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Countdown to Camp: Defensive line

07.20.13 at 11:41 pm ET
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As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We’€™ve looked at the special teamers/specialists, linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks. Now, we take a look at the big dudes on the defensive line.

Depth chart: Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead, Jason Vega, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Marcus Benard, Jake Bequette, Jermaine Cunningham, Michael Buchanan, Marcus Forston, Justin Francis, Cory Grissom, Joe Vellano.

Overview: When the group was healthy, the Patriots were able to get good, sustained play from three-quarters of their four-man defensive front last season. Vince Wilfork is well on his way to sparking a debate about his Hall of Fame credentials, while Jones started the year with a bang and Ninkovich was as steady as they come as an end-of-the-line rusher and overall defender. Those three figure to get the bulk of the snaps this season, while a handful of others — namely, newcomers Kelly and Armstead — fight it out for the other defensive line spot. Youngsters like Bequette and Vega will provide depth at defensive end. Two intriguing options are Cunningham, who showed more defensive versatility over the last year, occasionally moving inside, and Francis, who gained some valuable experience last season but likely figures as a depth option to start the 2013 season. The rest of the group is mostly younger players who will provide depth and special teams value (some of them on the practice squad) this season.

Three Things We Know:

1. Wilfork is the most important defensive player on the roster. If you get caught up in numbers, you lose sight of the greatness that is Wilfork. Instead of being asked to penetrate and bring down the quarterback, more often than not, he’€™s the one who has been asked to plug things up and occupy two and three blockers at a time so that teammates like Ninkovich, Jones, Jerod Mayo, Dont’€™a Hightower and Brandon Spikes can make plays in individual one-on-one situations. It goes without saying that Wilfork has been the centerpiece of the New England defense the last five seasons, and that figures to be the case again this season. The big defensive lineman — who continued to show versatility, durability and leadership in 2012 — is one of the best players in the league. After the departure of Paul Pierce, some local sports fans were speculating that Dustin Pedroia could be the next great local athlete to spend his entire career in New England. That does a disservice to Wilfork, as his continued excellence has earned the 31-year-old the right to be included in any discussion when you are talking about the great local professional athletes of the 21st century.

2. Ninkovich isn’€™t too far behind. In retrospect, the addition of Ninkovich — as a street free agent signed during training camp in the summer of 2009 — might go down as one of the most underrated signings of the Bill Belichick Era. Smart, tough and versatile, Ninkovich can play standing up or with his hand in the dirt. He can rush the passer or drop into coverage (he was one of two defenders who had at least six sacks and two picks in 2011 — the other was Terrell Suggs, who was named Defensive Player of the Year that season). Last season, he and Jones were able to flip sides on occasion, and according to NFL gamebooks, Ninkovich was still able to lead the team in quarterback hits (12) and sacks (8.5), and added five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries to go along with it. (For what it’€™s worth, he’€™s entering the final year of a two-year deal he signed in 2011, and is a relative bargain at $1.4 million a year)

3. They have a lot of defensive lineman on the roster. Technically, some of the players listed on the above depth chart (like Ninkovich, Buchanan and, to a lesser extent, Cunningham) could be classified as linebackers. But that still leaves them with a lot of depth at the position, particularly when you consider the cases of Canadian exports like Armstead and Vega. However, there is some versatility with several of the younger players, as seven of them (Armstead, Bequette, Buchanan, Forston, Grissom, Vega and Vellano) have practice squad eligibility. That’€™s not to suggest that all of them would be able to make it through waivers, but there are some options with some of the younger linemen.

Three Questions

1. Can Jones make the leap? As was the case when we discussed the futures of Hightower and Tavon Wilson, the onus will be on Jones to go from key rookie to established veteran, as he makes the move from first to second year in the NFL. There was a lot to like about Jones and his start — he was on the short list for Defensive Rookie of the Year midway through the season, and had six sacks in his first eight games in the league — but he struggled late in the year because of an ankle injury, as well as what appeared to be a case of a player hitting the rookie wall. While he bounced back nicely in the regular season finale, he will have more on his plate this season. If he stays healthy, a reasonable level of expectation for the Syracuse product could be a double-digit sack season, as well as havoc along the defensive line.

2. Can the Patriots’€™ defensive line receive a boost from north of the border? New England added a pair of former CFL linemen this spring when it signed Armstead and Vega, a pair of intriguing prospects who might provide a spark up front. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Armstead, a USC product, was a three-year star for the Trojans in college. After a junior year spent at defensive end ‘€” where he had 43 tackles, six of which were for a loss (three sacks) ‘€” he was set to open his senior year at defensive tackle, but suffered a heart attack before the season and was never cleared to practice. As a result, he went undrafted last spring, and ended up with the Toronto Argonauts, where he had six sacks to help the Argonauts to a Grey Cup championship. Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Vega, a 6-foot-4, 256-pound Brockton native, projects to be either a defensive end or outside linebacker at the NFL level. Vega recorded 12 sacks over the past two seasons for Winnipeg. (As a collegian at Northeastern, he finished with 41 sacks over four seasons.)

3. Will there be any residual effects from losing Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick? The decision to cut loose the two young defensive linemen who already had some significant history in the New England system was a surprise this past spring (particularly Love, who had developed into a serious contributor up front — in 2012, he trailed only Wilfork in terms of total snaps taken among interior defensive linemen), but the Patriots were theoretically able to protect themselves with the addition of Armstead, Vega and Kelly.

By the numbers: Ninkovich played 1,076 defensive snaps in 2012, but was flagged for just one penalty (a three-yard flag for encroachment) on the year. It represents the lowest penalty total on the roster of anyone who played at least 600 defensive snaps.

Key new player: Kelly. Like we wrote when he was first acquired, it’€™s always hard to gauge the talent level of a player coming out of Oakland. Sometimes, it’€™s clear the player has nothing left, and there was a reason why the Raiders let him go. (Locally, Andrew Walter and Doug Gabriel come to mind.) Other times, it’€™s clear he was just a bad fit in Oakland, a team where many veterans have said there can be little incentive and even less accountability ‘€” by way of example, wide receiver Randy Moss was rejuvenated by a 2007 trade that shipped him from the Raiders to New England. He hasn’€™t put the pads on yet, but it appears that Kelly has a good chance of being more of the latter than the former. His new teammates have said good things about the 32-year-old, and the thinking is that if he could have his snaps managed (not unlike the Patriots were able to do with Gerard ‘€œBig Money’€ Warren in 2010 and 2011), he could be a valuable part of the New England defensive line. One to watch this summer.

The skinny: The names and faces change every year, and every year, the story is the same: this group will go as far as Wilfork can take it. Look for the Jones/Ninkovich combo to start the year on the outside, while a rotation of linemen (Kelly, Armstead) work next to Wilfork, depending on the situation. There is some depth here, but many of the faces are so new and the pads have yet to go on, so it would be wise to reserve judgment on what they can produce going forward. But when it comes to the defensive linemen who have already spent time in New England, their collective history tells us the expectation level should be high as the 2013 season dawns.

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