As we take a look at some of the interior defensive linemen in this year's draft class, it's worth questioning what exactly the Patriots are looking for.
Bill Belichick obviously has a long list of draft picks at that spot -- as he does at every spot; he's been at it for almost 20 years in New England after all -- but there's a little more uncertainty up front for the Patriots than there has been lately.
The reason? Belichick's defensive coordinator of the last half-dozen seasons is now the head coach in Detroit.
When Matt Patricia took over the defense in 2011 (he didn't get the coordinator title until the next season), he helped transition the Patriots from a 3-4 team to more of a 4-3 team. Belichick and Patricia deployed multiple fronts over the years together, but there was a change in styles when Patricia took the reins.
The Patriots are now entering into the Brian Flores era defensively, it seems. As was the case with Patricia in 2011, Flores doesn't have the coordinator title, but if it's his defense, what will that look like? Will he prefer 4-3 looks and the personnel required to play that style? Or will he turn back the clock to pre-2011 and shift to more of a 3-4 approach?
If Flores and Belichick roll with what the Patriots have done in recent years, odds are they'll look for athletic big men in the 320-pound range who can play a variety of techniques along the interior.
If they're looking to go with a 3-4 style, they may want more powerful, 300-pound five-technique types who can play defensive end in those fronts. Lawrence Guy guys, if you will. Adding another true nose tackle -- for depth behind newly-acquired 335-pounder Danny Shelton -- could be on the to-do list as well.
Time will tell when it comes to how the Patriots will mix up their fronts. We may have to wait for the team to get on the field to get a good grip on their plans for 2018. But the players they draft for the defensive line could serve as clues as to Flores and Belichick's intentions.
PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS - Previously in the series:
- QBs: Rosen, Lauletta check plenty of boxes
- TEs: Time to pick up some Gronk insurance
- WRs: Adding more options to a crowded field
- RBs: They can always use a good one
- OL: Daniels, Wynn would build on interior strength
- LBs: Vander Esch, Evans offer different strengths
- DEs: Hubbard, Ejiofor look like Belichick's type on the edge
PROTOTYPES IN RANGE
VITA VEA, WASHINGTON, 6-4, 347 POUNDS
The premier defensive tackle in this class, Vea is the prototypical nose tackle for a 3-4 defense. He could go somewhere in the teens, which would put him out of reach of the Patriots unless they were willing to trade up for him. He's a superb athlete for his size (5.10-second 40) and he put up a whopping 41 bench reps at the combine.
DA'RON PAYNE, ALABAMA, 6-2, 311 POUNDS
With good length (33-inch arms) and solid testing numbers (4.95-second 40, 107-inch broad), Payne's combine only helped to buttress what teams saw from his tape. He'll be one of the first interior linemen taken in the draft -- maybe in the first round -- and he could conceivably help the Patriots as a 4-3 defensive tackle on first and second down. He's not quite as tall as the 3-4 ends the Patriots have taken in the past, but his combination of size and athleticism should allow him to shift up and down the line however Belichick, Flores and defensive line coach Brendan Daly see fit.
DA'SHAWN HAND, ALABAMA, 6-4, 297 POUNDS
Big-time five-technique talent. Has all the length (34 3/8-inch arms) and power the Patriots could ever want. His athleticism is ideal as well (4.83-second 40, 31.5-inch vertical, 111-inch broad). The question with Hand is how his motor runs. If Belichick gets a strong scouting report from Saban as it relates to the consistency of Hand's effort, he looks like someone the Patriots could nab in the second or third round if they're looking to play more 3-4 fronts.
TAVEN BRYAN, FLORIDA, 6-5, 291 POUNDS
Bryan is athletic enough to play anywhere along the defensive line. He did his best work as an explosive and quick interior disruptor for the Gators, but his size and movement skills (4.98-second 40 time, 35-inch vertical, 119-inch broad, 7.12 three-cone) should allow him to kick out every so often. Bryan, who is the son of a Navy SEAL, is a little raw but will be in all likelihood a first-round pick.
MAURICE HURST, MICHIGAN, 6-1, 292 POUNDS
Hurst doesn't exactly fit the profile of the big hard-to-move tackle or the long-and-powerful five-technique . . . but his quickness off the snap and his ridiculous level of production for the Wolverines could have Belichick interested. The Xaverian Brothers (Westwood, Mass.) product will have to check out medically after leaving the combine with a heart issue, but if he's available late in the first round, the Patriots could pounce. Like the undersized-but-quick Dominique Easley in 2014, Hurst might be viewed as talented enough to stray from the Patriots prototype.
HARRISON PHILLIPS, STANFORD, 6-3, 307 POUNDS
Long (33 7/8-inch arms), strong (42 bench reps of 225 pounds) and athletic (32-inch vertical), Phillips should be able to play a variety of techniques along the Patriots defensive line. He comes from a well-respected program, and for a defense that will change things up on the fly, he could be viewed as an ideal fit.
