Patriots

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: One-time Vince Wilfork understudy would be big-time in New England

Patriots

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

The Patriots defensive line joked during the 2019 season that they called themselves "the few, the proud" because of the way in which the roster was constructed. With an abundance of talented linebackers, they opted to change how they deployed their front, shifting from more 4-3 looks to a more linebacker-heavy 3-4 scheme.

For the most part, the unit transitioned well, but the change wasn't without its hiccups.

As it turned out, a defense that was built to defend the Chiefs and their explosive passing attack — using their defensive linemen to crush the pocket around a mobile passer rather than rush up the field — had issues against run-happy teams like the Ravens and Titans in critical moments.

The Patriots could build up their wall at the line of scrimmage this offseason with more (and bigger) bodies in order to handle the variety of attacks they'll see in the AFC in 2020.

PLAYER-BY-PLAYER LOWDOWN

Lawrence Guy: The team's most consistent and productive defensive lineman, Guy has the ability to play a variety of techniques along the line of scrimmage and hold his own. He's built like a true 3-4 end, but he played as a three-technique and on the nose. He played in passing situations and running situations. He was one of the five best players on the league's best defense last season. He's under contract for one more season and will count about $5 million against the cap in 2020.

 

Danny Shelton: Still a massive man at 340 pounds, Shelton transformed his body last offseason and molded himself into exactly what the Patriots wanted on the interior. After lingering on the free agent market for a period — he was up-and-down in 2018 in New England — he ended up beating out early Patriots signee Mike Pennel in training camp to serve as the team's top nose tackle in 2019. Shelton is headed for free agency this offseason, but it'd make sense for the Patriots to pursue him to re-sign as a player who understands Bill Belichick's two-gapping system. If the Patriots stick with their 3-4 they'll need someone for the nose tackle spot -- and maybe two players -- in order to maintain their rotations up front.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Adam Butler: Butler put together by far the most productive season of his young career in 2019 with 6.0 sacks and five passes batted at the line of scrimmage. At his best as a pass-rushing defensive tackle — he's often the lone down lineman when the Patriots utilize their "amoeba" pass-rushing fronts — Butler was forced into more running-game situations in 2019. Butler is a restricted free agent. The Patriots could place a first-round (about $4 million) or second-round (about $3 million) tender on Butler.

If he signs with another club, they'd be awarded a corresponding draft pick depending on the tender. Those salaries aren't insignificant, so the Patriots could simply give Butler a right-of-first-refusal tender, which would give them a chance to match an offer Butler receives from another club via free agency. There would be no picks awarded to the Patriots if he left. It'll be interesting to see how highly the Patriots value Butler with their choice of tenders. Tenders must be submitted by the start of the new league year on March 18.

Deatrich Wise: Wise had what might've been the most difficult transition when the Patriots changed their scheme. He's built as a 4-3 end and yet was asked to play as a 3-4 end as a 275-pound player. Not easy. Asking Wise to play out of position came back to bite the Patriots in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs when they had issues stopping Tennessee's power running game. They simply didn't have enough bodies to hold their ground and clog up Derrick Henry's running lanes.

If the Patriots want to remain versatile with their personnel to play as a 4-3 defense in certain circumstances, Wise could end up a valuable piece. But he's an awkward scheme fit if they run back the 2019 defense in 2020. He's under contract for one more season and will count $2.2 million against the cap. The team could save $2.1 million cap-wise if he's released prior to June 1. 

Byron Cowart: The rookie fifth-rounder out of Maryland saw action in just five games last season, playing 43 snaps. Checking in at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds and possessing what looked like heavy hands at times during his first pro training camp, he could be a low-cost 3-4 end option next season.

 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES

D.J. Reader: If it's a nose tackle the Patriots are after — whether to replace Shelton or complement him — the 347-pounder would be an interesting option. Vince Wilfork's understudy for a time in Houston, Reader is a good athlete (he played first base for Clemson in addition to starring on the football team), and the Patriots have plenty of familiarity with him between what they've seen during joint practice time with the Texans and games played against them.

He was the No. 5 interior lineman, according to Pro Football Focus, last year. Michael Pierce of the Ravens — another massive body at 340 pounds — would also be an interesting free-agent fit. He'd likely be cheaper than Reader, yet he could help slow down the run game Baltimore has built up to beat up on the Patriots and the rest of the AFC.

Javon Hargrave: The big-money 3-4 defensive end types will be Kansas City's Chris Jones (who was dominant in the Super Bowl) and New York's Leonard Williams (formerly of the Jets and more recently of the Giants). Hargrave is a lesser-known name but can be every bit the game-wrecker as someone like Williams. The 27-year-old checks in at a squatty 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds and would be ideal in the Patriots defense because of his versatility.

He had the eighth-best PFF grade among interior defensive linemen. And in a league loaded with interior defenders who want to fly up the field, Hargrave knows what it takes to be an effective defender who holds up at the point of attack. He's coming from a 3-4 defense in Pittsburgh where the outside linebackers are the fly-up-the-field types.

Others who could fit the 3-4 end mold in New England? Mike Daniels (of the Packers and most recently the Lions) and Jarran Reed (Seahawks) are penetrating types who have the build to do what they Patriots ask.