Armchair GM: Rebuilding the Patriots' Front 7

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Welcome back to Armchair GM, your No. 1 source for reasonably informed fanalysis on potential and future Patriots. After kicking things off on the offensive side with our QB and WR editions, we do the dirty work and turn to the defensive side.

Let’s be frank, the Patriots need Front 7 help and they need it badly. Quarterback remains need numero uno as they don’t have one, and their previous one is playing into February, again. In part due to his ageless GOAT-ness, but also due to massive contributions from his front seven in the NFC Championship Game. The Bucs had five sacks of Aaron Rodgers from two LB/DE hybrids in JPP and Shaquil Barrett, not to mention stuffed runs from big boys like Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, and constant pursuit and solid tackling from linebackers like Lavonte David and Devin White. You know, the kind of defense championships are made of.

Disciplined defense is the hallmark of Bill Belichick football - it’s the birthplace of “Do Your Job” - and it was largely absent for the majority of 2020. While many hope the coach/GM/overlord of the Pats invests richly into offensive skill players first, those in the know believe Bill will make defensive reconstruction a priority. Pats fans know what’s up. Why, there are a number of fans creating defensive free agency wish lists already! Yes, the Patriots finished seventh in total defense, allowing twenty two points per game. But they lacked a pass rush (seventh worst with only 24 sacks), and couldn’t get off the field far too many times (though the sluggish offense did them no favors). Remember the Niners, Rams and Miami running all over the Pats, or Houston gashing New England over the middle time and again? Very un-Patriots-like.

With a defensive Front 7 in need of a boost it’s Armchair GM to the rescue! Thanks to a little pro football knowledge, college ball watched and expert advice we’ll hip you, via free agency and the draft, to a few names we hope might help restore the hard-nosed, job-doing, QB-frustrating reputation of Patriots football soon. Or at least not let Salvon Ahmed, Jeff Wilson and random Houston TEs embarrass you on national TV again.

BUT! Before we dabble with free agency there’s one player whose return would be a massive boost to the front seven, considering he’s been the leader there for almost a decade.

DONT’A HIGHTOWER- Will he or won’t he opt back in for at least one final season after taking 2020 off due to COVID? We’ve received no official word to date, no hints as to whether High will call it a career, three Super Bowl titles in tow, or come back for a final go-round, and maybe more. Hightower plays all over the field, is a prototype Belichick defender, team leader, signal caller, and looked like he still had some football left in the tank when last we saw him. We know long tenured Pats who opted out last season like Brandon Bolden and Patrick Chung are coming back for at least one more ride. Here’s to hoping Hightower, a fan favorite, comes back to help restore what Patriots defense is all about.

If Hightower returns he’ll need some new friends at LB since when he took a year off the rest of his linebacking buddies took off, literally. Only Ja’Whaun Bentley remains from the 2019 corps. Let’s see if we can find some new teammates to play alongside in 2021 and beyond.

FREE AGENCY

Bang it HERE for a full list of 2021 Patriots free agents.

Like we said, last free agency was rough as the Boogeymen were dismantled. Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts cashed in at Pats-friendly locations elsewhere. Not to mention they’ve yet to find a suitable replacement for Trey Flowers at defensive end, and diamonds in the rough like Mike Vrabel and Rob Ninkovich don’t just pop up with regularity. Now the 2021 Pats have some pressing FA decisions to make where they’re already paper thin on the line. Though we’re advocating for youth, strength and fresh bodies, there are a few we’d like to see come back, one above all.

LAWRENCE GUY- Our top in-house guy on the D-Line, who knew when Belichick signed the former Raven to a four-year, $15.3 million deal in 2017 he’d be getting a steal. Guy has done it all along the line in his time with the Pats. Better at stuffing the run than rushing the passer, Guy is the kind of tough, dependable, multi-purposed D-lineman the Pats covet for their schemes. He’s played through injuries galore, is a great teammate and is on the record saying he’d love to return to the Pats. And while he’s entering his eleventh NFL season he still has good football left and would make the perfect kind of mentor to an infusion of free agent and draft talent. While it would be nice to see Adam Butler return as well, he’ll likely command higher dollar than the Pats are comfortable with, even while rich with free agent funds. And no, my bias toward Guy because he’s a great interview and loves “The Mandalorian” is not at play here, promise. Though he is a great guy with great taste in TV, he should retire a Patriot.

