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NFL breakout players 2018: Vincent Valentine gives the Patriots defense some fight

Valentine makes life hell for blockers, and that’s exactly what the New England defense needs.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots drafted defensive lineman Vincent Valentine in the third round in 2016, and his career got off to a good start almost immediately.

He was active for 13 games as a rookie and ended up starting in two of them. Watching his film, Valentine did a really good job as a run defender from day one. Playing primarily as an interior defensive lineman, at 6’3 and 320 pounds, Valentine played really strong at the point of attack and made life hell for anybody trying to move him off the ball. His job was to clog things up in the middle and make it hard for people to run the ball in there, while making it easy for the linebackers behind him to fill and make plays. Valentine was able to do that well.

But he wasn’t just some big lug out there.

Valentine was also active in trying to get off blocks so he could try to get to the ball. One of things that stood out to me the most while watching his film was his salty demeanor. If a guy was fighting to stay up, Valentine was always trying to make the hit to finish off those plays.

In addition to being solid against the run during his rookie season, I also thought Valentine showed some wiggle as an early down pass rusher. He only had one sack, which came on a play where he fell down, got back up, and then took the quarterback down, but he beat offensive linemen with actual pass rush moves quite a few times as well.

Sometimes, there is no rhyme or reason to why you make a sack on a play where you don’t win with a move, and others when you can’t get to the quarterback even when you beat your guy clean. But the film don’t lie, and on early down passes, Valentine was able to get free quite a bit. There was every reason to believe Valentine would build on his strong rookie year and play even better last season, perhaps even taking over a starting position.

Unfortunately for Valentine, he was dealing with a knee injury coming out of training camp last year that kept him out of some early games. Whatever that injury was, it eventually led to him going on IR without playing in a single game.

That had to suck!

The Patriots had some personnel issues on defense that made it hard for them to be successful on that side of the ball last year.

One of those issues was quality depth on the interior of the defensive line, and Valentine is one of those guys who could have helped them shore that up. New England still found a way to make it back to the Super Bowl in spite of their defense not being as strong inside as it could have been, but it does make you wonder how much better they could have been had Valentine been healthy.

I know the Patriots brought in Danny Shelton, which makes it unlikely Valentine will start this season, but I still see him making a big impact. Even if he is only a backup, Valentine’s technique and preparation should be better than it was when he was a rookie. Being that he didn’t have to rehab from any kind of surgery or anything, Valentine should be in great shape this year.

Even though he played well as a rookie, it shouldn’t be too hard for him to improve on the 19 tackles and a sack he amassed that year, either. In his third season Valentine should be an important part of the defensive line rotation this year, and the Patriots defense will look much more stout than last year as a result.

Confidence level: Low