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Countdown to camp: Defensive line 07.29.15 at 3:51 pm ET
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How will the Patriots replace Vince Wilfork? (Elsa/Getty Images)

How will the Patriots replace Vince Wilfork? (Elsa/Getty Images)

As training camp approaches, we’€™€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2015 Patriots. We started with the offensive side of the ball and now we’€™ve shifted to defense with the cornerbacks, linebackers and safeties, now we take a look at the defensive line.

Depth chart (regular-season stats via Pro Football Reference): Rob Ninkovich (53 tackles, 8 sacks), Jabaal Sheard (25 tackles, 2 sacks), Chandler Jones (37 tackles, 6 sacks) Dominique Easley (6 tackles, 1 sack), Sealver Siliga (21 tackles, 2.5 sacks), Alan Branch (14 tackles), Jake Bequette, Chris Jones (16 tackles, 3 sacks), Joe Vellano (4 tackles, 1 sack), Zach Moore, Malcom Brown (rookie), Trey Flowers (rookie)

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. It’s a different group than a year ago. While they may have lost only one player, it was their leader Vince Wilfork. Without Wilfork it will surely be a different group and they will need someone to step up and take on a leadership role, which will likely be Ninkovich. The team also went out and signed Sheard, who was a free agent after spending last season with the Browns. While they will be without the biggest guy in the middle, the talent is still there to keep up the success.

2. Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard will be good. The Patriots could have one of the best outside pass rush grouping in the entire league with these three. Ninkovich has had eight sacks in three straight seasons, Jones had six in an injury-plagued 2014 season and Sheard will benefit from having the other two players with him. These three rotating in-and-out will likely create matchup problems for opposing defenses and allow the Patriots to get constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks when they choose.

3. They will need to make more of an impact. Last season the secondary was the group which led the defense and this year it will be the front-seven with the departures of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington in the secondary. It will likely be the opposite of things from last year, as this year it will be the front-seven taking some pressure off of the secondary rather than the other way around like last season.

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Read More: Alan Branch, chandler jones, Countdown to Camp, Dominique Easley
Resetting Patriots depth chart: Defensive line 04.28.15 at 1:57 pm ET
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Dominique Easley

Dominique Easley

With the majority of free agency completed and the draft looming, we’re going to take a look at the Patriots depth chart by position, and try and assess the level of need going forward. We’ve broken down each position on the offensive side of the ball. Now, it’s defense, and we start with the defensive line:

Current depth chart: (2014 regular-season stats via coaches film review and Pro Football Reference): Chandler Jones (43 tackles, 6 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed), Alan Branch (14 tackles, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Sealver Siliga (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Chris Jones (27 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (56 tackles, 8 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovery), Joe Vellano (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit), Zach Moore (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery), Michael Buchanan (1 tackle), Dominique Easley (9 tackles, 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits). Jake Bequette remains on the practice squad, while the Patriots added DE/OLB Jabaal Sheard and defensive tackle Antonio Johnson in free agency.

Lost in free agency: Vince Wilfork (47 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed) signed with the Texans after the Patriots did not pick up his option. While he was able to bounce back following a season-ending Achilles injury in 2013 and go wire-to-wire in 2014, his off-field guidance as a pillar of the franchise could be a greater loss. DE/OLB Akeem Ayers (15 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 1 pass defensed) who was acquired midway through the year, ended up signing with the Rams.

Gained in free agency: Sheard. The 6-foot-3, 264-pounder has played in all 16 games in three of his four seasons in the league, and he recorded 44 tackles and two sacks last year. The 25-year-old has 23 career sacks. Meanwhile, the 30-year-old Johnson has posted 98 tackles and 4.5 sacks in six seasons in the league with the Titans and Colts.

Other changes: The Patriots re-signed versatile vet Branch to a new deal, and while he should be an important part of the rotation along the defensive line in 2015, the real guy to watch will be Easley, who was shelved for the season with a knee injury in December. The first-round pick in 2014 certainly showed himself to be a disruptive presence when he was able to play, but can be step in and be a big part of the New England defense in 2015? It’s unclear where he might line up along the defensive front — based on his size, skill set and what we saw from him in 2014, he’s strength is probably working as a 4-3 defensive tackle, with some time at end. But his progression and his health (specifically, his knees) will certainly be worth monitoring this spring and summer. (It’s also worth mentioning that Buchanan is coming back after a season-ending injury derailed his 2014 campaign, and figures to be a part of the conversation at the backup defensive end spot.)

