FOXBOROUGH – The phrase “point of emphasis” has been all the rage in NFL circles as the preseason wears on. So perhaps we should apply it to the Patriots’ defense as the team continues to prepare for its second summer game on Friday night against the Philadelphia Eagles at Gillette Stadium.
First, the Pats made the secondary a point of emphasis in the offseason, bringing in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to fortify a cornerbacking corps that had just lost Aqib Talib and had been one of the squad’s weaker elements since former All-Pro Asante Samuel left via free agency following the 2007 season.
Now, albeit less dramatically, the Pats are doing some refurnishing on the interior of their defensive line, a spot that was ravaged by health issues in 2013. They will not only enter this upcoming season dependent on two veterans coming off serious injuries in Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, but are currently dealing with some attrition thanks to injuries suffered last week by depth/rotation guys Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones.
News broke late Tuesday of a couple of trades made to help strengthen the middle of the D-line, first with defensive tackle Ben Bass, a former undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M, coming over from Dallas in exchange for reserve corner Justin Green. Then, barely an hour later, the Pats agreed to send a conditional draft choice to Green Bay for another defensive tackle, former second round pick Jerel Worthy.
Neither Bass nor Worthy were present at practice on Wednesday, a rain-soaked joint session with the Eagles, as neither has taken his physical and the moves have yet to officially be announced by the Pats. But Kelly, for his part, has liked what he’s seen of his D-line mates up to this point.
“We’re alright, we have enough to get things done,” said the 11-year veteran, who noted that he’s feeling “wonderful” now three weeks into camp. “I like our depth. I like the way coach is using us. Everything looks and feels fine to me. We’re right on track.”
Bass and Worthy, of course, aren’t guaranteed roster spots. Both have dealt with injuries throughout their careers with Worthy, a 6-foot-2, 304-pounder, yet to have taken part in training camp due to back surgery he underwent in April. He also missed all but two games last season from a torn ACL suffered late in his rookie year of 2012. Now is probably a good time to point out that the Pats will not send anything back to the Packers in exchange for Worthy if he doesn’t wind up making the team.
As for Bass, he hasn’t practiced yet this summer either and has played in just two games in his three-year career, both in 2012. These factors weren’t lost on Kelly.
“Trades can help our depth, sure, but you still gotta make the team,” he said with a chuckle. “It wouldn’t be the first time Bill [Belichick] traded for somebody and released him at the same time. So I mean, he can trade for you, but he can also send you home, too.”
Whether Worthy and Bass wind up breaking camp with the Pats remains to be seen but the fact that the Pats are proactively addressing an area that wound up contributing mightily to their ultimate demise last year is worth noting. The first step came at the draft in May when they selected Dominique Easley with their first-round pick. Easley just started practicing on Monday as he continues his recovery from his own torn ACL suffered during his final season at the University of Florida, but has been able to take part in some individual drills this week and even got in on a few one-on-ones with the Eagles’ offensive line on Wednesday. And Joe Vellano, a holdover from last year’s makeshift group, continues to see a solid amount of reps and showed some impressive moves in both drills and 11-on-11 action, despite the rain.
“I’m just trying to build on last year, stay in shape, and make sure I have everything down,” said the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Vellano, who racked up 54 tackles and two sacks while playing all 16 games as a rookie last season. “It’s good to get a feel from getting the reps out there. It really helps your confidence.”
Week 1 is only a little over three weeks away. The Pats will have plenty of decisions to make pertaining to the interior D-line between now and then, especially if Siliga and Jones, two guys who were more than likely to make the team prior to getting hurt, aren’t ready to go in time for the opener at Miami. Will Wilfork and Kelly be the same guys they’ve always been? Does Will Smith, another veteran, have enough left in the tank to contribute? How soon can Easley make an impact? Can Worthy and Bass stay healthy long enough to last?
We’ll soon find out. But what we do know for certain is that the more options the team has, especially at such an important “point of emphasis,” the better.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jmg2776.