FOXBOROUGH -- They are nobody's question mark.
The preseason prognosticators of the Patriots would justifiably have the right to wonder aloud if there's enough help for Laurence Maroney at running back, if the secondary is riddled with uncertainty now that Chad Scott is out for the year and Asante Samuel is still holding out. You wouldn't be completely out of whack to examine the 30-something IDs of the linebackers and express mild concern. And then there's the perpetually queasy proposition that hangs over any team with a franchise quarterback of Tom Brady's magnitude: What happens if he gets hurt?
Fretting is a sports fan's inevitable pastime, but if anyone needs immediate Patriots comfort, they need only flip to the bios of Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren. There are no questions surrounding the defensive line -- and that's with the knowledge that Seymour has started training camp on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. Seymour is still recovering from a knee injury, but his teammates reported yesterday that he is at the stadium every day rehabbing and watching film and should be ready when the "real" football starts.
Seymour missed 13 days of training camp because of injury last season, but the delay in joining his teammates on the field had little effect on his season. He still played in all 16 regular-season and three playoff games, drew double coverage, and managed to be chosen for his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl. He is the "other" irreplaceable player on the roster besides Brady, and he'll turn just 28 in October.
Wilfork won't turn 26 until November, and Warren, who submitted a Pro Bowl-caliber season last year, is just 26. That's called being in the prime of your career.
All three linemen were first-round draft choices with high expectations attached to them, unlike so many other stars on this team (Brady, Rodney Harrison, Troy Brown) who were late picks and used that as motivation. Early in both Warren's and Wilfork's careers, they struggled to adjust to the Patriots' system, enduring the barbs of doubters who claimed they would not pan out.
But now New England's defensive line has established itself as one of the best in football, and with exceptional depth provided by veteran Jarvis Green, the group can even absorb the occasional injury. Green, in fact, submitted starter's numbers last season (credited by the team with 57 tackles, 7 1/2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles), but has embraced his role as a versatile substitute without complaint.
The defensive linemen have exhibited a quiet air of confidence in training camp that has not gone unnoticed by their peers. Like the linebackers, they've established tight relationships based on competition, camaraderie, and consistency.
Last season, Warren started 15 games at left end, Wilfork 13 at nose tackle, and Seymour 14 at right end. (Green and Mike Wright plugged in the other dates.) The goal of the line, Warren said, is to become the next generation of leaders, like linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel before them.
"It is a subject we've touched on several times," Warren acknowledged.
Seymour already has established himself as a stand-up teammate who is not afraid to speak his mind. He said last season he wanted his line to be the best in the NFL. His partners heard him.
"I think we're going to be something special this year," Wilfork said. "We've been around each other a long time. There's not a lot of guys out there who have played as long as we have together.
"There's no guessing on our part. I know what's on either side of me across the line. We've started to fall in together, hold each other accountable."
Last year's Patriots defense gave up an average of 14.8 points a game, the fewest in franchise history. Teams averaged 94.2 rushing yards a game against New England. Warren also posted a career-high 7 1/2 sacks, yet another leap in his development.
"I think there's an interesting contrast there between Vince, who really played a one-gap system in Miami and had to change from their defensive front and their techniques and their system to what we do, whereas Ty really played in a system at [Texas] A&M very similar to ours," coach Bill Belichick said. "Vince has really adapted to our scheme and is an excellent technique player, a very smart player.
"Ty has improved tremendously in his pass rush and his overall instinctiveness. He's able to recognize things -- draws and screens and deceptive plays and different blocking combinations, things like that -- extremely well.
"Both have improved significantly. They both work hard. They're very professional. They are great to coach."
The true difference between the good player and the great player (aside from the obvious barometer of pure talent) is consistency. Making the Pro Bowl one season is nice. Making it regularly, as Seymour has, cements your reputation.
That, said Warren, is what the defensive line is shooting for collectively.
"We can't go off last year," Warren cautioned. "The pieces are in place, and our priorities are intact. We know where we need to go, and what we need to do to get there. But we still have to do it."
Neither Warren nor Wilfork has forgotten the intense scrutiny of his rookie seasons. Nor have they forgotten the initial confusion of a demanding and complex system.
"From my rookie year to now has been a 360," Wilfork said. "I know so much more. Every year you learn something. As soon as you think you've got everything down, something else pops up. People look for the big things, but it's really the little ones, like using your hands a certain way, or shifting your position just a bit.
"Our [defensive line] has taken the time to make sure our [techniques] are what they should be. I don't want to be pointed out on film."
Because they are still so young, Wilfork and Warren have found it curious that first-year players/rookies Santonio Thomas, Kareem Brown, and Zach West are looking to them for guidance and support. Their status as wise veterans is a moniker they are still growing accustomed to.
"It's a little awkward," Warren acknowledged, "but all the more reason you have to make sure you don't just show up on Monday, drag your feet on Tuesday . . . that's not going to get it done."
There are no questions about the work ethic, performance, or attitude of the defensive line. Belichick has many other places he can go if he wants to fret about his team.
But that's what could set the D-line apart. It's one thing to eliminate the question mark. The next step is to add an exclamation point.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.