The New England Patriots stand one week from the combine, one month from free agency, and less than three months from the NFL draft. That span will come with its twists and turns, but one corridor it could lead New England’s personnel department down is edge rush.
Four Patriots defensive ends registered sacks during the 2014 season. Rob Ninkovich logged eight of them off the left side over 1,040 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, while Chandler Jones logged six of them off the right side over 577 snaps. And when Jones was sidelined for six games with a hip injury, it was Akeem Ayers, a former 4-3 and 3-4 outside linebacker with the Tennessee Titans, who stepped in to log five.
Only now, the 25-year-old Ayers is slated to become an unrestricted free agent, and that may leave the 24-year-old Jones and the 31-year-old Ninkovich without a clear-cut running mate again in 2015.
The organization invested a third-round pick in Jake Bequette back in 2012, a seventh-round pick in Michael Buchanan in 2013, as well as a sixth-round pick in Zach Moore in 2014.
Fast forward to the present – Bequette spent his third season with the team on the practice squad, Buchanan spent all but three games of his second on injured reserve, and Moore spent nine games of his rookie season as a healthy inactive.
Whether or not any of whom will carve a rotational pass-rushing role next year remains to be seen. Bequette has appeared in eight career games, while Buchanan and Moore have appeared in 26 collectively, netting 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
There have been momentary views of the latter two, with the 6-foot-6, 255-pound Buchanan’s lateral agility seen bringing down Geno Smith of the New York Jets and Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons in 2013. The 6-foot-6, 275-pound Moore’s get-off strength also saw him break through for half a sack and a forced fumble on Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears in 2014.
Both possess the length, with Buchanan’s in the mold of a stand-up situational rusher and Moore’s in the mold of a versatile, prototype end who can kick inside. Yet those momentary views and inherent builds have been exactly that; unsolidified pieces yet to harden in the Patriots’ front.
And as the New England’s front shuffled during the season, going from five-technique alignments at the start to seven-technique alignments at the finish, the personnel within it followed suit. Somewhere in the midst of the campaign, the 6-foot-2, 290-pound Dominique Easley, who excelled as a one-technique disruptor at the University of Florida, was even turned to as a bookend.
Perhaps that was a way to generate snaps for the first-round pick. Perhaps it was a way to test out how the rookie would fit into into the multiple defensive line. Perhaps it was a way head coach Bill Belichick and staff felt they could diversify on passing downs.
Whatever the reasons behind it were, plans changed after Easley’s knee issues landed on injured reserve in December. And it was Moore who was called upon to be the fourth active end for three of the regular season’s final four games.
When it came to the postseason, however, the 24-year-old Concordia-St. Paul product was a gameday scratch. The Patriots elected to go solely with Jones, Ninkovich and Ayers as the lone by-the-book edge contingents.
It wasn’t a deep pool beyond them, but it worked. In tandem, Jones and Ninkovich tallied 361 defensive snaps, 27 quarterback hurries, eight hits and two sacks over three playoff games, as noted by PFF. Ayers, meanwhile, served on special teams and spelled in for a total of 24 snaps and one hit.
Yet with February now bringing roster reflection, it is back to the blueprint. Ayers could be onto an every-down opportunity to straight-line quarterbacks, and the Patriots’ two starting defensive ends could be left with a full plate to consume as a result.
But there is time for others to claim their helping.
Preliminary moves have consisted of the Patriots re-signing Bequette to a two-year contract this past week, after agreeing to a reserve-futures deal with former New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Rufus Johnson on New Year’s Eve. And those will not be the last moves made at the position.
It’s now about finding out which ones will be. From in-house or elsewhere, it’s about finding an edge with more than two sides.