The New England Patriots open training camp on July 24. To get you ready, we will go through the roster position by position, highlighting the story lines, battles, and key players. We continue with the defensive end position.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are firmly entrenched as the bookend starters on the defensive line, but the Patriots are clearly looking at ways to reduce the workload on those two; Jones and Ninkovich finished No. 1 and 2 in snap count last year, and each played over 1,100 snaps. The Patriots signed veteran pass-rusher Will smith from the New Orleans Saints and drafted Concordia defensive end Zach Moore in the sixth round of May's draft; both men should compete with incumbent back-ups Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette for the spots behind Jones and Ninkovich.
Chandler Jones: The Patriots drafted Jones in the first round in 2012 as a somewhat raw prospect out of Syracuse, but with great upside due to his long frame (6-foot-5, 35.5-inch arms) and explosiveness (35-inch vertical leap at the scouting combine). He has added some muscle to his frame since entering the NFL (focus on upper body in 2013, lower body in 2014) and was deployed in different spots last season, filling gaps at defensive tackle at times.
Rob Ninkovich: From special teams ace to 3-4 outside linebacker to 4-3 outside linebacker to 4-3 defensive end, there isn't a lot Ninkovich hasn't done for the Patriots. At 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, Ninkovich is not a physically imposing defensive end, but his "lunchpail" workman mentality has helped him make many big plays for the Patriots over the years. His technique is always sound, particularly in the running game, where he is rarely seen out of position or being knocked off the line of scrimmage.
Jake Bequette: The Patriots drafted Bequette in the third round in 2012, and that has been his career highlight to this point. He has played a combined 43 snaps over the past two seasons, and has been left off the active roster several times since joining the team. He was regarded as a great team leader at Arkansas and was highly productive, but was never the greatest athlete. Bequette stands 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, but his arms are a bit shorter than would be preferred at 32 inches.
Michael Buchanan: The 6-foot-5, 255-pound second-year defensive end was a small part of the rotation in the early part of the 2013 season, but was left out of the mix in the second half of the season when veteran Andre Carter was brought in. He has the burst and athletic ability to make an impact as a pass-rusher, with 34-inch arms to help him keep blockers at bay, but he is not considered a great anchor against the run.
Will Smith: Smith spent 10 years in New Orleans, but a torn ACL kept him out for 2013 and he was a salary cap casualty prior to the beginning of free agency. Smith is big for a defensive end at 6-foot-3 and 282 pounds, and could be used inside on passing downs. Smith logged more than 10 sacks just twice in his career (2006 and 2009) but has been a steady pass-rushing presence for years before taking a step back in 2012.
Zach Moore: Moore has a nearly identical frame to Buchanan at 6-foot-5 and 269 pounds with 33.75-inch arms. His experience in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 scheme should do him well in the Patriots' versatile defensive system, but his best-fit NFL position remains undefined (though with his frame, it is likely at defensive end). He has moldable traits, with the athleticism and explosiveness (123-inch broad jump was among the top five defensive linemen at the scouting combine) to get after the quarterback from a variety of positions.
1. Chandler Jones
2. Rob Ninkovich
3. Will Smith
4. Michael Buchanan
5. Zach Moore *
6. Jake Bequette *
* = projected cut
Smith's veteran presence on the defensive front was sorely missed last year, and his versatility could make him a strong candidate for the roster. Moore has a lot of upside due to his athleticism, but still remains a project and could benefit from a year on the practice squad (assuming he makes it there before being claimed off waivers). Bequette has two years to make an impact and his absence from active game day rosters, along with the Patriots' acquisition of several defensive ends since his arrival, are both not good signs for his future prospects with the team.