The Patriots are in a tough spot. They were among the league's worst teams when it came to run defense. They ranked 29th in the NFL in expected points added allowed per rush, per Ben Baldwin of The Athletic. They were last in football in rush DVOA, according to Football Outsiders.
Can only go up from there, right? Well, there's an issue. The Patriots are about to watch their two best interior defensive linemen hit free agency.
Lawrence Guy is a member of the latest All-Decade Team in New England and their best defensive lineman over the course of the last four seasons since he arrived via free agency from Baltimore. He can play just about any spot up front between the tackles, and Bill Belichick often aligns him across from an opposing offense's top lineman, gumming up the works for whatever it is that particular opponent wants to do in the running game. He's free to sign anywhere in March.
Adam Butler, meanwhile, is less a run-stuffer than he is a pass-rusher. But he's been a critical piece to the puzzle since the departure of Trey Flowers in the 2019 offseason. Where Flowers once was the team's top interior rusher in obvious passing situations, Butler slid in. He was in on four sacks this season -- eight last season -- and was third on the team with 27 total pressures. He's also free to sign anywhere in March.
Of course, there's a chance that Guy and Butler are back. Guy, in particular, is a favorite of the coaching staff and has been a captain. From a public perception standpoint, he's among the most underrated players the team has had over the course of the last several years.
But what if they aren't? Who's around to help fix what ails this defensive front? It ain't a long list ...
The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder is a nice fit as a 3-4 end in Belichick's scheme. One of the most highly-recruited high school players in the country years ago, he landed at Auburn and later transferred to Maryland. He was drafted in the fifth round in 2019 but took the equivalent of a professional "redshirt" year, seeing 43 snaps as a rookie.
Last year he started all 14 games in which he appeared, playing over 400 snaps and seeing a regular role alongside Guy on the interior in running situations. He's a favorite to land back in that same role in 2021, but the Patriots need more from him. He graded out as the No. 99 interior defensive lineman in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Remember him? He was set to take over for Danny Shelton as the team's top nose tackle, as his size (6-foot-2, 333 pounds) separates him from 3-4 ends like Cowart and Guy. We just never saw him. He was spotted during one day of training camp -- a simulated game inside Gillette Stadium that he watched -- but never played in front of members of the media. He remains under contract, and if healthy he could be a starter for a defense that could desperately use a big body.
The Patriots are one of the few teams in the league that values a true nose tackle, and that spot is still up for grabs in Foxboro. Allen is on track to earn $2.2 million in base salary in the fall, but if released he'd save the Patriots almost $3 million against the cap. Another nose tackle option could be Carl Davis, who played 51 snaps in three games for the Patriots this year, but he's scheduled to be a free agent in March.
Best known for his role in helping the Patriots make a fourth-down goal-line stand at the end of the first half against the Cardinals last season, Spence could be back in the mix for the Patriots next season. The 6-foot-1, 300-pounder is 28 and would be an undersized reserve option for Belichick's front.
Signed as an undrafted rookie out of William & Mary, Murray spent the 2020 season on the Patriots practice squad and recently signed a future contract to remain with the team through the offseason.
With good size (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) to play up front as a 3-4 end, Thurman is headed into his third season in New England. He spent all of 2019 on the practice squad and last season played in seven games, starting one. Like Murray, he signed a future contract to be with the Patriots when camps open up.
Editor's note: Every Thursday, Patriots Insider Phil Perry will evaluate a different position on New England's offense to reset where the team stands entering the offseason. Next up: edge defensive linemen.