If there is one thing the 2011 season proved, it is that you can’t have enough depth on the line. Remember in August when some members of the national media were mocking the Patriots for having so many defensive linemen in training camp?


As it turned out the Pats were fortunate to have as much depth as they did, though I’m sure those questioning all of the pre-season signings will never admit that they were wrong, and will only focus on one well known signing that didn’t work out. Marcus Stroud and Ty Waren were let go early, whether it was due to injuries or just not being in good enough football shape. Mike Wright, Jermaine Cunningham, Andre Carter and Myron Pryor all finished the season on injured reserve.


Albert Haynesworth didn’t pan out, but while on the subject of defensive linemen what should be noted (but rarely is) in the very many articles portraying this as some sort of horrible personnel decision is that it was a very low-risk move that did potentially have a high upside. Sites like Pro Football Talk inaccurately called it a “blockbuster trade“, but it was anything but that; it was a ‘let’s see what happens’ move in exchange for a 2013 5th round pick.  And while both the media and fans still talked about him being overpaid due to his $100 million deal with the Redskins, the Pats were only on the hook for less than $1 million for his time with the team.


Vince Wilfork had what I would consider to be his best season ever as a professional football player. Somehow he has managed to get his massive body into good enough physical condition that he can be on the field every down; that’s simply unheard of for a player of his size. Despite the extra toll on his body he was still a force on every play, effective against the run as well as applying pressure on the quarterback, while commanding the primary attention of the opposing offense’s blocking schemes. Equally, if not more importantly Wilfork has emerged as the unquestioned leader of this defense. Wilfork recently signed an extension that runs through 2014, and he earned every dollar of it this past year.


The big question is what will happen with free agents Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, who became only the third pair of players in Patriots history to both record ten or more sacks in the same season. Anderson is younger and more suited to play in either a 4-3 or a 3-4, so he may be able to parlay this into a huge payday from some other team – despite the fact that some may consider him to be a one-year wonder after a relatively mediocre career prior to 2011. Carter has been more consistent throughout his career but at age 33 teams will be more hesitant to give him a big long term contract. Carter thrives in the 4-3 but is not well suited to play in the 3-4 – look no further than his days with the Redskins – so much of the Pats decision with him will be greatly affected by what they want to do defensively in 2012. My guess is that the Pats will utilize both formations depending on down and distance, and opponent throughout the year and Carter will return with a one or maybe two year deal.


As for Anderson it really comes down to how much he think he is worth prior to the start of free agency. If his price gets too high do the Patriots start thinking they may as well use that same money towards a high caliber player such as Mario Williams or Calais Campbell? Or perhaps another player that won’t cost quite that much, like Cliff Avril or Jeremy Mincey? My guess is that the Pats would prefer to keep Anderson, with a three or four year deal that pays about $4 million per year.


Shaun Ellis did not live up to his $4.5 million contract. If the Pats do offer him a contract – and that’s a mighty big if – I would expect it to be in the vet minimum to $1 million range. Even if he takes the offer he’ll face an uphill struggle to survive training camp roster cuts. I think he’ll either retire or possibly return to the Jets instead.


I think Gerard Warren will return in the same manner as he did in 2011: not on the roster in week one, but being added shortly thereafter. This saves Warren the wear and tear of training camp while at the same time giving Bill Belichick an extra camp roster spot to evaluate one additional player.


Ron Brace split playing tim with Warren and 2012 will be his last chance to prove himself with this team. Kyle Love showed quite a bit and the exclusive rights free agent will continue to be a regular part of the rotation. Mike Wright is unfortunately probably done as an NFL player; if the Pats do get any production from him it is a huge bonus, but it’s not something they can count on. Brandon Deaderick played well at times but needs to be more consistent. Jermaine Cunningham still has a ton of potential but that doesn’t do him or the team any good if he can’t stay healthy enough to play; the clock is starting to tick on how many chances he will get before he becomes another footnote alongside Shawn Crable.


Other players the Pats have on the d-line heading into the off-season include Myron Pryor, Alex Silvestro, and Aaron Lavarias, who was on the practice squad. I don’t really expect a whole lot from any of those three so don’t be surprised if the Pats add a few modestly priced free agents to be on hand for training camp for the defensive line unit – whether it be before or after the draft.


As for the draft itself, they could draft a defensive end such as Jared Crick, Chandler Jones or Cam Johnson early, but that’s really a tough call to make with the combine and workouts not even having been held yet, and not knowing what positions are upgraded with free agency acquisitions, or depleted with free agency losses.