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State of the Position: Defensive line

State of the Position is a new weekly Foxboro Blog feature that will examine the post-draft status of each position and take a look at what needs still need to be filled before the season opens up.

Today we will examine the defensive line.

When the Patriots were at their best, they had a dominating front seven.

These days, that is not the case.

In Bill Belichick’s 3-4 defense, the defensive line is key to stopping the run and tying up blockers to allow the linebackers to make plays.

During the early part of the decade, Belichick invested three first-round picks on the d-line.

The results speak for themselves.

Richard Seymour was a perennial All-Pro defensive end who set the standard for five-technique play, Ty Warren is an underrated Pro-Bowl caliber 3-4 end, and Vince Wilfork is among the top nose tackles in the league.

While those players built the foundation of a strong front-three, today’s roster doesn’t feature the same type of talent or production.

At nose tackle, Wilfork continues to be the team’s most important player. He plays with great power, technique and has good agility for a player his size. He also showed his versatility by lining up at defensive end last season when the team’s depth was tested.

However, the situation gets murky at defensive end.

Ty Warren missed the entire 2010 season with a hip injury, and he has been hard to count on the past few seasons.

Prior to 2008, Warren was a great run stopper with some ability to collapse the pocket, but now he may be nearing the end of the road as his body is breaking down.

His return to the lineup will play a huge factor in the evolution of the young defense.

At right end, I see it being an open competition between four players: Marcus Stroud, Mike Wright, Brandon Deadrick and Ron Brace.Stroud is a household name, but his play doesn’t match his hype anymore. He had a poor season in Buffalo playing in the 3-4, but maybe Belichick can get some Gerard Warren-like production from him.

Wright emerged as a good interior pass rusher early last season, but went down with a concussion. It might be hard to count on him at this point, and he has proven to be most effective as a situational player.

Brace has been underwhelming as a second-round pick although he does have the prototypical size and power to be an effective 3-4 player. If he doesn’t have a strong preseason and training camp (assuming those happen), he will likely be cut.

Deadrick will be battling for a spot after gaining some playing time as a rookie and may be competing with Brace for the top backup spot.

Besides Wilfork, the defensive line is a real question mark. The two Warrens may not play to the same levels as in years past, Stroud has more bark than bite and the rest of the depth chart is filled with lower-round picks who aren’t high-caliber starting talents.

The best solution may be to work a rotation in different packages, and the open competition for both end spots should bring out the best in all players.

State of the Position Grade: C+