Patriots

Patriots

The Patriots made headlines for going with an old-school approach offensively late last season, but defensively they've been relatively old-school for some time. 

As the NFL has become decidedly more focused on the passing game, the Patriots have continued to focus on defending the run with some of their team-building choices. They like their linebackers big -- as they showed in drafting Ja'Whaun Bentley out of Purdue last season -- when the rest of the league wants their 'backers to be able to run with running backs and tight ends. They like their defensive tackles burly in an era when the game's best pass-rusher is an interior lineman who weighs less than 300 pounds. 

When it comes to that defensive tackle spot, the Patriots could get much . . . well, lighter . . . this offseason. Both Malcom Brown (listed at 320 pounds) and Danny Shelton (345) are scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency, potentially leaving the Patriots without two of their top three run-stuffing defensive tackles. Lawrence Guy (who came to the Patriots listed 305 pounds but is now listed at 315) has experience on all three downs and is under contract for 2019. Same goes for Adam Butler (300 pounds), who is primarily a sub-rusher. 

There are options for the Patriots to pick up a bigger-bodied lineman in free agency. (Former Jets tackle Mike Pennel makes plenty of sense.) But there are also some bulked-up options in this year's draft class who will be in Indianapolis this week. 

 

Here are a few questions worth asking about this year's draft class of defensive tackles as we try to get a sense of which players might work out at One Patriot Place...

WHAT'S THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENT?

For first and second-down players that the Patriots would be comfortable playing in the middle of their defensive line -- we're talking about the bigger bodies like Brown and Shelton, not the lighter-but-quicker tackles -- the weigh-in could be among the most important events of the week. Look at the picks the Patriots have made in the top-three rounds for players at that spot: Vincent Valentine (third round, 329 pounds); Brown (first round, 319 pounds); Ron Brace (second round, 330 pounds); Vince Wilfork (first round, 323 pounds). Those players tipping the scales around 320 pounds or more seem like they have a chance in New England. Because good players carrying that kind of weight are rare, they are commodities for teams like Bill Belichick's that value size and power. 

WHO HAS THE MOST TO GAIN?

At 6-foot-3, 310 pounds, Clemson's Albert Huggins has the frame that makes him look like he's ready for the rigors of pro football. And if he impresses teams with his athleticism and his interviews this week, he may get someone to bite on him earlier than is currently anticipated. One of the reasons he's not a common name on draft boards at the moment? He didn't start in college. But he was playing behind two potential first-round picks in Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence (we'll get to him in a minute). It wasn't until the college football playoffs, during which Lawrence was suspended, that Huggins had an opportunity to play more consistently. He made the most of it, helping hold Notre Dame to three points and recording five tackles against Alabama. Had he played somewhere else, Huggins might've had more opportunities to get noticed. Now he'll have to try to earn a bit more recognition in Indy. 

WHO HAS THE MOST TO LOSE?

Trysten Hill of UCF will have to be prepared to answer some tough questions in interview settings. He saw limited work in the final game of his collegiate career -- a loss to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl -- and he declared for the NFL draft just hours later. In his announcement he thanked the former UCF staff led by Scott Frost . . . but not the current one led by Josh Heupel. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein writes that "concerns over his football character and maturity have hindered his standing on the team at times." At 6-foot-2, 330 pounds, Hill has rare size. But teams will want to find out this week if he's coachable. 

WHO'S THE BIGGEST FREAK?

For interior defensive linemen in general, Ed Oliver could vault himself up boards with a freaky series of tests. The twitchy athlete out of Houston might run the 40 in the 4.5-second range, Raiders GM Mike Mayock hinted on Wednesday. If he weighs in at a number approaching the 300-pound mark, that would be . . . wild. In terms of the bigger linemen, the types we're focused on for the Patriots, someone like Khalen Saunders looks like a ridiculous athlete. The 6-foot-2, 310-pounder out of Western Illinois is coming from a small program, but if he puts on a show with his big-time athletic ability this week, he could generate serious buzz among the NFL community. It's not often you see guys who weigh as much as he does move like this.

 

WHO'S THE PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOT?

Lawrence is so big and was so productive as a collegian that he could potentially serve as the next Brown or Alan Branch. He stands at 6-4, 355 pounds and was named first-team All-ACC each of the last two years. He was ACC Defensive Freshman of the Year and second-team All-ACC, blocking two kicks in the process, back in 2016. He was suspended for the college football playoffs last season after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug that he says he did not knowingly ingest. If everything checks out with Lawrence off the field, he could be New England's choice at No. 32 as a "these guys don't grow on trees" type for Belichick. Another prototype here would be Texas A&M's Daylon Mack. At 6-1, 320 he was another defensive tackle who played right away (in the SEC of all places) and has flashed explosive athleticism.