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Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Defensive line

02.04.14 at 1:58 pm ET
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The season-ending injury to Vince Wilfork was a tough loss for the Patriots defensive line. (AP)

The season-ending injury to Vince Wilfork was a tough loss for the Patriots defensive line. (AP)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’€™ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the roster stands. We started with special teams, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks and offensive line. Now, we flip it and go to the defensive line.

Depth chart (stats taken from coaches film review): Vince Wilfork (10 tackles, 1 quarterback hit), Tommy Kelly (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits), Jake Bequette (1 quarterback hit), Andre Carter (5 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 quarterback hits), Chandler Jones (82 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (93 tackles, 8 sacks, 18 quarterback hits), Joe Vellano (48 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Chris Jones (56 tackles, 6 sacks, 8 quarterback hits), Sealver Siliga (21 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 quarterback hits), Isaac Sopoaga (2 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit), Michael Buchanan (3 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hits), Cory Grissom (Marcus Forston is on the practice squad, and ex-CFL star Armond Armstead is out there … somewhere.)

Overview: The story of the defensive line can be divided into two distinct parts — the first three-plus weeks of the season when the Patriots had a fully healthy combo of Wilfork and Kelly up front at the defensive tackle spot, and the wholly underrated pairing of Chandler Jones and Ninkovich at defensive end.

As a group, it was a rock-solid positional grouping that looked to be one of the strengths of the 2013 team. Then Wilfork and Kelly went down in back-to-back weeks, and everything changed. While youngsters like Chris Jones and Vellano stepped in and did as well as they could given the circumstances, New England became a team you could run on fairly easily. The Patriots tried to stem the tide with the midseason trade for Sopoaga and the promotion of Siliga off the practice squad, but it was a far cry from the work of Wilfork and Kelly. Siliga, Chris Jones, Siliga and Vellano certainly did enough to warrant consideration as depth players in 2014, but the loss of Wilfork really shone a light on the fact that with the All-Pro closer to the end of his career than the beginning, New England would be well-served to start thinking about the post-Wilfork era sooner rather than later.

As for the rest of the group, the Patriots had a good season on the edges, as Ninkovich continued to emerge as one of the most underrated defenders in the league. Despite the fact that he occasionally had issues with some of the league’€™s elite left tackles, Chandler Jones became the first member of the Patriots to finish a season with double-digit sack totals since Carter and Mark Anderson had 10 each in 2011. At the age of 34 — he’€™ll be 35 before the start of next year — Carter might be unlikely to return for 2014, but if any one of the younger defensive ends struggle (particularly Bequette and Buchanan), he could be recalled on an emergency basis.

As is the case with the offensive line and Logan Mankins, it’€™s Wilfork who sets the tone for this group. His leadership skills, blue-collar attitude and unmatched skill set make him one of the most valuable members of the roster. If he returns to full health in 2014, figure that there will be better days ahead for the defensive front.

Best moment: It was a relatively quiet play, but it was hard not to acknowledge the recognition displayed by Chandler Jones when he was able to trip up Saints quarterback Drew Brees late in the dramatic 30-27 win over New Orleans in October. Jones was able to stop Brees for a 5-yard loss, which allowed the Patriots to continue their memorable comeback. As we wrote at the time, it interesting the way it came about — in the days following the play, Jones confessed that Ninkovich tipped him off to the fact that such a play might be coming. It was impressive for reasons: one, it speaks to the level of film study that Ninkovich engages in every week. (Everyone studies film, but to see it pay off in a big moment speaks to Ninkovich and his overall approach to the game.) And two, it displayed the level of communication between Ninkovich and Jones. The two clearly have mastered the art of playing good, complementary football, something that opposing defensive ends really need if their are going to succeed when it comes to playing good team defense.

Worst moment: The sight of Wilfork getting carted off during the Falcons game and the ensuing news that he would be lost for the season was a colossal loss for the team on both sides of the ball. From a defensive perspective, the on-field loss was huge, but at the same time, the veteran is a tremendous presence in the locker room across the roster. It says something about his stature within the organization that he continued to travel with the team even after he was done for the season.

By the numbers: It’€™s a small sample size, but for comparisons sake, the loss of Wilfork and Kelly was sizable when it came to run defense. Through the first four games — with Wilfork and Kelly — the Patriots yielded an average of 105 rushing yards per game, 13th in the league. By the end of the season, that number had jumped to 134.1 rushing yards per game allowed, 30th in the league.

Money quote: “You just don’€™t replace Vince Wilfork. We’€™ll still have his presence around the team and in the locker room and those types of things, which he’€™s great at. On the field, we’€™ll miss him, but whoever is out there, those other 11 guys that are out there, we’€™re all going to have to pull a little bit harder, including the coaching staff and all that. It’€™s a big loss, but we’€™re just going to have to find a way to do it. That means everybody doing their job. Obviously somebody is going to have to replace him and whoever those people are, they’€™re going to have to answer the bell. But collectively as a team, we’€™re all going to have to pull together. There’€™s no one person that can replace Vince Wilfork.” –€” Coach Bill Belichick on the loss of Wilfork, Oct. 2

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