In 2005, the Patriots were not themselves on defense. Through the first nine weeks, the team's defensive ranking spiraled downward as their record fell to 4-4 in a humbling loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The defense dropped to 31st in the league after that loss (27 vs run, 27 vs pass). They managed to turn things around winning 6 of the next 7 games to win the division, mostly due to injured players returning to the lineup, and an easier schedule.
The winning went hand-in-hand with an aggressive, dominating defense led by Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Richard Seymour among others. The biggest impact was at nose tackle, where Vince Wilfork changed his technique, which improved results dramatically. The challenge came when Wilfork needed a break to catch his breath. There was a significant drop-off in talent behind him on the depth chart. Instead of handing the job to backups, the Patriots tried multiple alignments, moving Richard Seymour or Ty Warren inside to spell Wilfork. Mike Wright and Dan Klecko, Wilfork's backups, were either unavailable due to injury (Wright), or ineffective (Klecko).
One way for the Patriots to address the issue moving forward is to find another big body that can play nose tackle behind Wilfork. Ideally, they need a player who can line-up over the center or move over to defensive tackle when the Patriots use the 4-3 scheme. The team was fortunate when Wright, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Cincinnati, excelled in training camp. When he went down with an injury, depth became a major issue.
Adding depth to the defensive line for 2006 is a priority, and the draft offers the perfect opportunity to address that need. The last time the Patriots drafted a defensive lineman was in 2004 when they picked Wilfork in the first-round (21st overall) and Marquise Hill in the second-round (63rd overall). Having drafted three defensive linemen in the first-round over the last five years, the Patriots hoped they were all set at the position, using free agents to fill in the rotation. That does not appear to be the case for 2006.
The Patriots did attempt to go after linemen in the 2005 draft, but the ones they looked at weren't available when they picked. One player the Patriots looked at closely, even inviting for a workout, was Utah defensive lineman Sione Pouha. Pouha was listed as the strongest player on the Utah team, and at 6-foot-3, 325-pounds, appeared to be the perfect fit. Some scouting reports described him as an aggressive mauler who could eat up blocks in the middle. At 26, Pouha was older than most players, having taken time to fulfill his mission at the university. He was a high character, dominating player for the Utes, but when the New York Jets drafted him in the third-round, it looked like a reach.
Coincidence or not, the Patriots are looking at another Utah Ute, defensive lineman Steve Fifita. Fifita is of a similar mold as Pouha, a dominating interior lineman who can play the nose tackle position or slide over to tackle. At 6-foot, 322-pounds, Fifita is three inches shorter than Pouha, but his is also three years younger. Described as a mauler able to use his size to gain leverage, Fifita looks the part of man-in-the-middle.
"He's been a mainstay of the front for four years now," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News. "The things he did for this football team unless you really know what you're watching during the course of the game, doesn't show up in the stat line - the way he demands the blocks and keeps the linebackers free."
It sounds exactly like what the Patriots need, which is why Patriots' scouts spoke to Fifita at the East West Shrine game. He is listed as one of two interior defensive linemen making an impression at the game. Coming off the Utes' 2004 Fiesta Bowl victory over the Pittsurgh Panthers, Fifita earned defensive MVP honors and watched his stock climb. Is it any wonder why Whittingham says the Utes defense won't be the same without him?
"It's invaluable to have a defensive tackle like Steve in there just clogging up the middle," said Whittingham. "He does a great job and we're going to miss him."
If the Patriots can sign Fifita to an undrafted rookie free agent contract, or pick him up late on day two of the draft, they may have a solid backup who can replace Wilfork when he needs that breather. If the Patriots do draft an interior defensive lineman like Fifita, it may spell the end of Dan Klecko's time with the team.
For more on Fifita, read the Shrine game practice reports: here
All Shrine game coverage by Scout: here
Whittingham's interview on the Deseret Morning News site:here
Steve Fifita's College Bio page: here
Scout.com's 2006 Defensive Tackle Rankings: here