Overview: It’s not too often that a team can lose a $90 million player in free agency and have a chance to upgrade at the position. But that’s exactly the situation with the Patriots this summer swapping out developing young stud defensive end Trey Flowers for versatile veteran Michael Bennett. The second Bennett brother to make his way through Foxborough will be leaned on to be an impact presence on the defensive line for an overall unit that could be leaned on to be more of a focal point of the team’s winning formula. Beyond Bennett there may not be much star power on the defensive line, but the group does offer decent versatility and potential.
Players (season #): Michael Bennett (11), Lawrence Guy (9), Mike Pennel Jr. (6), Deatrich Wise Jr. (3), Adam Butler (3), John Simon (7), Derek Rivers (3), Danny Shelton (5), Chase Winovich (R), Keionta Davis (3), David Parry (4), Ufomba Kamalu (3), Byron Cowart (R), Nick Thurman (1)
Coaching: Like every other defensive position other than safety, the New England defensive line has a new position coach in 2019. Former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, who was listed as a consultant to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick last season, replaces Brendan Daly, who moved on to the Chiefs this offseason. Bielema played defensive line at Iowa and worked on the defensive side of the ball throughout his coaching career before ascending to college head coach.
Competition: There is no question that Flowers will be missed, but even at the age of 33 Bennett – who recorded at least 8.5 sacks in three of the last four years in Seattle and Philly -- is the kind of guy that Belichick can put to use all over the defensive front. Assuming he hasn’t gotten old overnight, Bennett will be counted on to be the key cog on the edge. Deatrich Wise is working back from an offseason procedure that sidelined him for spring workouts, but he proved over his first two NFL seasons that he can be a solid option as a true defensive end. Some of the other edge production will have to come from returning veteran John Simon or former third-round pick Derek Rivers, who is in a make-or-break year in which he could very well be in a battle for a roster spot. Rookie third-round pick Chase Winovich is a relentless defender out of Michigan who’ll transition to more of a stand-up edge role in his early days in New England. While Bennett is the newcomer to watch on the outside, former Jets run stuffer Mike Pennel should be a stout positive new presence on the inside working next to Lawrence Guy. Guy has been a revelation up front since joining the Patriots two years ago and should remain a key contributor. Danny Shelton re-signed after an unremarkable first season in New England and could stick as veteran depth with former first-round pick Malcom Brown having moved on in free agency.
Prediction: Patriots teammates, coaches and fans alike could fall in love with what Bennett brings to the defensive line mix. While Flowers will not be forgotten, there is certainly an opportunity for the little-used Rivers to have a breakout third season and maybe replicate the lost production. The defensive front is probably not as deep or talented overall as the second two levels of the defense, but there would seem to be enough versatility, talent and potential for the group to get the job done up front. There are certainly some roles and roster spots up for grabs in the group during training camp and preseason competition.