This is the sixth in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots' personnel entering the 2011 offseason. Today, we analyze New England's DL situation.
Overview: With DE Ty Warren landing on injured reserve before the season even began, the shuffling along the Patriots' defensive line was fluid. Seven different players started at defensive end in 2010, including NT Vince Wilfork, who was strategically moved there for eight starts, clogging up the edges.
Two rookies, Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love, saw significant time on the D-line, as did former UFL player Eric Moore. Injuries to Mike Wright and Myron Pryor opened the D-line revolving door.
The Patriots did have a solid run defense in 2010, and Wilfork had a Pro Bowl season. But not having Warren at the left end for an entire year forced the Pats to rotate more than they would have likely wanted to along the front four. Like 2009, the D-line struggled to win one-on-one battles and get after the quarterback. Wright had the most sacks out of the linemen, and he missed most of the latter half of the season.
But, like the other defensive positions, injuries allowed for rookies to gain valuable experience in 2010, and if the Patriots draft a defensive lineman early on, there should be some heated competitions for starting jobs for ’11.
Here's a breakdown of each of the defensive linemen on the roster:
DE Ty Warren: Warren had been a consistent starter since 2004, but missed all of 2010 with a hip injury. He's a trusted veteran performer, although his sack numbers have gone down. Assuming he returns to form, he should regain his starting job in 2011.
DL Vince Wilfork: Asked to play nose and end, Wilfork had a stellar season, getting a well-deserved Pro Bowl berth. He finished 2010 with two sacks and eight tackles for loss and led all defensive linemen with 57 tackles. Wilfork played more snaps than usual, making up for the lack of depth on the unit, and was a big reason for the Patriots' run-stopping success.
DL Myron Pryor: Expected to help give Wilfork and Wright a spell, Pryor was rarely healthy, dealing with a back injury at the end of the season. He did start two games in the team's first eight contests, and should remain a top reserve next season.
DL Mike Wright: He was having a great season before suffering a concussion in Week 10 that knocked him out the rest of the year. Before he hit injured reserve, he led the team with 5½ sacks, all of them coming in the span of six games. Wright's abilities helped keep opposing offensive linemen from focusing on Wilfork, and his versatility is something Bill Belichick likes on the D-line.
DE Brandon Deaderick: The seventh-round rookie made a splash early on when given the opportunity, starting four games and recording two sacks. Deaderick has good size at 6-4, 305 pounds, but he was in the coaches' doghouse at the end of the season, getting suspended for reportedly being late to meetings. He returned for the playoffs and recorded four tackles. He should factor in next year's rotation.
DL Gerard Warren: The veteran got a one-year deal from the Pats and was a consistent presence, playing in all 16 games and recording 3½ sacks. He is set to be a free agent and has said he'd like to return to New England for another season.
DL Kyle Love: Love had to wait his turn, but made an impact in the Thanksgiving Day win against the Lions with two tackles and one pass defensed. The undrafted rookie rarely made a dent in the stats sheet, but provided a big body to attract linemen and help out Wilfork, seeing lots of snaps down the stretch.
DE Eric Moore: Moore was only active for the last four games of the regular season, but he started three of them and made an immediate impact as an edge rusher, recording two sacks. He has the speed to be a third-down defensive end.
DE Ron Brace: A second-round pick in 2009, Brace looked good early on, starting the first three games of the season. He dealt with injuries throughout the season, however, and missed the season finale and playoff game. He can clog up holes on the line with his 330-pound frame and showed enough ability to start when healthy.
DT Darryl Richard: He spent the season on injured reserve and did not play in 2009, his rookie season.
DL Landon Cohen: A late-season acquisition, Cohen played in the team's final two games and the playoff loss to the Jets. The journeyman will have to battle to make the team as a reserve who can play on the end or inside.
Bottom line: There are a lot of moving parts on the defensive line with talent at the top in the form of both Warrens, Wilfork and Wright. The young players — Deaderick, Love and Brace — also have good futures with the Patriots. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't target a pass-rushing defensive end in April's draft with one of their early-round picks.
The Pats' pass defense and third-down defense would benefit from having a defensive end who can consistently get after the QB. The biggest thing to watch with this unit is on the depth chart. Belichick likes to rotate his linemen often, and he has plenty of them. With a healthy Ty Warren and potentially a top draft pick, some of the younger players who got action in 2010 might be on the outside looking in.