JALYN HOLMES, OHIO STATE, 6-5, 283 POUNDS
Holmes is a little light to play as a 3-4 end, but if the Patriots have a good feel for how he'll develop (and they should after Holmes played under Urban Meyer and Greg Schiano), they could have a long (34-inch arms) and athletic (4.82-second 40) five-technique on their hands.
NATHAN SHEPHERD, FORT HAYS STATE, 6-4, 315 POUNDS
A very good athlete for his size, Shepherd checks just about every physical marker the Patriots look for. He recorded a 5.09-second 40, a 31-inch vertical and a 7.5-second three-cone drill. The level of competition Shepherd faced won't do him any favors in NFL war rooms, but his ability to move all over a defensive line -- is he a five-technique end or a true defensive tackle? -- and his performance at the Senior Bowl will.
BREELAND SPEAKS, OLE MISS, 6-3, 283 POUNDS
The Patriots reportedly had Speaks in for one of their top-30 visits, which could serve as an indication that they're interested in another five-technique. Speaks could, in theory, play inside in a 4-3 . . . but he's built more like a 3-4 end. He's a little shorter than what the Patriots have traditionally drafted at that spot, but he has good length (33 3/4-inch arms) and he's a very good athlete (4.87-second 40, 32.5-inch vertical, 110-inch broad jump). Late on Day 2 or early Day 3, he could get a call from One Patriot Place.
FOLEY FATUKASI, UCONN, 6-4, 318 POUNDS
Fatukasi has all of the size (34 1/8-inch arms, 10 1/4-inch hands) and athleticism (30-inch vertical, 7.44-second three-cone) to be able to play multiple different positions along Belichick's front. He looks best suited to align as a 4-3 defensive tackle or an end in a 3-4. That kind of malleability could make him a choice late on Day 2 or early Day 3.
TIM SETTLE, VIRGINIA TECH, 6-3, 321 POUNDS
Settle's combination of size and athleticism pops off the screen at times, but he didn't test as athletically as his best tape looked (23.5-inch vertical, 5.37-second 40). Still, he's a young prospect who has the size and movement skills -- if he can get better at maintaining his balance -- to fit in either a 3-4 or a 4-3. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compared Settle to Vince Wilfork.
BJ HILL, NC STATE, 6-3, 311 POUNDS
Hill is an interesting case. He's as athletic as the Patriots need up front (4.99-second 40, 26.5-inch vertical, 7.28-second three-cone) but finding a fit for him size-wise is a little bit of a challenge. He's not quite as tall as most five-techniques the Patriots have selected in the past. And he's not quite as heavy as the true defensive tackles they've taken. Hill's explosiveness may get him drafted in the second round, but would the Patriots be willing to pull the trigger on him then. Belichick was on hand for Hill's pro day and seemed to had some interest in the big fella, according to former assistant to the Patriots coaching staff and current Ringer analyst Mike Lombardi.
DERRICK NNADI, FLORIDA STATE, 6-1, 317 POUNDS
Nnadi looks like a 4-3 defensive tackle rather than a true nose in a 3-4, where he'd probably get swallowed up at the next level. With his effort-level as his staple, he was named a third-team all-ACC selection last year and a first-teamer the year prior. As an early Day 3 selection, Nnadi might be worth a pick due to his strength and his motor.
KENDRICK NORTON, MIAMI, 6-3, 314 POUNDS
Belichick was the only head coach in attendance at Miami's pro day, and it should come as no surprise that he gravitated toward the defensive linemen. As he did at NC State and Georgia, he put the big boys up front through a series of bag drills. Norton looks like he could be a fit on the interior for Belichick given his frame and massive hands (10 3/4 inches). RJ McIntosh (6-4, 286 pounds) is worthy of a mention here as well since he's viewed as athletic enough to play as a 4-3 end on first and second down. If he improves his play strength, he may also have the ability to play as a 3-4 end. Chad Thomas is another talent on Miami's front to keep an eye on, but at 6-5, 281 pounds he doesn't exactly fit the profile of any interior linemen (or ends) the Patriots have drafted in the past.
JOHN ATKINS, GEORGIA, 6-3, 321 POUNDS
Atkins has the size the Patriots are looking for, and his power flashed against SEC competition. As a Day 3 option, if the Patriots feel they need a space-eater, he could offer enough on and off the field -- he's considered a strong locker-room presence -- to hear his name called.
JOSHUA FRAZIER, ALABAMA, 6-3, 321 POUNDS
Another big body (34 1/4-inch arms, 10-inch hands) from the SEC who could be had at the end of the draft or as an undrafted free agent, Frazier's a run-stuffing prospect that Nick Saban had relatively little (game-day) use for in Tuscaloosa. He played in less than 18 percent of his team's snaps in 2016 and 2017, per NFL.com.