Pats free-agent forecast: Defensive line

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Pats free-agent forecast: Defensive line

This is the third in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots heading into free agency. Today's position: Defensive line.
Wbo's on the roster?Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, Alex Silvestro, Vince Wilfork, Aaron Lavarias, Myron Pryor.Patriots need level?A solid 8.Position overview?The Patriots had a good defensive line group in 2011. With a few moves and some health luck, they'll be fine again in 2012. The defensive tackle group of Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick stands out. Love is underrated and Deaderick's got nice versatility. Wilfork is still brilliant but it's not a bad thought for the Pats to eyeball his successor, either. The Patriots' struck gold on the edge of their 4-3 in free agency last year with Mark Anderson and Andre Carter. Both are now free agents. The team also cycled through veteran DTs Gerard Warren, Albert Haynesworth and Shaun Ellis. Only Warren was reliable. Who's out there?John Abraham, Falcons: Abraham will be 34 this season and what he's got left in the tank would make him merely a rotation guy. Mark Anderson, Patriots: Has to be a priority re-signing for the Patriots. There is the Leigh Bodden Effect to be concerned about -- re-signing your own free agent to a bigger deal then getting disappointing performance -- but the 29-year-old Anderson had 10 regular season sacks and two more in the playoffs. Brodrick Bunkley, Broncos: Excellent against the run but has been a bit of a disappointment over his career. Adam Carriker, Redskins: One-time 13th overall pick revived his career in Washington. Still just 28, has 3-4, 4-3 versatility and is a very intriguing player. Andre Carter, Patriots: Was just outstanding until tearing his quad in December. Consummate pro and a priority re-signing even if he's entering his 12th season. Luis Castillo, Chargers: He'd have to come in on an incentive-charged deal. Gets hurt a lot but is a pro and could be lured as a veteran in search of a championship. Derrick Harvey, Broncos: A first-round pick in 2008 who was a bust in Jacksonville, was as big a bust in Denver. But he's long and fast, fast and long. Kendall Langford, Dolphins: Solid young run-plugger. Miami won't let him go, one supposes. Amobi Okoye, Bears: This kid's still only 24. Went belly-up in Houston and is finding himself with Chicago which wants to re-sign him. Mario Williams, Texans: Too expensive.Other names of note?Dave Ball, Raheem Brock, Red Bryant, Jonathan Fanene, Jeremy Mincey, Sione Pouha, Paul Soliai. Free agent forecast?Re-signing Carter and Anderson should be high priorities. Real interesting names out there like Carriker who could fill the Mike Wright role (high energy, pasty white guy). Making a run at either Carriker or Castillo couldn't hurt. Gerard Warren is always ready to roll, it seems, so the Pats could wait until July on him. The draft is well-stocked with these guys as well so New England probably won't go high-end at all.

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

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Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.