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Hold the Line? — Patriots Facing Tough Decisions at Defensive Tackle Heading Into 2022

As the New England Patriots head into the offseason, Patriot Maven highlights some of the team’s options at defensive tackle on whom Pats fans might want to keep watch.

While offensive skill position players typically get the majority of attention from fans and media alike, championships are won on the lines. Throughout the tenure of head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots have adhered to this philosophy, oftentimes with great success.

Though the Patriots front seven failed to live up to its lofty expectations in 2021, the unit was improved from their 2020 iteration. The Pats entered their Wild Card Weekend matchup with the Buffalo Bills ranked 22nd in the league on run defense. New England’s 2020 counterparts ranked 26th in that same category.

Again, an improvement…but far short of where they want to be.

It is theoretically possible that New England might look outside of the organization for help along the interior of their defensive line. Once again expected to be anchored by defensive tackles Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy, the Pats defensive line should have a bit of a new look when it comes to rotational depth pieces. However, the faces of fresh look may not be unfamiliar to the fanbase.

Daniel Ekuale

While his signing has yet to be confirmed by the NFL’s transaction wire, defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale appears to have re-upped his stay in New England, likely doing so by way of a futures contract. Ekuale seemingly confirmed the news on Wednesday by linking three stories on his Instagram page, with the captions “Look at God man”, “LFG” and “Run it back turbo”

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Ekuale originally entered the league as a rookie free agent out of Washington State in 2018. He spent his first two seasons with the Cleveland Browns, and his 2020 campaign with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ekuale signed with the Patriots’ practice squad in September 2021. Though he remained on the practice squad for the duration of the season, he was elevated to the game-day on multiple occasions, both as a standard elevation and a COVID-19 replacement. As a result of these elevations, Ekuale appeared in seven regular-season games, and one playoff game in 2021. The 28-year-old logged 115 defensive snaps, while compiling six tackles, two quarterback hits and two sacks. Ekuale’s increase in playing time heading into the home stretch of the 2021 season indicates that he might be primed for a larger depth role at the position in 2022.

Henry Anderson

Defensive tackle Henry Anderson arrived in New England with a great deal of promise. However, injury would prevent him from reaching his potential in Foxboro. The 30-year-old was sidelined for the season after suffering a torn pectoral during New England’s Week Four matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The versatile lineman had played a limited role in the Pats defense to that point, compiling only three solo tackles.

Anderson agreed to a two-year deal with New England, with the potential of being worth up to $11 million, during the 2021 offseason. While the price tag may seem hefty for a player who scarcely contributed to the team in 2021, the Stanford product has the skills to thrive in the Pats’ front seven. Having spent three seasons in the AFC East, the former New York Jet is well-versed in the numerous offensive schemes within the division. Listed at 6’6” 301 pounds, he posted the third-highest run-stuff rate among players with at least 500 defensive snaps in 2020 (cred: NFL Next Gen Stats).

Anderson had performed well in training camp, routinely applying pressure to the quarterback, while quickly getting into position to stuff the run. His presence was expected to help bolster a Patriots line, which had its problems against the run in 2020. Anderson was hoped to have provided assistance with rushing the passer as well, notching seven sacks and 16 quarterback hits in 2018. Clearly having something to prove in 2022, Henry Anderson should parlay the trifecta of motivation, skill and (hopefully) good health to good use for the Pats in the upcoming season.

Byron Cowart

Since joining the Patriots in 2019, Cowart has yet to build an extensive resume. In two seasons, he has played in 19 games, compiling 15 tackles, three quarterback hits, three tackles-for-loss and one sack. The University of Maryland product was placed on PUP prior to the start of 2021 training camp.

At his best, Cowart has the ability to play on the inside and outside. He is strong enough to set the edge and flashes the ability to push offensive tackles back into the backfield. Perhaps his greatest strength is his length and upper-body strength to stack blockers. He has decent closing speed, initial quickness and agility. Still Cowart has often had his share of difficulty when locating the ball; leading to some delays in getting into position. With fellow linemen Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, and Christian Barmore likely to remain ahead of him on the positional depth chart, Cowart faces an uphill battle to gain a roster spot over players such as Ekuale, Anderson and Carl Davis in 2022. Of course, he would need to impress the Patriots coaching staff to do so. Luckily for Cowart, he possesses the talent to do just that.

Carl Davis

Carl Davis earned his way onto the 2021 Patriots roster with a standout performance during training camp. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Iowa product continued to prove his value within the system as a two-gapping interior defensive lineman. Besides providing size and strength up front, he also became a disruptive presence during one-on-one drills. As a result, head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots defensive coaching staff tasked Davis with defending the outside zone; hoping that his ability to hold up inside against a double team would allow for the Pats’ defensive ends and edge rushers to flow freely to the ball. However, Davis’ contributions in this area were sporadic, at best. Despite some solid showings at the nose tackle position, the 29-year-old was also occasionally beaten on his assignments. He finished the season having compiled 12 solo tackles, with one quarterback hit and one sack. Having been a healthy inactive for the Pats’ lone playoff game, his status for 2022 is certainly in question.