By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots’ defensive end position isn’t exactly in shambles; they still have rising star Trey Flowers atop the depth chart at that spot. The team will be in better shape than a lot of teams with Flowers leading their pass rush – but after him is where things get dicey.
And that’s putting it lightly. Besides Flowers, the only other players on the Patriots’ current roster with any meaningful experience as edge defenders are Rob Ninkovich and special-teamer Geneo Grissom. The Patriots will almost certainly draft one or two defensive ends in April, but they should also be expected to nab at least one edge rusher when the NFL free agency period begins at 4 p.m. on Thursday.
Both Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard are virtually guaranteed to sign elsewhere as unrestricted free agents, which will create an obvious pressing need for the Patriots at defensive end. While Long was appreciative of his one-and-done championship run with Bill Belichick and the Pats, he is seeking an increased role with a new team. Sheard, meanwhile, appeared to fall out of favor with coaches after he was a healthy scratch in Week 11 against the San Francisco 49ers and saw his snap count essentially cut in half down the stretch.
So you can expect the Patriots to be in the market for a free-agent veteran defensive end, and with all of their cap space – more than $53.1 million as of Wednesday, according to Spotrac – they can afford to spend decent money on one.
The Patriots would wade into the seldom-seen “big splash” territory if they busted out the checkbooks for Calais Campbell, easily the top edge defender on the market. But Campbell could fetch an AAV in the range of at least $8-12 million, even as a 30-year-old, so it’s safe to assume that the Patriots will aim a little lower to supplement Flowers on the other end of the defensive line.
However, Sheard earned more than $10.7 million in cash in his two years in a Patriots uniform – so it would not be out of the ordinary to see the Patriots land a defensive end for something similar to the two-year, $11 million deal that Sheard signed in 2015.
Here’s a list of veteran defensive ends who will likely be on the market come Thursday at 4 p.m. – and could be on the Patriots’ radar:
Jared Odrick, Jaguars
It’s already known that the Patriots have some level of interest in Odrick’s services, as the former Jaguar has already come in for a workout and physical. His ability to play anywhere on the line probably piques Belichick’s interest. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots announce a deal with the 29-year-old soon after free agency kicks off.
Mario Williams, Dolphins
The veteran former No. 1 overall pick fell out of favor with both the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins for various reasons, and now his stock couldn’t be any lower – which makes him potentially a perfect reclamation project for Belichick. A one-year “prove it” deal for Williams in New England would have the potential to be a steal – and a missed opportunity for the Bills and Dolphins.
Devin Taylor, Lions
At 27 years old, Taylor is a little younger than some other intriguing veteran defensive ends expected to hit the market. The 6-foot-7 defensive end somewhat underachieved in a prominent role on the Lions defense, a situation that on the surface bears some similarity to Sheard’s when he was still on the Cleveland Browns. In Taylor, Belichick could see a relatively low-risk signing with the potential for big rewards. The relationship between Belichick and Lions GM Bob Quinn could also potentially give the Patriots some added intel to facilitate a deal.
Andre Branch, Dolphins
Another early-career underachiever in Jacksonville, the 2012 second-round pick floundered with the Jaguars before performing admirably with the Dolphins – and outplaying Mario Williams in the process. Branch is still just 27 years old and could have some untapped potential that Belichick could unlock. However, Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole tweeted on Wednesday that Branch could fetch a deal in the $7-9 million per year range, so Branch could prove surprisingly expensive. (UPDATE: The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport tweeted that Branch is returning to the Dolphins on a long-term deal.)
Datone Jones, Packers
Jones began his career as a defensive end but transitioned to outside linebacker for the Packers in 2016. He’s 26 years old and has the kind of positional versatility that gets Belichick excited.
Lawrence Guy, Ravens
The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Guy could be a suitable replacement for Alan Branch or Chris Long on the defensive line. He’s mostly a run-stuffer and more of a rotational player than a starter, but his ability to line up anywhere on the line could be of interest to the Pats. (UPDATE: DING DING DING! The Patriots have agreed to a four-year deal with Lawrence Guy for up to $20 million, according to Ian Rapoport.)
Vance Walker, Broncos
Walker works best as a run-stuffing defensive tackle but has the versatility to play all over the line. Belichick could give the 29-year-old a look as a potentially inexpensive option.
Jack Crawford, Cowboys
The 28-year-old is coming off a down year in Dallas, earning a dismal 40.7 season grade from Pro Football Focus. He could be a bargain-basement option for the Patriots, but he could prove a little too expensive as he draws interest from the Bills and Colts – and it’s also possible that he stays in Dallas. (UPDATE: Agent David Canter tweeted on Thursday that his client Crawford is signing a three-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons.)
Expect the Patriots to at least try to sign one of these guys to be their next defensive end – because they have to.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.