What a difference a year makes.
When the New England Patriots mounted the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history against the Atlanta Falcons, they relied on a solid group of veteran edge rushers: Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard. Throw in a healthy Dont’a Hightower, and the Patriots had the perfect blend of talent and experience that could bring the heat in crunch time.
In the Super Bowl LII loss to Philadelphia, New England’s starting lineup no longer included any of those four pass rushers. With Hightower on injured reserve, Ninkovich retired, and Long and Sheard suiting up for other teams, the Patriots’ best pass rusher throughout the playoffs was 39-year-old James Harrison. In fact, outside of Kyle Van Noy, no Patriot front-seven defender played more snaps in the Super Bowl loss than the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year.
Probably not an ideal scenario, right?
However, considering the lack of pure pass-rush talent on the roster outside of Trey Flowers, it should come as no surprise that Harrison played 91 percent of the defensive snaps in the stunning 41-33 defeat. Matt Patricia’s other options included a former Buffalo Bills practice squad player (Eric Lee), an undrafted rookie (Adam Butler), a banged-up Deatrich Wise Jr., and undersized linebacker Marquis Flowers.
Needless to say, Patricia was trying to make chicken salad out of… you know.
After watching his defense get shredded for nearly the entire game, Bill Belichick must find a way to improve the pass rush. While Patriot Nation will be clamoring for Belichick to take a premium prospect in the first round, that type of talent might not last until the 31st pick.
While there is no doubt the Patriots need an influx of young talent up front, the easiest decision should be retaining their oldest defensive player: Harrison.
The late-season addition proved to be a valuable pickup for a team that makes a yearly habit of turning another team’s trash into treasure. Despite joining the team the day after Christmas, Harrison proved to be a worthy short-term investment. He recorded two sacks in the regular season finale against the New York Jets before following up with a strong postseason run that included eight pressures on a season-high 67 snaps in the Super Bowl LII defeat.
Harrison certainly is not the same player he was in his prime, but even at the age of 39, his ability to set the edge in the running game and get after the quarterback is worth keeping around. The long-time Steeler star expressed his desire to keep playing after the loss, which should only make it easier for Belichick to convince the veteran to stay in Foxborough.
In an ideal world, the Patriots could re-sign the free-agent linebacker to a one-year deal that allows Harrison to get another crack at a Super Bowl ring without compromising the team’s salary cap or long-term plans. In addition, the team would not need to rely upon Harrison in a starting role, which would maximize his contributions and keep him fresh for the postseason.
Beyond his ability to bring the heat on the field, retaining Harrison could also serve an important role in tutoring New England’s pass rushers off the field. Derek Rivers, the team’s top pick from a year ago, missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL. Prior to the injury, he was making waves in training camp and was viewed as a potential long-term starter due to his athleticism and pass-rushing prowess in college. He would be a major beneficiary if Harrison returns, particularly in technique and preparation.
Barring any surprises in the draft, the Patriots should also add at least one front-seven prospect, and there is not a better tutor than Harrison, who currently ranks seventh among active players with 84.5 career sacks.
Harrison also brings toughness and an edge to a defense that lacks those qualities. Generally speaking, most of New England’s top defensive players are workmanlike, blue-collar types who do not jump off the page. Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Lawrence Guy, Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty simply go about their business and do not necessarily bring swagger to the defense despite being productive players.
Harrison, on the other hand, has never been afraid to speak his mind, and his play often backs up his sometimes controversial opinions. Hightower does bring that same toughness, but having another established veteran as an intimidating presence would be valuable for a defense that lacks a clear identity.
The mission this offseason should be to get faster and more physical on defense. Adding talent through the draft will help solve that problem. But if the Patriots want to maximize their pass-rush potential, bringing back Harrison should be a no-brainer.