Sheard was a menace to opposing quarterbacks last season. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
With training camp thankfully upon us, I've been taking a closer look at some of the more intriguing positional battles on the roster. Now that the first week of camp has passed, I'm taking a closer look at the defensive ends, where someone will have to step up and fill the void left by last season's sack leader Chandler Jones.
Chandler Jones might have led the team in sacks last season, but it was Sheard who was the team's most effective pass rusher on a snap-to-snap basis. He racked up a whopping 51 hurries to go with his 8 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and two passes defensed, numbers made more impressive by his playing just 51% of the defensive snaps. He was also a major contributor to the Patriots stout run defense, earning the fifth highest run defense grade amongst 4-3 ends from PFF. After such a season, Sheard figures to eat up plenty of Jones' vacated snaps, and will have to prove that he can maintain that level of production through a heavier workload. If he does, he'll be in line for a major pay day, as he's set to be an unrestricted free agent following the season. 28 year old pass rushers with his level of production don't come cheap, and it could be tough for the Patriots to keep him with so many other key players (Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, etc) all due for big contracts. For this season, however, Sheard will be key to the Pats pass rush, which was a strength last season. He was particularly effective last season when allowed to move inside on passing downs, using his combination of strength and explosiveness to overwhelm most of the guards he faced, and his ability to do that will factor into the competition for rotational edge rushing roles behind him on the depth chart.
A long-time starter and veteran leader, Nink figures to slot back into his usual role as an iron-man left defensive end with a knack for timely big plays. 2015 marked the fifth straight season that Ninkovich has started every game, and he turned in yet another solid effort. While his sacks (6.5) were slightly down, he was a consistent contributor to the team's stingy run defense as an edge setter. Ninkovich figures to be a starter and major contributor again in 2016, but it wouldn't be a major surprise if he lost some passing down snaps to more dynamic pass rushing options on the roster. Those guys could be replacing Ninkovich next season, as he'll be a 33 year old free agent and way down the pecking order of defenders in need of new contracts. In the meantime, you can expect #50 to continue to line up in his usual left defensive end spot this season, although practice reps from OTAs and training camp at linebacker indicate that the team would consider shifting him to an off-the-ball role should injuries test their depth there.
Flowers beat the Packers starting left tackle for this preseason sack
An uber-productive force in the SEC as a college player, Flowers turned in some impressive flashes last summer before injuries, a deep depth chart and a lack of game-day value on special teams relegated him to being a 2015 afterthought. However, this 2015 fourth round pick has legitimate ability. While he lacks dynamic speed around the edge, Flowers brings tremendous strength and length to the edge, making him a tough run defender on early downs. As a pass rusher, he overcomes his lack of eye-popping explosiveness by combining his length and non-stop motor with good hand-usage and technique. We saw that last preseason, when he got starting Packers left tackle David Bakhtari off-balance before blowing by him for a highlight sack of Aaron Rodgers. An impressive preseason could push Flowers into the third DE rotational role that Sheard excelled in last season, although he'll have to fight off some veteran competition for those snaps. Flowers' development is also key for the team's future at the position, as Sheard, Ninkovich and free agent addition Chris Long will all be free agents next spring. If he doesn't emerge as a contributor this year, he could be counted on for more in 2017.
A former #2 overall pick, Long signed with the Patriots in relative anonymity despite his resume as a four time Pro Bowler. Nagging injuries limited the star defender to just 18 games and four sacks over the past two seasons, factors which combined with his advancing age (31) to lead to his release from the Rams this spring. The Patriots quickly pounced, signing Long merely hours after trading away Chandler Jones. The Patriots will be hoping he can recapture his 2010-2013 form, when he averaged over 10 sacks per season, and keeping him in a situational pass rushing role could be the best way to keep the veteran healthy and fresh over the course of the season. Long's versatility is a major plus, as he can bump inside to use his athleticism against slower guards, something reporters have seen him doing quite often so far in training camp. With Sheard, Flowers and Long all possessing the skill-set to bump inside if need be, the Pats should be able to mix and match their defensive ends at will on passing downs, creating lots of speed mismatches on the interior.
McClellin is a versatile hybrid player who never fit in with Chicago
A 2012 first round pick of the Bears, McClellin has plenty of versatility but never settled into a consistent role with the Bears. After managing just 6.5 sacks in two seasons as a defensive end, he moved to an off-the-ball linebacker role and wasn't particularly better. Many figured that McClellin would primarily factor into the linebacker mix when the Patriots signed him, but the vast majority of his practice snaps have come at defensive end. The Patriots were one of the teams who were reportedly very interested in him on his draft day (they ultimately took Chandler Jones two picks after the Bears plucked up McClellin). His addition suggests that they are still intrigued by his versatility, as the 6'3", 250 pound McClellin provides depth at multiple positions. His contract suggests the Pats think he can become more than that, but it will likely take an injury or two at this point for McClellin to emerge into a major role given the depth on this roster.
A third round pick from last year's draft with tweener characteristics, Grissom's versatility and special teams value should be enough to keep him around despite a crowded depth chart. Defensively, he's yet another player on this depth chart he can rush both from the edge or the interior. However, at 6'4" and 265 pounds, he's quite undersized for an interior role and must rely on quickness to win his matchups there. As an edge player, his length and athleticism gives him potential, but he's not particularly explosive around the edge. His biggest asset on the field is his versatility: not only can he play all over the defensive line, but he's also athletic enough to drop back either into zone coverage or as a "spy" against more mobile quarterbacks. Like McClellin, it will likely take an injury or two for Grissom to crack the defensive rotation, but his athleticism makes him the rare defensive lineman to be a major contributor on special teams, giving him additional game-day roster value.
On the fringe:
Johnson got to the quarterback at will last preseason
Johnson forced his way onto the Patriots opening day roster last summer with an explosive preseason. However, a mysterious illness landed him on injured reserve by the end of October. Now, he once again faces a stacked rosterr of edge players to compete with for a roster spot. While listed as a linebacker on the depth chart, Johnson's primary role is as a pass rushing edge defender. At 6'5" and a listed 280 pounds, he's got plus size for the position, and flashed both explosiveness and a relentless motor during his highlight filled preseason run last summer. He'll likely have to replicate that dominant preseason form again this August to get back on the roster. Johnson is practice squad eligible, and could be a prime candidate to land there if he falls victim to the numbers crunch.
Yet another player with inside/outside versatility, Kearse is a veteran of five NFL seasons. Originally a seventh round pick of the Dolphins back in 2011, Kearse failed to make their final roster, but wound up latching on for two seasons with the Panthers, including four starts at nose tackle. He then spent the majority of 2013 on the Titans practice squad before getting picked up by the Cowboys late in the season. 2014 saw him get picked up by the Redskins and turn in the best season of his career, with 15 tackles and 3 sacks. However, 2015 saw him frequently bumped between the active roster and free agency, as he was released and re-signed three times during the first month of the season. At 6'5" and 310 pounds, Kearse brings plenty of bulk to the position, but he's a long-shot to win a job in this crowded depth chart despite his NFL experience.
The lone undrafted rookie of this group, Hamilton is another player facing long odds to make this team. Like Kearse, Hamilton brings a bigger body type (6'3", 315) and inside/outside versatility to the competition. That versatility is probably his biggest asset, as he can play both as a massive, run stuffing end (think of former Seahawk Red Bryant) or as a defensive tackle. Hamilton was a starter for one of the nation's top defenses at Ole Miss, but his lack of eye-popping stats or measurables led to his going undrafted in the spring. The practice squad is likely the best case scenario for him, as he could buy more time to develop with a strong August.