While the Patriots teams of the past were built on strong play from the defensive line, the talent and production level of the front three has taken a toll over the past few seasons.
With the departure of Richard Seymour via trade in 2009, the right end spot has been a particular problem. Seymour made his mark drawing double and sometimes triple teams from opposing offenses, freeing up outside linebackers Mike Vrabel, Roosevelt Colvin and Willie McGinest for big sack opportunities.
Without Seymour’s pure power and experience in the lineup and the loss of Ty Warren to a season-ending hip injury last season, the defensive line was largely a makeshift group. Outside of Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork, 10-year veteran Gerard Warren filled in admirably, but is long in the tooth and is purely a stopgap player at this point in his career.
Armed with two picks in each of the first three rounds in the 2011 Draft, the Patriots have the ammunition necessary to draft a true replacement for Seymour. And luckily for the Patriots, this draft is extremely deep with defensive linemen who can play in the 3-4 system.
Here are five realistic options who could be on the horizon for the Pats in the first two rounds.
1. Marcell Dareus, DE, Alabama - Perhaps Alabama’s best defensive player, Dareus left for the draft after his junior season in which he was named First Team All-SEC after recording 34 tackles, 11 for a loss and 4.5 sacks. Dareus brings a good combination of size (6-foot-4, 307 pounds) and athleticism that bode well as a 3-4 end. He has experience playing in that system under Nick Saban and commanded constant double teams during his time in Tuscaloosa. He is projected to go early in the first round and if the Patriots want him, they will definitely have to move into the top 10 to get their man.
2. Cameron Jordan, DE, California - Simply put -- Jordan is a man amongst boys. The 6-foot-4, 283-pound senior was a steady presence for the California Golden Bears over the past four years, improving his tackle total every year. He finished his collegiate career with 161 tackles and 17 sacks while playing defensive end in the Golden Bears’ 3-4 system. This past week at the Senior Bowl, Jordan was the best player on the field. He dominated against highly touted offensive tackles such as Anthony Costanzo and Gabe Carimi while showing a blend of strength and speed that should make him an ideal fit in any system. His performance in Mobile may have solidified him a spot as a top 15 pick.
3. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin - The 6-foot-6, 292-pound junior is projected to go anywhere from the mid to late first round. His strong play this past season at Wisconsin earned him second-team All-America honors and he was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection. Watt made plays in the backfield, recording 21 tackles for loss and seven sacks. His size and playmaking ability make him an ideal fit as a defensive end in the 3-4.
4. Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State - Heyward returned to Ohio State for his senior season after earning second-team All-Big Ten honors for his junior campaign. Although he did not play as well his senior year, he displayed his talent in the Buckeyes’ biggest game of the year in the Sugar Bowl, racking up 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack. His 6-foot-6, 288-pound frame makes him a perfect fit at the five-technique. He has great strength and is a strong run defender with adequate pass rush ability. While he probably won’t flash as much as Jordan, he is a very solid, probably more in the mold of Ty Warren. He is a late first or early second-round pick and where he ends up going will heavily rely upon his recovery from a late-season elbow injury.
5. Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple - At 6-foot-5, 305 pounds, Wilkerson possesses prototypical size and length to play the five-technique in the 3-4 system. He entered the draft after a great junior year where he recorded an impressive 68 tackles and 10 sacks after posting 58/6 as a sophomore. He was named first-team All-MAC twice and was the team’s defensive MVP this season. He is a little more under the radar, but could present good value with the Patriots’ No. 33 pick.