The 2018 New England Patriots defensive line is already improved from a season ago. The Patriots brought in Adrian Clayborn to complement Trey Flowers and added defensive tackle Danny Shelton to shore up the interior. However, while these moves certainly help the defensive line, the ultimate success of the New England Patriots defensive line will rely on their second-year players. Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise Jr., Keionta Davis and Adam Butler are all crucial components who can transform this line from good to great.
Second-Year Players Crucial to New England Patriots Defensive Line
It’s no secret that the biggest problem with the 2017 Patriots was their inability to set the edge on defense. Per Football Outsiders, the New England Patriots finished 2017 ranked 31st in defensive run blocking DVOA. For those unfamiliar with the stat, Football Outsiders defines DVOA as “…a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation.” Clayborn will be an improvement, but he’s much better as a pass rusher than a run stopper. He can’t fix this problem alone.
This is where Rivers, Davis, and Wise show up. Wise showed promise in 2017, finishing the year tied for the most quarterback pressures by a rookie. However, he struggled tremendously with setting the edge and stopping the run. He has the size and strength required to do the job, but he was too unpolished to consistently do it as a rookie.
Rivers, a 2017 third-round pick, has an even higher upside. However, the edge rusher missed his entire first season after tearing his ACL in the preseason. So far, Rivers has mostly looked good and has seen time with the top defensive unit. However, there’s only so much you can learn from the preseason. His performance against the Texans will be one of the biggest things to watch for in the season opener.
Keionta Davis could be the biggest X-factor of them all. After being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2017, Davis missed his entire rookie season due to a bulging disc in his neck. He had the condition since college, and the medical issue is what caused the then-rookie to go undrafted in the first place.
However, Davis is now healthy and was one of the best players in the preseason. Consistently getting pressure and playing solid run defense, Davis went from fringe roster candidate to secure a spot on the 53-man roster. Neck injuries are always worrisome, but if Davis can stay healthy, he could make a big impact coming off the bench.
The 2017 Patriots were better on interior defensive line, but the unit could still use improvement. The top three players at defensive tackle – Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown, and Lawrence Guy – are all primarily space-eating run stuffers.
The Patriots need a pass-rushing interior specialist, and Adam Butler has the tools to be that guy. Butler showed promise in his rookie year, recording two sacks and 19 tackles as primarily a third-down specialist. However, he couldn’t consistently hold up against the run, and thus couldn’t see the field consistently.
Entering 2018, Butler appears to be a better-rounded player. The former undrafted free agent has added on mass, and now has 300 pounds on his 6’-4” frame. Additionally, Butler improved on the nuances of pass rushing. His hand work is second to none, and he doesn’t appear to have sacrificed any speed for his extra size. While he’s still not great against the run, he showed growth in the preseason. If he can carry this success over to the regular season, he should see the field more and become a useful member of the Patriots interior rotation.
Last Word on the Second-Year Patriots
As currently assembled, a defensive line of Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown, and Adrian Clayborn would be a decent unit. However, the true potential of this group lies in the second-year players making a leap.
Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise Jr., and Keionta Davis all had good preseasons, and each player has the skill set to be a valuable member of this defensive line. While there are risks with each player, these three could fix the biggest problem with last year’s defense.
Likewise, Adam Butler could bring a whole new dimension to this defensive line. The Patriots haven’t had an interior pass rusher in years, often deciding to bring an edge rushing to the interior on clear passing downs.
If Butler can continue to grow as a player, they can have that interior presence on every down. While nothing is known until the season actually starts, there’s every reason to believe in Butler. Butler’s improved his ability in the running game by adding on additional mass. Additionally, he’s improved his pass-rushing technique and hasn’t sacrificed his speed and burst as a pass rusher.
The Patriots defensive line probably won’t be the best in the league. However, if these four players continue to grow and develop, New England may have a top-ten defensive line on its’ hands. The 2017 Patriots made it to the Super Bowl despite some poor defensive line play. If the Patriots can turn their biggest weakness into a strength, then that only increases their likelihood of finishing the job in 2018.
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