If there was a strong point for the New England Patriot defense in 2012, it could easily be argued that it was on the front line, where the likes of mountain-man Vince Wilfork stuffed the middle of opposing offenses week in and week out. He was clearly a force for this team, despite the switch to a primarily 4 - 3 scheme. Vince will never be a sack leader, but he will disrupt more than his fair share of plays.
It's a lot easier to build a unit around a dominating player like Vince, but, as I pointed out in a previous article, they already have a pretty good group of linebackers behind them. It is also common knowledge that they will need to improve in the secondary to really make this a top defense in the league.
It appears that Vince will be joined by recently acquired Tommy Kelly from Oakland on the interior if the line, but I like the possibility of Armond Armstead formerly of the Toronto Argonauts showing up big during training camp, as well as, Marcus Forston, and rookies, Cory Grissom and Joe Vellano.
Vellano is my dark horse in this group of challengers, having played as a larger defensive end his senior year at Rutgers and posting six sacks on his way to first team All-ACC honors in 2012. Whether he translates to a small tackle or a large DE remains to be seen, but I can see him gaining playing time, like a Rob Ninkovich, over the course of 16 games in 2013.
I think that Armstead and Vellano actually have the best shot at making the final roster and contributing on special teams first, and subbing for Wilfork, Kelly, and either Jones or Ninkovich in sub-packages.
The defensive ends are virtually locked into place; Chandler Jones should pick up right where he left off in 2012. He needs to stay healthy, but otherwise will be the sack machine that got him drafted in the first place.
Ninkovich is just simply a motor in a football jersey. He has become a larger version of Tedy Bruschi, finding ways to get to ball and ball-carrier (right, Mark Sanchez?) with an alarming regularity. "Nink" is getting better with each year of experience and is the perfect complement to Wilfork on this line. Eight sacks, five fumbles, and he can drop into coverage, as evidenced by a pass defensed last year, as well as, two interceptions each in 2010 and 2011. I expect great things from him in 2013.
With Chandler Jones ready to exceed his six sack performance in an injury shortened 2102, these two DEs will soon be in conversations of the best in the league.
It is time for Jermaine Cunningham to prove his worth. He has some competition for the back-up role on the outside; Justin Francis is a versatile player, like Ninkovich, which is what Bill Belichick likes to have in his hip pocket.
Jake Bequette also needs to prove he can make the leap in his second year. I have to wonder if his lack of playing time is directly correlated to his struggle to adapt to the pro set. On Patriots Today, Brian Lowe says that he believes Bequette will make that leap this year, while Jackie Brittain counters that Cunningham has shown flashes of brilliance that will give him the edge over Jake.
While I think that it would take a season-ending injury for any of the three reserves to jump into a starting role, it seems that Francis and Cunningham have the best chance at contributing as role players.
And we can't forget Jason Vega, former CFLer, rookie Michael Buchanan and Marcus Benard who came from Cleveland this off-season. Benard had a good year in 2010, posting 7.5 sacks and a couple of passes defensed. But his big question mark with injuries makes him a long shot to even make the final roster.
I'm gonna' go with Buchanan as the best option for that final spot behind the incumbents, Francis and Cunningham. If he can regain his confidence from a less than stellar 2012 senior season, he should be able to make enough noise to get on the roster and work toward becoming one of the rotational players behind Nink and Jones.
And finally, I have to mention that the release of Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick may have actually helped the defensive line overall. Both men failed to provide consistent play up front, and better options were already available to coach Belichick. Add to that a savvy draft, and the 2013 Patriot Defense looks better already. This line needs to increase pressure in opposing backfields in 2013, and I think that will happen with the group I have detailed above. All the signs point to a big year defensively in New England.