CHICAGO, IL – OCTOBER 21: Derek Rivers #95 of the New England Patriots rushes against Bobby Massie #70 of the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on October 21, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. The Patriots defeated the Bears 38-31. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots are no strangers to losing star players to big contracts. One year after losing Nate Solder and Malcolm Butler, the Patriots lost left tackle Trent Brown and defensive end Trey Flowers during the legal tampering period of free agency. The Patriots are in good position to replace Brown, but finding an adequate fill for Flowers is a far more difficult task. Flowers was the key to New England’s defense and the unit was significantly worse when he wasn’t on the field. Still, Flowers isn’t an irreplaceable commodity, and New England has several ways to replicate his defensive presence.

The Internal Options

The Patriots already got to work replacing Trey Flowers when they acquired defensive lineman Michael Bennett from the Philadelphia Eagles. Bennett isn’t quite as good as Flowers, but he’s cheaper and can replicate most of what Flowers can do. He’s not a one-stop fix, but he’s certainly capable of filling Flowers’ role with minimal dropoff.

The only other notable edge defenders on the depth chart are Adrian Clayborn, Deatrich Wise, and Derek Rivers. Clayborn and Wise are pure pass rushing specialists, although Wise has the chance to grow into a better-rounded player in his third season. The true wild-card here is former third-round pick Derek Rivers.

Rivers’ NFL career has been a disappointment due to factors primarily out of his control. The Youngstown State product tore his ACL in August of 2017, ending his rookie season before it truly began. Rivers fell down the depth chart while recovering from his injury and couldn’t find his way onto the field in 2018. However, the coaching staff still believes in him, and the second-year defensive end looked good in the preseason and regular season.

Given a full off-season for the first time in his NFL career, Rivers has a chance to play a big role in New England’s defensive line. In many ways, the start of Rivers’ career mirrors that of Trey Flowers. Flowers initially joined New England in 2015 but missed the majority of his rookie year with an injury. After New England dealt Chandler Jones in 2016, Flowers emerged as one of New England’s best playmakers. Asking Rivers to be as good as Flowers is probably asking too much, but the third-year defensive end finally has a clear path to the playing field.

Free Agent Alternatives

All of the long-term starting defensive end free agents are already signed, but there are a few short-term solutions on the open market. As far as external options go, New England should take a look at Cameron Wake and Justin Houston.

Wake will be entering his age-37 season, so he is at risk of sudden decline. That said, he’s still a good player despite his advanced age. New England is all-too-familiar with Wake’s ability, and this would be a perfect short-term solution if Wake wants to take a pay cut for a shot at a Super Bowl. Justin Houston has battled injuries over recent years, but the eight-year NFL veteran is still a great player when on the field. Just like with Wake, Houston could probably find a better offer on the open market. However, no other team can offer the same probability of winning a Super Bowl. A one-year deal to re-establish his value makes perfect sense for both sides.

Additionally, the Patriots should do everything they can to bring back defensive end John Simon. Simon arrived in New England midway through the 2018 season and performed admirably with the Patriots. Boasting a similar play style to former Patriots great Rob Ninkovich, Simon can take on an even larger role in 2019.

Draft Options

The New England Patriots have six picks in the first three rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft, and this draft class is loaded with talent along the defensive line. The Patriots could use any of their early picks to get a defensive lineman. If Christian Wilkins or Dexter Lawrence are available at pick 32, New England needs to pull the trigger.

Wilkins and Lawrence are more interior players than edge defenders, but the value would simply be too good to turn down. Their penetrating presence in the middle could push Michael Bennett to the outside on a full-time basis, and these two would definitely be the best players available. Unless someone like Clelin Ferrell falls to 32, the best plan of action is to fill a need at defensive tackle and slide Bennett out to the edge full-time.

Wilkins and Lawrence can do everything well, but these all-around great prospects won’t be there in the second round. New England will miss Flowers’ edge-setting ability more than his pass-rush prowess, so the Patriots should look for a strong run defender in Round Two of the NFL Draft. If he’s still on the board, New England should invest one of their second-round picks in defensive end Zach Allen. Allen is an adequate pass rusher but truly excels at defending the run. With nobody else to set the edge, Allen could immediately contribute as a rookie.

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