While the national narrative surrounding the New England Patriots this off-season has been centered around Tom Brady and the offense, finding depth pieces along the defensive line through this year’s draft will be high on Bill Belichick’s priorities list as well. Interior defensive linemen such as Danny Shelton and Adam Butler will all have the ability to test the free agency market this spring. Shelton put together a strong season, tying fellow defensive linemen, Lawrence Guy, for the league’s sixth-most combined tackles and assists among defensive tackles. Likewise, Butler is also coming off a strong season in which he was tied with Green Bay Packers Pro Bowler, Kenny Clark, for the league’s sixth-most sacks from a defensive tackle. Neither Shelton or Butler are expected to sign massive contracts on the open market, but with New England’s plethora of other soon to be free agents and their current lack of cap space, drafting serviceable replacements along the interior defensive line is a must.
NFL Draft: New England Patriots Defensive Line Prospects
Plug and Play Replacements
The headache that will come along with finding Shelton and Butler replacements is due to the fact that both are very different in their style of play. Shelton, at a height of 6’2″ and weight of 344 pounds, served as the team’s massive run-stuffer who frequently clogged the middle this past season. On the other hand, Butler is far more athletic and with his 6’5″, 300-pound frame, he was utilized within nickel packages and blossomed into one of the league’s best pass-rushing defensive tackles.
Round One, Pick #23: A.J. Epenesa, Iowa
At just 22 years old, Epenesa has exceptional strength and power along with an NFL ready frame of 6-foot-6, 280 pounds. While he was predominantly used as an edge player in his college days, Epenesa lacks the elite level of speed and quickness for a dominant pure pass rusher in the NFL. However, with heavy hands at the point of attack along with a tremendous ability to convert his speed into power, Epenesa plays tough with his best move being his bull rush. Additionally, Epenesa is a versatile player capable of playing all three downs within multiple personnel packages. The Iowa prospect, has drawn comparisons to former Patriots defensive linemen, Trey Flowers, for his ability to play defensive end and anchor the edge within base packages, while being able to lineup as an interior pass rusher within sub packages.
Round Three, Pick #99 (Projected Compensatory): Leki Fotu, Utah
Rather than re-sign Shelton, New England should target Fotu with one of their three late third-round selections. Standing at a towering 6’5″ combined with his 335-pound weight, Fotu’s best traits are clearly his raw power and strength within the middle of a defense. While his height affects his ability to consistently keep his pad level low, Fotu has a lot of upside if developed correctly within a system that utilizes his body. Furthermore, Fotu possesses impressive quickness for his size and while he is not yet polished enough to consistently two gap, he is more than capable of firing off the ball into an assigned gap and disrupting offenses.
New England will have to get very creative this off season when it comes to finding servicable, cheap replacements for some of their depth pieces. Butler is a restricted free agent and while the Patriots will have an opportunity to match any offer he receives, their cap situation may prevent them from doing so, especially if another team offers Butler a front loaded contract. Shelton’s time in New England has likely come to an end as the team probably will not be willing to give the 26-year-old a multi-year deal due to his inconsistent play during previous seasons.