Now, hopefully Guy comes back, and Hightower returns. John Simon is 31 and best served in a reserve role, and who knows what kind of market Deatrich Wise will command? So let’s see if we can throw a few names out who could slide right in on the line, on the end or at LB, from all price points, and make an immediate impact.

LAVONTE DAVID, LB- The rock of the Buccaneers D for the past nine years, he is the Tampa Bay Dont’a Hightower, though a tad smaller. Still, he wears the same number and is the steadying presence and intelligent center of Todd Bowles’s defense. If High retires then perhaps Belichick could steal from Tompa and convince LD to come play LB for the NEP? Not likely, and it would require a slight shift from a 403 to a 3-4, but he can handle it. Plus, we’d prefer our 54 as opposed to writing a check for someone else’s, but there’s no denying David’s gridiron greatness.

LEONARD WILLIAMS, DL- The prize of the 2021 defensive free agency class, Williams is like the Allen Robinson of the D-Line; he gives you an instant presence. Williams benefitted not so much from a change of address as much as a uniform swap, when he went from the Jets to the Giants. He had his best season in 2020, just in time for free agency, something to be wary of. But not with Williams, who’s been improving steadily to the point where he became a top interior lineman and continually disruptive force. Top 10 in tackles for loss and sacks, great against the run and a rock wherever he lines up he’d become a Foxboro favorite overnight, giving fans visions of the good old days when the Seymour, Warrens, Wilforks and Greens of the world dominated.

HAASON REDDICK, LB- Another player who had a career year in time for free agency, Reddick is a linebacker that could would benefit from a change of address. The former first rounder is a bit of a hybrid defender and could be used in a multitude of formations. He can rush off the edge, be in coverage, play all over, the kind of athleticism the Pats could use to generate pressure and shore up the middle. His name was floated as a possible midseason trade target before, which makes you think the Pats have him on their radar. And who wouldn’t after he singlehandedly beat the Giants last December.

SOLOMON THOMAS, DL- Talk about the classic Belichick reclamation project; a former first rounder defensive lineman who has size and skill but has underperformed wildly and is coming off an injury. When your D-line needs as much help as the Pats then somebody like Thomas would be a gamble worth taking. He’s one of the two Niners linemen who tore an ACL at MetLife Stadium last fall, which essentially capped off a disappointing run in San Francisco. Belichick is very friendly with Niners GM John Lynch, who somehow finds giant D linemen around every corner. Maybe he can give some intel for a fresh Foxboro start for the big man?

RYAN KERRIGAN, EDGE- OK, so maybe his better days are behind him, but as far as high motor edge guys go they don’t come more consistent than Kerrigan. He’s exactly who you’d hope Chase Winovich would become, so why not surround your young developing defensemen with the mentors who can still get after it? Desirable as guys like Matt Judon and Shaquil Barrett might be they’ll likely cost too much for Belichick. And what are the odds Denver lets Von Miller walk? Wherever he goes he’ll still command top dollar, too. Though Belichick’s coin purse is plentiful Kerrigan, should he desire a change of address, could provide a rush boost and valuable leadership for a defense in transition.

KAMU GRUGIER-HILL, LB- Remember this plucky 2016 preseason star? Yeah, the safety/LB hybrid who seemed to be making plays all over the place? Yeah, that guy, the poster child of “Belichick cut him and hoped he could sneak him on to the practice squad but someone else saw him and so he went elsewhere and won a Super Bowl against the Patriots”. That’s a highly specific kind of poster child, still Grugier-Hill is a great defensive utility who could add coverage linebacker help, plus special teams depth. Factor in his system familiarity, having played the past season in Miami under Brian Flores. Not the sexiest pickup, just someone who can make plays in a number of roles.

