For Pats, the richer the better

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Combining the fury unleashed Thursday night in Tampa, Fla., with what took place on the Gillette Stadium practice field Saturday, it looks like a case of the rich getting richer with the New England Patriots' defensive line.

A unit that has already looked deep and talented this preseason added another cog Saturday with Shaun Ellis coming off the physically unable to perform list. Add in an Albert Haynesworth sighting Saturday -- he attended practice but didn't participate -- and one could draw the conclusion that his official return to action isn't far behind, either.

That's a lot of power up front for a group that already looks powerful.

"Everybody knows when you start a defense, it starts up front," Ellis said Saturday. "It makes me want to be a part of it that much more. We have a lot of guys who can stop the run and also get after the quarterback; a lot of talent. I'm just eager to be a part of it and just go out and contribute the best way I can."

How all the pieces fit together will be fascinating to watch in the coming weeks. The picture should start taking shape quickly, as coach Bill Belichick noted this is the time in training camp when things start to shift.

"We've got games coming up here pretty soon," Belichick said. "In training camp, you're just kind of trying to evaluate your team and figure out who you're going to be dealing with and where you're going to give everybody a chance to perform. Now I think we need to start making some decisions about who is going to do what, what we want to be, how we want to use different players, and where our depth is."

It's quite clear where the Patriots' defensive depth currently is -- on the line -- and Belichick has already said it's a strong likelihood that the team will be keeping more linemen over linebackers. That would also contribute to a shift away from the base 3-4 defense that has been a Belichick trademark in recent years, with the team playing the more attacking style we've seen in the first two preseason games.

The Patriots kept eight defensive linemen on the roster last year. This year, the number could go as high as 11 or 12.
Locks for roster spots would seem to include Ellis, Haynesworth, Vince Wilfork, Andre Carter, Kyle Love, Jermaine Cunningham and Myron Pryor.

Meanwhile, it's going to be hard to let go of veteran Gerard Warren after his performance to date, with Eric Moore and Mark Anderson also looking sharp. If any of those players are let go, it would be a surprise at this point.
That's 10, which doesn't account for the player who led the team in sacks last season, Mike Wright. One would think he'll find his way on the roster as well, even though he's missed considerable time in camp and is coming off a 2010 season in which he missed the final seven games with a severe concussion.

Elsewhere at the position, Landon Cohen, Kade Weston and Darryl Richard have also flashed at times. On many other teams, their performance would have assured a roster spot, but based on the numbers the Patriots have along the line, they face an uphill climb for a spot.

When assessing the line, Warren noted that "just on names alone, it's good," but he cautioned that if the players don't put the work in and play together, it won't matter.

Ellis is among those who believe in the strength of numbers along the line.

"I think that's the key to the season, being fresh late in the year when it gets playoff time," he said. "Rotating is definitely going to take the pressure off a lot of guys and keep us fresh throughout."

"It is the best thing to have depth," agreed Carter, the veteran end who was impressive Thursday night at Tampa. "It will keep guys fresh over the long season; 16 games is a grind. If you have a certain number of guys, it prepares you in the long run."

The depth along the line almost assures that two contributors from last season -- Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick -- will open the year on the reserve/physically unable to perform list. If they came back now, it would be hard for them to make the club, so maybe the picture looks different after the first six weeks of the season when they would be eligible to return.

That's how stocked the Patriots currently are along the line. With Ellis officially returning Saturday, and it looking like Haynesworth isn't far behind, the rich just got richer.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.