With Lawrence Guy set to hit free agency, Patriots DL is running out of options

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As the NFL offseason heads toward free agency and the draft, all 32 teams must assess their own talent before they begin anew the roster-building process. With that in mind, WEEI.com is taking a position-by-position look at the state of the Patriots roster as the team embarks one of the most important offseasons in franchise history.

Defensive line

Returning players (GS/GP, 2020 defensive play time): Beau Allen (IR), Tashawn Bower (3/7, 14 percent), Byron Cowart (14/14, 41 percent), Akeem Spence (0/6, 10 percent), Chase Winovich (9/16, 58 percent), Rashod Berry (0/3, 4 percent), Bill Murray (practice squad), Nick Thurman (1/7, 12 percent)

Free agents: Adam Butler (4/15, 47 percent), Carl Davis (1/3, 5 percent), Lawrence Guy (14/14, 50 percent), Deatrich Wise Jr. (7/16, 56 percent), John Simon (16/16, 69 percent)

2020 recap: Like the rest of the unit, the New England defensive front was a disappointment last fall. Limited depth and talent up front saw opponents average 4.5 yards per carry (20th in the NFL) on the ground while New England was able to generate just 24 sacks (25th). While team captain Guy remained an effective cog and leader on the front, he didn’t have a lot of support. Allen never made it on the field as an expected run-stuffing contributor. Butler remained mildly effective (4 sacks, 7 QB hits) in his role focused on passing situations as an interior rusher. The fact that the second-year former fifth-round pick Cowart (27 tackles, 1 sack) had to start 14 games indicates the lack of depth and big bodies up front. The weakness was also evident when Bill Belichick noted of Davis’ addition to the roster during the season that the veteran journeyman was “available.” The reality for the defensive line was that it was undermanned and overmatched at times, especially at defensive tackle. Setting the edge at the end position was far from a sure-thing, either. Simon started every game as a tweener at the end of the line and was solid (53 tackles, 2 sacks) if not up to the standards for the spot set by Kyle Van Noy and others in recent memory. Winovich continued to show potential as a pass rusher (5.5 sacks, 12 QB hits) – and some versatility by moving around the front, including action off the ball – but was still considered more of an option in the passing game than a full-time player by the coaching staff. Wise had an interesting season after being considered a possible training camp cut by some last summer. He started a career-high seven games and notched the most playing time of his four NFL seasons out of necessity. The number of practice squad types that saw at least minor rotational action on the defensive line showed the limitations of the group, even with the underrated Guy still doing his best to hold it all together up front.

2021 projection: A New England defensive line that was paper thin last fall could lose more talent and depth in free agency. Guy has to be a top consideration for the team to re-sign up front given his contributions in recent years both on the field and as a leader in the locker room. No one was a better spokesman for keeping the struggling team together late last season than Guy. But he’s far from the only free agent on the defensive front. In fact, of defensive linemen that played 40 percent of the snaps or more last season, only Cowart is set to return. Losing Guy, Butler, Wise and/or Simon would be a big blow to a unit that would then be in complete restocking mode. The former undrafted player Butler will probably get too much attention on the open market as an interior rusher with 15 sacks and 22 QB hits over his four seasons to return on a value-based contract. Like so many positions on the New England roster during this offseason rebuild, the defensive line is pretty much an unknown heading toward 2021 given the limited developmental potential returning and key free agents.

Draft/free agency need – Very High: Whether it’s re-signing some of their own talent – most notably Guy and Simon – or targeting the position in free agency and the draft, Belichick and Co. have a lot of work to do this offseason regarding the defensive line. A strong case can certainly be made for an investment in a talented, young body at the spot relatively early in the draft. The team has gone that direction many times over the years from Richard Seymour to Malcolm Brown in the first round. But given all the other needs on the roster, a more value-based approach in free agency might make sense. Guy himself was a lower level free agent addition before he become the centerpiece of the front as part of one of the best defenses in football just a couple years ago. Finding similar value on the open market would be a huge boon for the offseason rebuild. A guy who might make sense in that area is recently-released Jets defensive lineman Henry Anderson, a versatile veteran with upside. Maybe the best plan for the Patriots at the defensive line would be to re-sign Guy and Simon on (ideally) team-friendly deals, add at least one proven veteran on the open market and grab a potential-filled talent in the draft. But obviously a three-step plan like that can be harder to execute than one might think, especially with all the moving parts elsewhere on the roster.
Regardless, getting Guy back in the fold moving forward would be a good start and almost feels like a must at this point.