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NEN Xtra: D-line to play big part in anchoring short-handed defense

Patriots: New England Nation

Upon the return of players to training camp on Tuesday, the Patriots were hit with the ultimate reality of the 2020 season—it’s going to be like no other.

In just a matter of 48 hours, six players opted out of playing this season due to concerns of Covid-19—six being the most on any team across the league as of today. Headlining the opted-out players in New England is three-time Super Bowl champ and glue of the defense, Don’t’a Hightower.

The absence of Hightower and Patrick Chung—the last to opt out—are just two of a major turnover of impactful players on the defensive side of the ball for the Patriots. This was a defense in 2019 that ranked as the NFL’s best—first in total defense, first in scoring defense and first in turnover margin. It was nothing but spectacular.

Dont'a Hightower
FILE – In this Oct. 10, 2019, file photo, New England Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower watches from the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants in Foxborough, Mass. A person familiar with the situation says Hightower has decided to opt out of the 2020 season. Hightower’s decision was made out of concern for the health of his fiancée and child, who was born earlier this month, the person said. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

With that being said, it’s a defense in 2020 that will look a whole lot different. The defensive line is going to have to play a crucial part in anchoring down the trenches, in hopes that some newcomers can make plays on the edge.

Lawrence Guy is coming off of his career high in tackles (61) and will make a hopeful impact on one end. Adam Butler is also coming off a career-high season in 2019. He will be entering his fourth season in Foxboro, looking to improve upon a season in which he had a career-high (26) tackles, along with a career-high in sacks (6) and nine quarterback hits. On the other end, John Simon enters his third year with New England. He tallied four sacks in 2019, as well.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 27: Running back Nick Chubb #24 of the Cleveland Browns fumbles as he is hit by defensive tackle Lawrence Guy #93 of the New England Patriots in the first quarter of the game at Gillette Stadium on October 27, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

This defense already lost big time edge rushers like Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. With the loss of Hightower as well, it will be crucial for these guys on the defensive line to dig in and plug up anything they can.

One guy who nobody’s talking about that I think will make an impact on the field is un-drafted rookie, Nick Coe from Auburn. It’s almost a crime that a 6’5” 280-pound edge guy doesn’t get drafted. He was even projected to be picked in the 5th round and is rated as the top edge rusher rookie by NFL.com. He was also rated as the fourth-best un-drafted rookie by College Football News. Look for Coe to get some crucial snaps and make an impact off the edge, whether he’s lined up as an end or as a linebacker in a 3-4 set.

ATLANTA, GA – SEPTEMBER 01: Nick Coe #91 of the Auburn Tigers forces a fumble as he knocks the ball from the hands of Jake Browning #3 of the Washington Huskies at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 1, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

It’s going to imperative for young guys like Coe and some of the drafted linebackers like Josh Uche (Michigan) and Anfernee Jennings (Alabama) to make up for the force this team had on the edge last season.

This is asking a lot from young guys to make such impacts as rookie’s, but it’ll be tough to compete with the elite defense that even got the Patriots in the position they were in a year ago. But with the returning core of defensive lineman, there’s a chance they can help shape what this new-look Patriots defense can do.

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