Patriots roster breakdown: Defense

Breaking down the New England Patriots' roster and following up this morning's post on offense by looking closer at the defense to provide a better feel for the team's need areas heading into the NFL draft:

EDGE PLAYERS (4-3 defensive ends/3-4 outside linebackers)

Personnel: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Michael Buchanan, Zach Moore, Jake Bequette, Rufus Johnson

Level of need: Low

Quick-hit thought: With Dont'a Hightower also having the versatility to play on the edge, the feeling here is that this area is well stocked (although several readers have respectfully disagreed). This assumes that Jones makes a recovery from offseason surgery, which is expected. Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said this is a deep draft for "edge" players (aka those who play on the end of the line of scrimmage).

BIG DEFENSIVE TACKLES (310-plus pounds)

Personnel: Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch, Antonio Johnson

Level of need: High

Quick-hit thought: Vince Wilfork, now in Houston, played 73.9 percent of the defensive snaps last season as a No. 1 option at the "big defensive tackle" spot. Siliga is the top candidate to replace him, and when Branch is motivated, he can also be productive (he's signed through 2016, although it could be viewed as a one-year deal). Sometimes the Patriots like to play two "big defensive tackles" together at the same time, specifically against run-first teams. We saw what can happen when a club gets caught short at this hard-to-fill position in 2013 when a run of injuries hurt New England. That led to a three-pronged approach in 2014.


Personnel: Dominique Easley, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano

Level of need: Moderate

Quick-hit thought: Easley, the 2014 first-round draft pick, could be an explosive interior rusher if healthy. He played 24.6 percent of the defensive snaps last season and his potential improvement is one of the top story lines for the defense.


Personnel: Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Darius Fleming, Jonathan Freeny, Chris White, Eric Martin, Cameron Gordon, James Morris, Deontae Skinner

Level of need: Moderate

Quick-hit thought: The top three of Mayo, Collins and Hightower has to be in the discussion among the NFL's best linebacker corps, but Mayo (patellar tendon) and Hightower (labrum) are coming off significant surgeries, which bears watching. The rest of the depth chart is filled with special teamers and/or developmental types who could rise to greater roles.


Personnel: Malcolm Butler, Bradley Fletcher, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard, Robert McClain, Chimdi Chekwa, Justin Green, Dax Swanson

Level of need: High

Quick-hit thought: Of the nine players, six have contracts that are scheduled to expire after the 2015 season, so there's both long-range and short-term considerations in play with 2014 starters Darrelle Revis (Jets) and Brandon Browner (Saints) now elsewhere.


Personnel: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner

Level of need: Low

Quick-hit thought: With McCourty and Chung signing extensions this offseason, the Patriots appear to be set. One consideration is that Wilson and Ebner, who make their primary contributions on special teams, enter the final year of their contracts.