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Phillip's rare size and power will make him an enticing prospect
As the NFL draft rapidly approaches, PatriotsLife will be doing it's best to keep you informed and up-to-date on all things draft. With that in mind, we'll be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots positions of need, sifting through the prospects to highlight potential Patriot fits. After starting with offensive guards and running backs, we're turning our attention to defense now, starting with beefing up on the defensive line.

Position: Defensive tackle

Need level: Moderate/could become high. Like the running backs we discussed yesterday, defensive tackle is a position in a state of flux at the moment. The Patriots got mostly strong play from their core of Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch and Chris Jones, but Siliga and Branch are both set to hit restricted free agency. The Pats should be able to keep both if they choose to, although settling the Darrelle Revis situation would make it much easier to do so. Keeping Siliga should be a priority, as the big defensive tackle has been impressive whenever he's been on the field since emerging late last season.

For the second straight year, Vince Wilfork's unsettled contract situation looms large over the offseason. Big Vince exceeded expectations by coming back strong from his 2013 Achilles tear, starting every game and playing an impressive 73.9% of the teams defensive snaps. However, a $4 million roster bonus due on March 10th could give the Pats reason to reconsider Wilfork's $8.93 million 2015 cap hit, which currently would rank fourth on the team. Given the lack of guaranteed money left in Wilfork's deal, the Pats could cut ties before the new league year and save $8.06 million against the cap, with only a measly $866,667 dead money charge from the remainder of his signing bonus.

Given that Wilfork remains a productive player and important leader in the locker room, I'd be surprised if the team outright releases him. The Pats are currently up against the cap, but a few logical moves (a new deal for Revis, restructures or releases of Jerod Mayo and Danny Amendola) would likely open up enough space to bring back key contributors like Devin McCourty and Shane Vereen. Cutting ties with Wilfork remains an option to open up space, but it's not a preferable one.

Even if Wilfork stays on board for another year, the team could stand to add more youth and talent to the position. Drafting a defensive tackle high would bolster depth in the short term, with a chance that said prospect develops into a long-term successor to Wilfork's all-important role on the defense.

An important X factor to remember in assessing this position is last year's first round pick, Dominique Easley. A likely top 10 pick before tearing his ACL as a senior, Easley defied most expectations by being ready for the start of the regular season. However, it was clear that his trademark explosiveness wasn't back yet, and the rookie slogged his way through an up-and-down rookie campaign before finally landing on IR late in the season.

If Easley can regain the explosiveness that made him a dominant force in college, the Pats might be essentially adding another disruptive presence to their defensive interior. If not, the need for reinforcements to the defensive line will just be intensified. Either way, given Easley's role as an undersized gap shooter, the Pats might give extra consideration to bigger bodied defensive tackles who can occupy multiple blockers. Wilfork's ability to do that is a major help for his teammates (particularly linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower), and the team would be well-served to add another big body who can consistently draw double teams and stuff the run.

Day One fits:

Fortunately for the Pats, this year has a deep and talented crop of defensive tackles, with at least one first round talent likely to be on the board when they pick at 32. For the Pats, it will become a matter of who they like and who falls in the first round. Washington nose tackle Danny Shelton will likely be long gone, but there's a chance that one of Oregon's Arik Armstead, Texas' Malcom Brown, Oklahoma's Jordan Phillips or Florida State's Eddie Goldman will still be available.

At 6'7" and 292 pounds, Armstead's long, powerful frame invokes comparisons to former Patriots star Richard Seymour. Like Seymour, Armstead projects best as a two-gapping defensive end in a 3-4 front, but has the versatility to play in just about any front thanks to his unique skillset. Armstead is more of project than some of his peers, but he flashes the length and raw power to control blockers at the line of scrimmage.

The 6'2", 319 pound Brown is bulkier than Armstead but possesses the same versatility to fit on both even and odd man fronts. Brown possesses rare quickness for a man his size, which he uses to constantly get in the backfield and disrupt plays. Brown isn't quite as powerful as you'd like for a 320 pounder, but he's a high upside prospect who could turn into a dominant pro.