Is this an area of need going into the draft? It is, at least from this perspective. While the Patriots do have a talented defensive front, there’s still the need for a sizable, run-stuffing type in the middle who can at least try and replicate what Wilfork was able to bring from an on-field perspective. (Maybe the 6-foot-3, 328-pound Johnson will get that chance?) Whether the Patriots try and go after a big body in the draft or for one of the remaining veteran free agents left on the market, it’s something New England figures to address between now and the start of camp.

Read More: Akeem Ayers, Alan Branch, chandler jones, Chris Jones
A brief history of Patriots and their pre-draft contact with recent top picks 03.16.15 at 1:50 pm ET
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Before he was drafted by the Patriots last spring, Dominque Easley had an inkling New England was interested in his service. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Before he was drafted by the Patriots last spring, Dominque Easley had an inkling New England was interested in his service. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With the pre-draft process now in full swing — and private workouts and visits looming for each team starting later this month — fans and media alike will undoubtedly try and gauge the level of the Patriots’ interest in a player through visits, contact and workout sessions. With the understanding that some of the pre-draft conversations can be a smokescreen, some of it can be done for intel down the road and some of can be for practical scouting purposes, here’s a look at the pre-draft connections New England has made with some of their top draft picks over the last seven years.

Defensive lineman Dominique Easley (taken with New England’s first pick in 2014, 29th overall): Easley was brought in to Foxboro for a pre-draft visit with the Patriots. He later recalled that Bill Belichick showed up at his pro day, and they “talked a whole lot and got to know each other,” according to the Florida product.

Linebacker Jamie Collins (taken with New England’s first pick in 2013, a second-round selection at No. 52 overall): Belichick flew South to work out Collins before the draft, but the linebacker later indicated he didn’t talk much with the Patriots throughout the pre-draft process, at least when compared to other teams.

Defensive end Chandler Jones (first-round pick 2012, 21st overall): Jones said the only substantive contact he had with New England prior to being drafted was a conversation at the combine that winter in Indy. “I talked to the Patriots — I talked with them at the combine,” he said. “That was the most formal thing we did. That’s basically it — we talked at the combine.”

Linebacker Dont’a Hightower (first-round pick 2012, 25th overall): He didn’t work out for Patriots, but he said he “had a small (idea)” the Patriots were interested, he indicated following the draft. “I met with those guys at the combine and I met them at one of the pro days,” Hightower recalled, “I knew that they were kind of interested in some of the defensive players that we had at Alabama.”

Tackle Nate Solder (first-round pick 2011, 17th overall): Solder had “fairly limited contact” with the Patriots throughout the pre-draft process. He met with former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia the Monday before the draft in Colorado, but also had a scheduled visit to Foxboro cancelled at the last minute as he was preparing to leave for New England. “I don’t know exactly what happened,” Solder later explained. “I was scheduled to visit (but), the minute before I left, it was cancelled. That’s all I know.”

Defensive back Devin McCourty (first-round pick 2010, 27th overall): McCourty met with Belichick prior to the draft, where the two had a film session on campus at Rutgers. “Bill Belichick had come to my school for a coaches’ clinic, and he was going to fly right out after the clinic to see his son play in a lacrosse game,” McCourty recalled. “But we had an hour, we watched some film and we spoke for a little while. We had a real generic conversation, but he showed me some things on film, just watching and helping me out as far as being a player.”

Linebacker Jerod Mayo (first-round pick, 2008, 10th overall): Mayo had 11 visits with teams during the pre-draft process, and remembers his visit to Foxboro fondly. “I had a great visit when I came down there,” he said after the draft. “The coaches and I sat down and talked football for a long time. Like I said, I just had a great visit and I felt like we clicked.”

Read More: 2015 NFL Draft, chandler jones, Devin McCourty, Dominique Easley
Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Defensive line 02.17.15 at 8:00 am ET
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Bill Belichick, Vince Wilfork and Matt Patricia celebrate at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick, Vince Wilfork and Matt Patricia celebrate at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the Patriots stand. We’ve looked at special teams, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, quarterback, offensive line, safety and cornerback and linebacker. Now, we wrap it up with defensive line:

Depth chart (regular-season stats via coaches film review): Chandler Jones (43 tackles, 6 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed), Alan Branch (14 tackles, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Sealver Siliga (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Vince Wilfork (47 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed), Chris Jones (27 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (56 tackles, 8 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovery), Joe Vellano (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit), Zach Moore (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery), Michael Buchanan (1 tackle), Dominique Easley (9 tackles, 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits) and Akeem Ayers (15 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 1 pass defensed). Jake Bequette remains on the practice squad.

