It's a clear-cut top of the depth chart, with starters Chandler Jones (67 percent playing time in 2012, which would have been higher if not for injury) and Rob Ninkovich (83 percent playing time in 2012). They are projected three-down players and their ability to set a hard edge in the running game, while also providing some pass rush, will play a significant role in what the Patriots do on defense this season.
The Patriots are banking on a bulked-up Jones to make the desired first-to-second-year transition, and Ninkovich to continue his all-around steady and clutch play. Seems like a reasonable expectation.
The questions, from this perspective, come within the next tier of players.
If there is an injury to Jones or Ninkovich, are there are starting-caliber options? Second-year player Justin Francis, who earned a roster spot as a rookie free agent, ended last year as the top replacement in a quick rise. Four-year veteran Jermaine Cunningham has done it before, but his status on the unit dipped after a 2012 late-season suspension. Trevor Scott, who played 22 percent of the defensive snaps last season, remains a free agent and could be an option to return if Bill Belichick ultimately determines some more experience would be beneficial.
Who is the nickel rusher? The Patriots were in sub defenses 57 percent of the time last season, highlighting in part the value of a sub rusher. Mark Anderson was solid in the role in 2011, which Cunningham mostly assumed last year, playing 40 percent of the defensive snaps while sometimes rushing from an interior position. Cunningham and Francis look like the top candidates right now but...
Abraham remains on the market. Earlier in free agency, the Patriots hosted John Abraham and Dwight Freeney (who later signed with the Chargers) on visits, which was an indication that they were open to an addition at the position. With three current open roster spots, there is room to make a move with Abraham still available. One consideration is that if Abraham is signed, and slides in to the nickel rusher role, there could be a trickle-down effect on ...
Developmental players ready to break through? Jake Bequette, the 2012 third-round pick out of Arkansas, essentially had a redshirt season as a rookie. With a full year in the offseason program, his progress bears watching. Some of his competition for a roster spot includes free-agent signee Marcus Benard, 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Buchanan and CFL import Jason Vega. Special teams contributions could also be a consideration among this group.
QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: This is going to be one of the more interesting competitions of training camp, as there are some relative unknowns with the likes of Bequette and Buchanan, while Benard is said to have put together a solid spring. Few could have projected at this point last year that Francis would ultimately break through, so maybe there is a similar situation this year. We'll naturally be keeping a close eye on one-on-one drills in camp to see which up-and-coming defensive end might distinguish himself from the pack with pass-rushing skills.