Power isn't an issue for the 6'5", 329 pound Phillips. Best suited for a Wilfork-like role on the nose, Phillips is a massive presence whose mere size requires constant double teams. That alone makes him an effective player, but Phillips also possesses impressive athleticism for a man his size and was effective when allowed to shoot gaps at Oklahoma. The potential is there for Philips to dominate, but teams will have to look closely into a reported history of back problems that led to a season-ending surgery in 2013. Phillips also is relatively raw, with only 16 career starts in his three year collegiate career, but the upside and scheme fit make him an intriguing option.

Goldman projects as powerful presence on the nose. Don Juan Moore/Getty Images
Phillips may have more upside, but the safest option to eventually fill Wilfork's nose tackle role could be Goldman. The 6'4", 336 pound Goldman has an ideal, squatty frame for the nose, along with the raw power to anchor against double teams. Like Wilfork, Goldman doesn't offer much production-wise as a pass rusher, but his two-gapping ability contributes far more to a defense than statistics could suggest. The fact that he's a football historian certainly won't hurt him in the eyes of Bill Belichick.

Day Two fits (Rounds 2-3):

Unfortunately for the Patriots, the talent drops off a bit after the top five tackle prospects. There are some prospects with the potential to be good pros, but most of them excel at penetrating gaps rather than clogging the middle and drawing double teams.

One talented prospect who could be on the board when the Patriots pick at 64 is Ohio State's Michael Bennett. At 6'2" and only 293 pounds, Bennett is undersized for an interior player, but his excellent technique and quickness allows him to shed blockers and disrupt plays. Bennett is surprisingly stout against the run for a player his size, but he's simply not big enough to command double teams at the next level. He may be a better fit as a 3-4 defensive end.

Size isn't a problem for Iowa's Carl Davis. At 6'5" and 320 pounds, Davis has physical tools to rival those aforementioned first round prospects, but never turned that talent into consistent production in college. However, he is big and strong enough to command double teams immediately at the next level, and has the potential to develop into a terrific pro. Davis isn't likely to last to the 64th pick, but he could be an option if the Pats trade back into the early/middle portion of the second round.

Another prospect who will draw doubles the second he steps on the field is UCLA's Ellis McCarthy. At 6'5" and 338 pounds, McCarthy blocks out the sun. A prototypical nose tackle with strength to control blockers, he flashes surprising quickness for a mountain when healthy. McCarthy has the raw talent to become a Pro Bowl caliber nose tackle, but injuries and weight issues prevented him from reaching his full potential as a Bruin. As a result, he could be tempting as a high upside gamble when the Pats come up for the 96th and 98th picks, although questions about his work ethic need to be looked into.

Day Three fits (Rounds 4-7):

Davison is a project, but one with obvious upside. AP Photo
By the time Day 3 rolls around, the talent pool is diluted enough to make high-upside gambles more attractive. Fresno State's Tyeler Davison represents such a prospect, as his blend of athleticism and power could turn him into a disruptive force in the future. He's still a bit on the raw side and better suited to shooting gaps than clogging them, but Davison's raw talent could make him an great value pick in the fourth round. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compares his disruptive potential to Buffalo standout Kyle Williams.

Another option in that range will be Houston's Joey Mbu. At 6'3" and 313 pounds Mbu has good size and a better motor. He also comes with a reputation for great character, on and off the field, and was lauded by the Houston coaching staff for his leadership. Mbu may have a lower ceiling than some of his draft peers, but he projects as a solid depth addition who could warrant a fourth round selection.

Nothern Iowa's Xavier Williams is another "size and motor" prospect who could be attractive to the Pats in that fourth round range. A former wrestler, Williams plays with excellent leverage that allows him to anchor against double teams. He's also a tenacious pass rusher who manages to win with effort. At 6'2" and 309 pounds, Williams could use a year in an NFL weight program, but he has the talent to contribute down the road.

At 6'1" and 308 pounds, Stanford's David Parry is undersized for his nose tackle position, but the former Cardinal uses his natural leverage advantage and power to overwhelm single-blocking. Parry is also effective as a pass rusher, as his power (34 reps of 225 on the combine bench press) helps him overwhelm most single blockers. Due to his lack of prototype size and length, Parry will certainly be around in the fourth round, and he could even slide back to the sixth. He'd add quality depth and some developmental youth at the position.

Ned Brady 2/25/2015 01:14:00 PM Edit
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