Overview: The heart of the New England defense, the line was able to hold strong after a sluggish start and really one together nicely as the year developed and into the playoffs. At the center of it all was a resurgent Wilfork. The veteran had to knock a little rust off at the start of the season, but he was a huge part of the defensive success enjoyed by the Patriots over the course of the 2014 season, not only from an on-field perspective but as a leader and mentor to a group of younger defensive linemen. Along the interior, Wilfork was ably backed by youngsters Siliga and Jones, who returned to their roles as mostly complementary players.

On the edge, Ninkovich and Chandler Jones weren’t an overwhelming pass rush duo, but Ninkovich became the first member of the Pats to register three straight seasons of at least eight sacks since Hall of Famer Andre Tippett. Jones struggled with a hip injury and missed roughly two full months in the middle of the year, but Ayers — acquired from Tennessee in October — was able to provide relief as a pass rusher while holding up relatively well against the run. And Branch, who was plucked off the street in October, managed to find a role as a run-stopper and steadying part of the rotation up front.

Ultimately, it wasn’t an overwhelming defensive front, but in the spirit of good complementary football, it was more than enough to lift the Patriots over the top: In six of their final 11 games (including the playoffs), the Patriots held opposing teams under 100 yards rushing, and finished ninth in the league in rush defense (104.3 yards per game allowed).

Going forward, one of the offseason storylines worth monitoring will be what happens with Wilfork and his contractual situation. The veteran could be one of several players who might be asked to have his deal restructured in hopes of creating more financial flexibility. At the same time, most of the rest of the key parts are under contract for 2015, including 2014’s first-round selection Dominique Easley, who had recurring knee issues through the year and ended the season on injured reserve. Count on him to be a major part of New England’s defensive plans in 2015.

Best moment: Lots of moments to choose from here, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the work that the defensive front did over the course of the six-game gauntlet against (mostly) division leaders that would come to define the Patriots as the physical bunch they turned out to be. In that series, New England yielded an average of 81 rushing yards per game and just one rushing touchdown.

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Read More: Alan Branch, chandler jones, Dominique Easley, New England Patriots
Thoughts on Dominique Easley, Steve Maneri and Garrett Gilbert 12.17.14 at 4:01 pm ET
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Dominique Easley

Dominique Easley

1. Even before the start of the season, it was fairly evident that the Patriots 2014 rookie class was going to face an uphill battle for playing time. Entering camp, the roster was clearly pretty well stocked with entrenched veterans, and when midseason acquisitions like LeGarrette Blount, Alan Branch, Jonathan Casillas and Akeem Ayers showed up, it pushed several of the ones who initially made the cut at the start of the season even further down the depth chart. That’s why, from this viewpoint, the decision to place first-round pick Dominique Easley on season-ending injured reserve isn’t a colossal issue. You never want to lose out on the services of any of your top picks for the season, but because the Patriots have good depth up front with the postseason looming (Branch, Ayers, Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, etc. etc.), it doesn’t represent a seismic loss for the franchise at this point in the year. Easley was on and off the field throughout the spring and into the summer, and saw limited playing time throughout the year because of the knee issues. When he was healthy, he certainly showed the sort of disruptive skill set that the Patriots crave at the defensive line position. Going forward, once whatever knee procedures that need to take place have occurred, it’s on him to take a postgraduate year at Vince Wilfork University. He should keep your eyes open and his mouth shut, follow Wilfork around and learn what it takes to succeed in the NFL. Then, come back in the spring ready to go for 2015.

