinton Jefferson
2021 stats: 4.5 sacks, 47 combined tackles
Jefferson re-established himself in Vegas last season, notching career-highs in sacks, combined tackles, solo tackles and QB hits for a Raiders team that ranked 10th in the NFL in yards allowed per rush (4.2) in 2021.
6. Brandon Williams
2021 stats: 0 sacks, 35 combined tackles
The longtime Baltimore run stuffer continues to make an impact even as he closes in on a decade in the league, helping the Ravens lead the league rushing defense (84.5 yards per game allowed) in 2021. He also swatted down a career-best three passes from the line of scrimmage this season, no easy task for someone who measures only 6-foot-1.
5. D.J. Jones
2021 stats: 2 sacks, 56 combined tackles
Jones more than doubled his previous best mark in both combined and solo tackles for the San Francisco 49ers in 2021, anchoring the interior of a defensive line that was seventh in the league against the run (103.5 yards per game). For good measure, he had two forced fumbles after having just one over his first four years in the NFL, and played in a career-best 51 percent of San Francisco's defensive snaps. Having just turned 27 in January, Jones is still yet to hit his ceiling.
4. Malik Jackson
2021 stats: 0.5 sacks, 25 combined tackles
He's been well-traveled since winning Super Bowl 50 with the Denver Broncos, including stops with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles and most recently, a year with the Cleveland Browns. Aside from a foot injury that cost him the final 15 games of the 2019 season in Philly, however, Jackson has been remarkably durable throughout his NFL career, missing only four other games over the course of 10 seasons. He started 16 games for the Browns in 2021, helping Cleveland rank 12th in the NFL in rushing defense at 109.2 yards per game.
3. Akiem Hicks
2021 stats: 3.5 sacks, 25 combined tackles (9 games played)
One of the sneaky great acquisitions Bill Belichick ever made was bringing in Hicks in 2015 in exchange for third-string tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in a deal with the Saints, only to allow Hicks to depart in free agency following a stretch of inspired play for the post-Vince Wilfork Patriots. Hicks has been a beast for the Chicago Bears ever since, with 31 sacks in six seasons, but he's missed 20 games over the last three due to various ailments. The former University of Regina star is capable of lining up outside as well, which should be enough to offset his advancing age.
2. Ndamukong Suh
2021 stats: 6 sacks, 27 combined tackles
He hasn't made a Pro Bowl since 2016 or been First Team All-Pro since 2014, but all the former second overall pick of the Detroit Lions continues to do is produce and stay on the field. Since entering the league in 2010, Suh has missed only two games -- due to a suspension way back in 2011. He has his Super Bowl ring following the 2020 season with the Buccaneers and figures to follow the mass exodus out of Tampa if he wants to pursue a second.
1. B.J. Hill
2021 stats: 5.5 sacks, 50 combined tackles
The New York Giants did Hill an incredible favor in the offseason, trading him from one of the worst teams in the league to a team that held a lead in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LVI in the Cincinnati Bengals. Hill responded wonderfully to the change of scenery, registering a career-best 12 quarterback hits and coming up with six tackles for a loss. You may also remember Hill, who can lineup outside when needed, from his pick on one of Patrick Mahomes' several ill-advised throws in the AFC Championship Game.
Honorable mentions: Maurice Hurst, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Maliek Collins, Folorunso Fatukasi, Larry Ogunjobi