Stop the run, have some fun. It's an old football cliché bellowed by defensive linemen across the NFL on a weekly basis that means pass-rush opportunities are coming if they can do their jobs on early downs.
The Patriots did that well enough last year for large chunks of the 2019 season. They finished sixth in the league in average rush yards allowed per game (95.5), and they were 14th in the NFL in yards allowed per carry (4.2).
Then, despite not having a player with more than 7.0 sacks, they finished seventh in the NFL in team sacks and had the best third-down defense in football, allowing only 24.1 percent conversions.
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Yet in two of their biggest games of the season, against ground-and-pound offenses, the Patriots slipped against the run. They allowed 210 yards rushing to eventual league MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens rushing attack in a 37-20 loss on the road that looked like it would help determine AFC playoff seeding. Then in the Wild Card Round, the Patriots gave up just 14 points, but they allowed 201 yards to Derrick Henry and the Titans on 5.0 yards per carry.
Ahead of the 2020 draft, it wasn't unreasonable to wonder whether or not the Patriots would add some bulk up front to defend teams like the Ravens and Titans — both of whom will continue to rely on strong running games and look like legitimate contenders for AFC supremacy in the years ahead.
The Patriots went in a different direction, though.
They added an athletic safety, a talented sub-package linebacker and an edge defender with their first three picks in the draft. They didn't add a behemoth defensive lineman from the college ranks until the undrafted free agency portion of draft weekend when they brought aboard William and Mary's Bill Murray, Auburn's Nick Coe and Louisiana Tech's Courtney Wallace.
Patriots Roster Reset: Offensive Line | Running Back | Quarterback | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Linebacker | Cornerback | Safety
The Patriots brought aboard veteran free agent Beau Allen on a two-year deal, but they lost Danny Shelton in free agency to the Lions. So the group — with Allen swapping in for Shelton — looks very similar to the one the Patriots had a season ago. That could very well work out just fine. It did for much of 2019.
But the team may need to get contributions from one more big body in the upcoming season against not only the Ravens, who are on New England's schedule once again, but other run-heavy opponents on this year's slate like San Francisco and Seattle.
Let's reset the depth chart for Bill Belichick's defensive line group...
LOCK ‘EM IN
Lawrence Guy might be the most underrated defender on the Patriots and one of the most underrated players in the NFL. He's a versatile 300-pounder who can play a variety of techniques along the line and is matched up by New England against the opposition's best blockers week after week. If he can neutralize his matchup, that makes life easier for everyone else. Guy, who was recently named to New England's All-Decade team for his work in the trenches, is going into a contract year.
Other locks include Adam Butler, who signed his second-round tender this offseason and will hit free agency in 2021. He's often the lone true defensive lineman on the field in sub situations and helps free up teammates to terrorize quarterbacks. He's not going anywhere.
Allen is the third lock here after signing a two-year deal that included $2.75 million guaranteed. The Patriots don't have another true nose tackle — Allen is the only Patriots defensive lineman who weighs over 320 pounds — meaning he's the logical fit to play the Danny Shelton role in Belichick's 3-4 style scheme.
ON THE BUBBLE
Deatrich Wise has been a productive player in his role with the Patriots since being drafted in 2017. But his workload tailed off last year as the Patriots shifted their defensive identity. As they changed from more of a 4-3 to a 3-4 front — the Patriots, like every team, play primarily sub packages but the style of player they used most often for 3-4 profiles — that meant getting away from 4-3 defensive ends like Wise, who weighs too much to take on an outside linebacker role at 275 pounds but not enough to consistently hold up on the interior as a 3-4 end.
The Patriots may want to keep him in the mix as a high-energy hand-in-the-dirt pass-rusher who could use his length to his advantage against stubbier interior offensive linemen. But he could find himself on the bubble due to the fact that he doesn't clearly fit the team's scheme at the moment.
Byron Cowart fits in this conversation as well, though for different reasons. The 2019 fifth-round selection out of Maryland has physical talent; he was one of the most highly-rated high school recruits in the country a few years ago and ended up at SEC power Auburn before transferring to College Park. But the Patriots have a few more 3-4 end types on the roster and Cowart didn't do so much as a rookie that he would warrant "lock" status.
Nick Thurman had his moments in last year's training camp as a second-year player out of Houston. He's bounced from the Texans to the Bucs to New England and could be destined for a practice-squad role, which is where he spent last season for the Patriots. Auburn's Nick Coe, Louisiana Tech's Courtney Wallace and William and Mary's Bill Murray — all undrafted rookie signees — qualify as "long shots" as well.
Murray is intriguing, though, having received $125,000 to sign with the Patriots after the draft. That indicates that there was some competition for his services. He had 10 blocked kicks in his college career and has some explosiveness that could translate to success as a pass-rusher on the interior in the NFL. Murray played under former Patriots linebacker Vincent Brown (the defensive coordinator and associate head coach at William and Mary) in 2019.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH
Allen projects as the team's top nose tackle in 2020, making him the easy choice as the newcomer to watch. Though Shelton seized that role early in training camp last summer and then went on to have what was perhaps his best season as a pro, Allen could end up filling in nicely. He has experience both as a two-gapping player and a defensive tackle in a one-gap system after playing under different staffs in Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.
Last year he played in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' 3-4 system so he should be plenty familiar with the techniques he'll be asked to execute in Foxboro. It can be difficult at times to tell big-bodied players, particularly ones who are accustomed to penetrating, that their job is to occupy space. But for Allen, who's been considered a strong locker room presence at his last two stops, he's no stranger to that type of role.
It might not lead to loaded stat sheets, but it's a valuable one for Belichick and his front.
Butler seems like a good choice here because he was such a critical piece to the third-down success the Patriots had in 2019. Former Patriots assistant Bret Bielema compared Butler to a point guard dishing out assists when it came to the Vanderbilt product's work in New England's games and stunts up front.
Oftentimes Butler was asked to rush at an angle, picking a blocker aligned across from another Patriots pass-rusher. That led to confusion and either freed up an edge defender or freed up Butler himself to drill a quarterback if the offensive linemen involved didn't properly communicate how to handle the nature of the two-man (or three-man) pass-rush concept coming at them.
If Butler can make the same kind of impact on passing downs in 2020, the Patriots defense and its talented secondary could be in line to be among the best third-down units in the league once again.