THE DRAFT

Though I consult with dozens of sites, and follow many experts on the socials, I can’t admit to having watched all the tape on every defensive draft prospect. That would get in the way of my radio blabbing and beer drinking. So, I’d like to give a special shoutout to my guys Keagan Stiefel (@keaganstiefel) and former WEEI intern Ryan Spagnoli (@ryan_spags), two beautiful young football minds on the rise, who’ve assembled a very user-friendly draft guide centered on Pats targets and their Foxboro fits. A handy, constantly updated reference piece for all Pats fans as their team heads into arguably the most important draft of Belichick’s career.

With many mock drafts projecting a quarterback to the Pats in the first round I’m still on the hill that Belichick addresses the QB situation via a veteran acquisition (like Jimmy GQB), drafts a mid-round to groom (like Jimmy GQB in 2014) and goes defense early and often. This will excite no one in a fanbase starved for a QB succession plan and big-play talent. Eventually, when the Patriots begin winning more games than they lose thanks to the rebuilt defense, those fans will remember joy, as well as what their coach is all about. Here are a couple of draft prospects that have caught my eye. ...

CHRISTIAN BARMORE, DT- Not a total slam dunk to step in and be the next Richard Seymour, though he’s about the same size, Barmore is a likely Day 1 NFL starter who needs some work, but could be really special. Some say he’d be a reach at Pick 15, though he’s likely the first D-tackle off the board, which makes his case a tricky one. Especially after he dominated the Ohio State O-line in the College Football National Championship. Barmore needs some gap and run stop work, but he can get after the QB for sure. Don’t let Anfernee Jennings’s slow start in New England deter you from getting behind more Alabama defensive talent. Belichick and Saban talk, a lot. Bill will do his due diligence here. Could be the safest pick if the Pats go best available mid-first round.

KWITY PAYE, EDGE - A senior, from Michigan, that’s 6-foot-4, 270 pounds with long arms, a high motor, a knack for getting to the QB and experience on the big stage. Yes, please. The pedigree, size and desire of this Rhode Island native (whose family immigrated to the US from a refugee camp in Guinea when he was six months old) just wreak of Belichick. He loves playing football, and he wants to win. Sounds like someone else who played ball at Michigan. Plus he could partner up with former Wolverine teammate Chase Winovich and add some real dynamic size and athleticism to a Patriots front in desperate need. Will likely be gone by the time the Pats pick, but if he’s available don’t be surprised if Belichick leaps.

DAVIYON NIXON, DT- Guys who watch college football say Nixon could be the best defensive tackle in this class. From my guy Keagan Stiefel, “Most athletic lineman in the class who can two gap or play against zone schemes. He can play any spot along the defensive line.” Sounds positively Patriots-esque to me. Most mock drafts have him going late first round. Could he be another Belichick trade back & snag, like Kyle Dugger in 2020, acquiring some more picks for along the way? Since you’ve probably never seen any tape on him prepare to be impressed. Size, strength and moves on a lineman INT that would leave Vince Wilfork in awe.

GREGORY ROUSSEAU, EDGE- Some people love this tenacious defender from The U, some believe he’s potentially overrated. He might be enormous and explosive but is also a one season wonder. Personally I’d prefer the Pats get someone a but more dependable like Paye, but maybe Belichick loves the playmaking potential.

JEREMIAH OWUSU-KORAMOAH, LB- The Notre Dame backer won The Butkus Award as the nation’s best collegiate linebacker in 2020, which is a heck of a calling card coming into the draft. He’s a senior and a complete defensive player who got a lot of attention thanks to Notre Dame always being on TV, which could inflate his draft status a bit. The Patriots don’t have a history of drafting big on the Fighting Irish, but should Belichick believe LB is the call, and Micah Parsons is off the board...maybe a trade back to grab another 2nd rounder? Owusu-Koramoah will definitely be gone before the end of Round 1.

BARON BROWNING, LB- His shortened 2020 wasn’t as impressive as his 2019, but I remember seeing him in Ohio State’s beatdown of Clemson in the College Football Championship Semis and thinking, “Man, the Pats could use some speed at LB like that!”

OK! Hope this was helpful for you deep-diving Pats superfans. Make sure to watch The Senior Bowl this Saturday, Jan. 30 to see many of these and other prospects in action. Back atcha next week with a peek at tight ends.