|Bryant is still a double-team commanding force in the middle of any defensive line. Richard Dole/USA Today Sports|
Lets be honest, there isn't a free agent on the market who can replicate what Vince Wilfork brought to the Patriots, on and off the field. Big Vince was, is, and always will be a franchise legend, and his departure is undoubtedly a loss.
However, the games will go on, and the Patriots will likely need to bolster their defensive tackle rotation before said games begin to count again. While Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch both had impressive moments last season, those were often with Wilfork by their side, as Vince remarkably played 73.4% of the defensive snaps in his return from a torn Achilles. Going into the season with just the injury prone Siliga and aging Branch as "big bodied" early down run stuffers at DT seems like an unnecessary risk.
With that in mind, here's a look at the Patriots remaining options on the free agent market.
Bill Belichick pushed hard to sign Bryant away from Seattle in 2012 and nearly landed the mammoth (6'4", 323 lb) free agent defensive tackle, but family considerations led Bryant to re-sign with the Seahawks. With a Wilfork-sized hole at defensive tackle and Bryant once again a free agent after getting cut loose by Jacksonville, the time could be right for the Pats to land their man.
Like Wilfork, Bryant is a massive, immovable object on the defensive line who requires constant double teams. His thankless role rarely results in big statistics or flashy plays but often is critical to a defense's success, as occupying blockers up front helps keep the linebackers behind him free to diagnose and disrupt plays. Trust me, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower will notice a difference if a suitable Wilfork replacement isn't signed (or drafted).
With Wilfork off the market, Bryant is the top option left to fill that role. At age 30, Bryant is no spring chicken either, but his play has yet to show any signs of declining. In fact, his +12.8 run defense grade this season from Profootballfocus was the highest of his career, ranking seventh amongst all defensive tackles.
Despite this, Bryant became expendable in Jacksonville after the big money signing of Jared Odrick. Their loss could be the Patriots gain, as Bryant projects as an excellent fit not only into the Patriots scheme, but also into their locker room. In addition to his great play on the field, teammates and coaches alike have raved about Bryant as a professional and a leader. Sound familiar?
Like Bryant, his fellow draftee from 2008, Rubin has carved out a nice career for himself as a big (6'3", 315 lb) run stuffing defensive tackle. Unlike Bryant, Rubin has had the misfortune of being drafted by and playing all seven of his pro seasons for the Cleveland Browns, so he's never come close to experiencing the kind of team success he'd likely find in New England.
While Rubin has put some good film on tape, any team looking to sign him will hope that the 2014 season was an aberration and not the first signs of a decline. After posting back-to-back strong seasons against the run from 2012-2013, Rubin was a dud last year, posting a -9.6 run defense grade from PFF. He'd certainly have more defensive support around him in New England, which could be a nice situation for him to put together a rebound year in a reduced role.
Rubin's pure size and strength against the run would make him a solid addition, especially since it's unlikely signing him would take up too much of the team's limited cap space. However, given the inconsistency he's shown at times in his career, it would be precarious to count on him being any more than a depth addition.
|Could Ellis break out with a larger role in NE?|
A third round draft pick in 2011, Ellis has shown impressive potential at times, but has never managed to secure steady playing time in New York thanks to the Pro Bowl likes of Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison. Despite his limited opportunities, Ellis has flashed exciting ability against the run, including a 2013 season that saw him rack up 17 run stops and a +14 grade against the run from Profootballfocus despite only playing 210 total snaps.
At 6'5" and a whopping 330 pounds, Ellis certainly has the size to anchor against double teams and stuff the run. Thanks to the devaluation of early down players in today's pass dominant NFL, Ellis can likely be had for a low cost deal. He could prove to be a bargain if he continues that kind of form against the run with a larger workload.
Raji may have more name recognition than his peers on this list, thanks to his status as a former top 10 pick and starter on a Championship Packers team. While Raji's play has never been in line with his reputation, the BC product undeniably has the skillset to man the nose in a 3-4 defense. At 6'1" and 337 pounds, Raji is an absolute mountain of a man with impressive foot speed to boot.
Of course, any team looking to sign Raji will have to make sure he's healthy first. Raji missed all of 2014 with a torn biceps, and has received little interest so far on the free agent market. It's unclear whether that inactivity is more because of his injury or his recent play, which includes a dismal -20.9 run defense grade in 2013, his last meaningful action.
Unfortunately, that 2013 play has been closer to the norm for Raji, who remarkably hasn't finished a single season with a positive run defense grade from Profootballfocus. His constant struggles to maintain a healthy weight, lapses in focus/discipline and a mostly cold motor are also glaring negatives against him. Raji lands a spot on this list thanks to his talent and specific skill set, but I'd be underwhelmed if the Patriots brought him in as a Wilfork replacement.
I mentioned Sims as a potential addition last year, when there was seriously uncertainty about how Vince would fare coming back from a torn Achilles at his weight and age. Thanks to being run stuffing defensive tackle in a passing league, he finds himself available once again, and could be a nice depth addition at the right price.
A third round pick from 2008, Sims had a bit of an up-and-down career with the Bengals before joining the Raiders for the past two seasons. 2013 was a career year for him, with the 310 pound DT racking up 29 run stops and a +4.6 run defense grade to go with a solid 24 combined hits, hurries and sacks in his first season in Silver and Black. He wasn't as productive in 2014, but Sims still managed to muster a positive grade against the run.
Signing Sims and expecting the level of play he gave Oakland in 2013 might be wishful thinking, but adding a big-bodied defensive tackle with his history of production wouldn't hurt the Patriots defensive interior. Given the low cost likely associated with bringing him in, Sims could represent a bargain.