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In recent memory, the New England Patriots have struggled with piecing together a formidable pass rush. The last few years have seen the Patriots drafting and trading for various players that could bolster the defensive line and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but setbacks have kept the pass rush from standing out. With several returning pieces and a few new faces, some hope has returned for the 2018 Patriots pass rush.

The Patriots will have to face several dangerous veteran quarterbacks in 2018, including Aaron RodgersMatthew Stafford and Ben Roethlisberger. The schedule also includes some young talents like Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, who will be looking to put up big numbers against the league’s resident super power. Improvement in the pass rush is not a luxury; it is a necessity.

2017 Pass Rush

On paper, the Patriots pass rush didn’t do too poorly in 2017. The team finished the regular season with 42 sacks, which was good enough to tie for seventh in the league. Unfortunately, the Patriots also allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw for 4,020 yards, which goes down as the third worst in the NFL for the 2017 season. The average time to pressure opposing quarterbacks for the Patriots was a whopping 2.63 seconds, worst in the league. Overall, the Patriots pressure percentage sat at 33 percent, which placed them solidly at 25th in the league. Pro Football Focus gave the Patriots the worst pass rush grade of all 32 teams in the NFL after last season.

The problem with the pass rush became disgustingly visible during Super Bowl LII. Nick Foles saw pressure on only 30 percent of his dropbacks and was not sacked at all during 75 offensive snaps. Had the Patriots been able to rattle the journeyman’s rhythm at all, Tom Brady might have taken home Super Bowl MVP honors for his three-touchdown, 505-yard performance.

Returning Players

Thankfully, all of the Patriots sack leaders are returning for 2018. Trey Flowers posted 6.5 sacks in 2017, edging out Kyle Van Noy (5.5) and Deatrich Wise Jr. (5.0) for the top spot. The ceilings for all three are extremely high. Flowers was the league’s most prolific edge rusher in terms of quarterback hits last season. Van Noy will benefit greatly from the increased depth in the linebacking corps and ought to build on his improvements from 2017. Wise, a fourth-rounder from the 2017 NFL Draft, outperformed expectations. He recorded 37 total pressures, tied for most among all rookie defensive ends with Myles Garrett and Derek Barnett.

Dont’a Hightower‘s season ended prematurely due to a torn pectoral, but he is expected to make a full recovery and return to the field in 2018. His presence on the field alone should help create unease along opposing offensive lines. Through the first seven weeks of the 2017 season, Hightower ranked third among 3-4 outside linebackers with a 14.6 pass rush productivity rate, according to Pro Football Focus.

Adam Butler, who was forced into action because of injuries across the defense, will be making his case to stay on the roster as a situational interior pass rusher. He posted two sacks in limited game time as an undrafted rookie last year.

New Faces

The Patriots added Adrian Clayborn to the roster this off-season. Clayborn set a franchise record for the Atlanta Falcons last season with six sacks against the Dallas Cowboys. Although Clayborn sounds like a steal, it’s worth noting that that game accounted for one-fifth of his total career sacks. Clayborn has not quite lived up to the 7.5 sacks and 29 tackles from his rookie season and is highly unlikely to repeat his performance from last season. Even still, he has demonstrated a high enough ceiling that the Patriots were willing to sign him to a two-year, $12 million deal.

Derek Rivers will also make his first appearance as a New England Patriot this season, having sat out 2017 with a torn ACL. The former Youngstown State standout has had a year’s worth of time to learn the ins and outs of the Patriots defense. There is little pressure for Rivers to perform immediately, especially with the addition of Clayborn and the return of Wise, so his transition into NFL action can occur at his own pace. Rivers was, by several metrics, supposed to be a more promising defensive end than fellow draftee Deatrich Wise. That bodes far better for the 2018 season.

Last Word on the 2018 Patriots Pass Rush

Barring major injuries or recovery setbacks, the Patriots pass rush should improve from last season. Flowers will likely remain the Patriots top edge rusher for the third consecutive year. Blistering speed won’t be the headlining story from Clayborn on the other side of the defensive line, but even stability will be a major improvement from 2017. The Patriots need to be able to count on Flowers, Clayborn, Van Noy, and Hightower to maintain elevated levels of play and provide mentorship for the next generation of pass rushers.

The Patriots need improvement and consistency from their younger pass rushers, but the outlook is positive. Wise was forced into immediate action before he was ready, and he performed admirably. Rivers can be expected to provide an upgraded talent behind Flowers and Clayborn on the depth chart. Keeping Wise and Rivers in supporting pass rush roles for the 2018 season will be immensely helpful for both their development and the overall health of the defensive line.

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