The Patriots finished 7-9 in 2020, their first losing season since 2000. There are many reasons, such as late game execution and quality of opponents that caused the Patriots to stumble in 2020. But the biggest reason was a lack of personnel at several key positions. This four-part series looks at the four biggest areas New England needs to address in the offseason to return to contention next season.
Part Two: Defensive Tackle
Of the six Patriots’ teams that won Super Bowls under Bill Belichick, all of them featured strong defensive line play. During New England’s run to winning Super Bowl LIII in 2018, the defensive line was one of the strengths of the team. Two seasons later it is now one of the most glaring needs the team has. Gone are the likes of Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown, and Adrian Clayborn. Lawrence Guy is the only major piece left from that great front and although he played well in 2020, he was forced to shoulder much of the burden alone. He is also not necessarily an elite player. Adam Butler showed some pass rushing flashes, as did Chase Winovich and Deatrich Wise on the edge, but no one could consistently get pressure against opposing quarterbacks. The team ranked 26th in sacks and although sacks are not the only gauge of pressure, they consistently allowed quarterbacks to have plenty of time to throw especially when Winovich or Butler were not playing.
The most concerning issue with the Patriots’ defensive tackle situation, however, is how they fared against the run. Guy was adequate at stopping the run but beyond him the Patriots got next to nothing when opponents decided to pound the ball on the ground. The Patriots allowed 4.5 yards per carry which was in the middle of the league. However, when teams made a concerted effort to run, they did so with near impunity. The Patriots allowed over five yards per carry in six different games; the 49ers and Dolphins barely had to pass the ball to get wins against New England.
With Butler and Guy both free agents, there is a chance neither will be back. Guy should be the priority, but New England should look to bring both back. More importantly, the Patriots will need to devote resources to increasing the talent at defensive tackle. Belichick should strongly consider using the 15th overall pick, or at least the Patriots’ second round pick, on the best defensive tackle available. Kwity Payne, Gregory Rousseau, Christian Barmore, Levi Onwuzurike, and Carlos Basham should all be available when New England picks at 15 and a couple might slide to the second round. In addition to picking a defensive tackle in the first or second round, the Patriots should also select one or more in the later rounds of the draft on day three.
Prior to the draft, New England can address defensive tackle in free agency. Leonard Williams and Shaq Barrett are top options if they don’t get franchise tagged. Sheldon Rankins has had injury issues over the past two years, but he would be a terrific fit up front in Foxboro if the Patriots believe he will stay healthy. DaQuan Jones and Dalvin Tomlinson would both provide a strong presence on the interior of the defense.
Regardless of if New England signs free agents to fill out their defensive front, the team should still invest draft capital in talented youth at defensive tackle. The Patriots defense took a step back in 2020 and the lack of talent and depth at defensive tackle is arguably the biggest reason why. Upgrading the position should be the number two priority for the Patriots this offseason, behind only quarterback.