State of the Patriots: Lawrence Guy leads DL

Andy Hart
February 20, 2020 - 10:55 am
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As the NFL offseason heads toward free agency and the draft, all 32 teams must assess their own talent before they begin anew the roster-building process. With that in mind, WEEI.com is taking a position-by-position look at the state of the Patriots roster.

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Defensive line

Returning players: Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise Jr., Byron Cowart, John Simon, Chase Winovich, Keionta Davis, Derek Rivers, Nick Thurman, Tashawn Bower

Free agents: Danny Shelton, Adam Butler (RFA)

2019 recap: While the Patriots defense was one of the best in football last fall – even if it wasn’t an historic unit and petered out late in the season – the defensive line was the least impactful portion of the unit. The secondary and linebackers brought Pro Bowl talent, playmaking and depth to the field each week, but the front performed at varying levels as a relatively faceless group. Veteran Lawrence Guy has been the best player on the defensive line for a few years now and arguably the most underrated player on the team. The durable, versatile Guy started all 16 games in 2019 – playing all 16 games for the third straight season in New England – and finished tied for third on the team with 61 tackles to go along with three sacks, five QB hits, two fumble recoveries and one very memorable interception against Baker Mayfield’s Browns. A late re-signing for a second season in Foxborough, Danny Shelton was solid in 14 starts and 16 games played, tying Guy with 61 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble. The problem is that overall the run defense led by the defensive line was an issue off and on all season, including get pushed around late in the year and in the Wild Card loss to the Titans. Adam Butler proved himself a decent rotational player, seeing time primarily on passing downs and distancing himself from late-season issues in the run defense, finishing third on the team with 6 sacks in 16 games with two starts. The edge of the line, including versatile options like John Simon and rookie mid-round pick Chase Winovich, had its ups and downs as well. Deatrich Wise Jr. was a relative non-factor in his third season, finishing with just two sacks in 14 games with three starts – seeing his snap count cut in half -- a step back from combined 9.5 sacks the former fourth-round pick had in his first two seasons. Winovich had 5.5 sacks in 16 games of reserve action, but got pushed around and lost at times. Michael Bennett’s short tenure in New England – which included a late arrival to training camp and just one start in six games played before being traded to the Cowboys – did little to satisfy the team or the player. Chalk it up to a bad fit for all involved. To sum it all up, the defensive front line was lackluster and inconsistent both in terms of run defense and pass rush at times despite being a complementary part of one of the best defenses in football in 2019.

2020 projection: Guy, Simon and Winovich may be the only relatively known commodities for the Patriots defensive line that heads toward 2020 with position coach Bret Bielema having moved on to a new job with Joe Judge’s Giants. The former Browns first-round pick Shelton hits the open market with a chance to increase his pay from the barely $1 million he earned last fall. Wise was considered a possible cut candidate last summer and there could be similar storylines this training camp, though with a cap number below $900k it won’t be a financial decision. Fellow 2017 draft pick Derek Rivers is in the final year of his rookie contract having landed on IR in two of three seasons, including the entirety of 2019. Rivers has potential and impressive work ethic, but his career clock is ticking with one sack in six games played to date. Butler could be brought back, but he’s development has seemingly plateaued as a rotational player on passing downs. Given that the rest of the defensive unit may undergo some significant losses, the defensive line’s lack of impact personnel and limited depth could be a more glaring issue without upgrades heading into 2020.

Draft/free agency need – Medium: The investment on the defensive line in New England has varied greatly over the years. The early stages of the Patriots dynasty had multiple first-round picks on the defensive line and first-round pick Chandler Jones honed his skills on the edge in Foxborough before blossoming as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate following a trade to Arizona. Right now, the Patriots have a bunch of versatile options on the line but no real top-end talent (other than the 30-year-old Guy) either on the inside or on the edge. It’s certainly an area worthy of consideration for an upgrade through either free agency or the draft, or both. But given pressing needs elsewhere, New England may not have the resources to add a true impact defensive line talent this offseason.

Related: Ben Affleck shares thoughts on Tom Brady’s future