2. The addition of Steve Maneri to the active roster — taking the place of Easley — is interesting on a couple of levels. First off, Maneri has a background as both a tackle and tight end, and could figure prominently in those heavy sets the Patriots have run so effectively with Cameron Fleming over the course of the year. His versatility and skill set suggest he might be better suited to the job that some of the other options the Patriots have, at least right now with Fleming on the sideline. And second, this could tell us something about the overall state of Fleming’s health. The rookie out of Stanford has been missing since Week 12 because of what the team is calling an ankle injury, and the addition of Maneri could be a sign that the team feels it’s the sort of injury that could have the 6-foot-6, 325-pounder on the shelf for an extended stretch. (It could also be seen as a roundabout sort of challenge to fellow tight end Michael Hoomanawanui.) Ultimately, Maneri is a familiar face who presumably won’t need a lot of time to get up to speed, so if you’re a Patriots fan, that’s a good thing if he’s pressed into service in rapid fashion.

3. And last — but not least — the Patriots went and added another quarterback to the mix in Garrett Gilbert, who landed on the practice squad. The 6-foot-4, 221-pounder out of SMU was on the Rams practice squad — he was a sixth-round pick of St. Louis this past spring — before being cut loose in October. Gilbert had an up-and-down college career — after being recruited to Texas, he struggled in his three years with the Longhorns, playing 24 games and throwing 13 touchdowns, 23 interceptions and completing just 50.9 percent of his passes. Things picked up for him after transferring to SMU, and he posted career-best numbers across the board last year with the Mustangs, throwing for 3,528 yards and 21 touchdowns to go with seven interceptions and an impressive 66.5 percent completion rate. It had been known that the Patriots were in the market for a third quarterback — they were interested in Chicago rookie David Fales before he was promoted to the active roster. However, at this point, Gilbert projects to be a practice squad/scout teamer who could be in the mix as a camp arm in the spring. Here’s some video of his college work while at SMU:

Read More: Dominique Easley, Garrett Gilbert, Steve Maneri,
Dominique Easley (knee) ruled out Sunday, Rob Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower among 9 questionable 12.12.14 at 4:53 pm ET
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Dominique Easley

Dominique Easley

FOXBORO — Rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley will miss his third game of the season Sunday after being ruled out on Friday’s injury report released by the team. Easley has been dealing with a nagging knee injury.

Rob Ninkovich (heel) continues to headline the limited players, as this is the first time he’s appeared on the injury report this season. Chandler Jones (hip) and Dont’a Hightower (shoulder), who both missed Sunday’s game, were limited. Offensive lineman Cameron Fleming (ankle), who has missed the last three games, was also limited. Julian Edelman (thigh) was again limited, as has been the case in recent weeks.

Edelman, Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower are among those listed officially as questionable. Hightower missed last Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury while Jones has missed the last six with a hip issue.

The Patriots did get some good news as Danny Aiken, who suffered a concussion against the Lions on Nov. 23, was removed from the injury report altogether and is expected to play Sunday.

Here is Friday’s complete practice report:

Did not practice

DL Dominique Easley (knee) OUT

Limited participation

OL Dan Connolly (ankle) QUESTIONABLE
WR Julian Edelman (thigh) QUESTIONABLE
OL Cameron Fleming (ankle) QUESTIONABLE
LB Dont’a Hightower (shoulder) QUESTIONABLE
DE Chandler Jones (hip) QUESTIONABLE
WR Brandon LaFell (shoulder) QUESTIONABLE
DE Rob Ninkovich (heel) QUESTIONABLE
RB Shane Vereen (ankle) QUESTIONABLE
LB Chris White (ankle) QUESTIONABLE

Full participation

QB Tom Brady (ankle) PROBABLE

Read More: Dominique Easley, Dont'a Hightower, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots
Dominique Easley (knee), Joe Vellano missing from Patriots practice at 12:18 pm ET
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Dominique Easley

Dominique Easley

FOXBORO — In a sign that he could miss Sunday’s game, rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley missed his third practice of the week Friday with a lingering knee injury. Easley has played through the knee issue for most of the season, serving as a backup in each of the last two games. Easley has missed just two of New England’s 13 games this season.

He is the only player to miss the entire week as the Patriots prepare to host the Dolphins Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

Also missing was practice squad defensive lineman Joe Vellano.

The team worked out in sweats and shells in the brisk conditions, with a wind out of the north making it feel much colder than the temperature in the upper 30s. The only player wearing shorts in the biting cold was defensive lineman Chris Jones.

The team will conduct a walkthrough on Saturday before taking on the Miami Dolphins Sunday. The Patriots will clinch their sixth straight AFC East title with a win.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Read More: Chris Jones, Dominique Easley, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots
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