FOXBORO -- The topic of diminishing returns is one that coaches have to deal with within every game and every season.
How many snaps can a player play before his level of fatigue or wear-and-tear reduces him to a level below that of his next backup?
There has to be a line.
For New England's defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, that line was more than blurry. It was just about non-existent. Clearly New England's two best and most versatile defensive linemen in 2013, they rarely came off the field.
Jones played a whopping 1,125 defensive snaps last season -- most in the NFL among defensive linemen -- which represented 97.9 percent of all New England's defensive snaps.
No. 2 on that list? Ninkovich at 1,097 snaps, which was 95.5 percent of the team's defensive snaps.
(For a comparison, Houston's JJ Watt -- considered by many to be the most dominant defensive lineman in football -- played 960 defensive snaps last season.)
Both Jones and Ninkovich had very good seasons for the Patriots. They combined for 19.5 sacks, and Jones was named Defensive Player of the Month in the AFC in November.
Season-ending injuries to players like Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork took away from the team's overall depth on the defensive line, and the defensive end spots were especially thin.
If Jones or Ninkovich were removed from the field, New England's next two true defensive ends on the depth chart were rookie seventh-rounder Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette.
This offseason, the Patriots addressed that particular spot with the addition of veteran defensive end Will Smith. They also drafted first-rounder Dominique Easley -- who could have the versatility to play all over the line -- and Zach Moore in the sixth round.
But it's Smith who has the track record that suggests he could be a dependable fill-in for Jones and Ninkovich if and when the need arises.
The 32-year-old is going into his 11th season coming off of a season-ending ACL injury that essentially ended his career with the Saints, who drafted him out of Ohio State in 2004. He was cut in February and signed with the Patriots for the veteran minimum last month.
Smith met with reporters on Wednesday after New England's second mini-camp practice and explained that he felt as though his knee was 100 percent. Now he's just looking forward to getting into football shape.
"Well, I don’t think you get in football shape until you actually put on the pads and actually start banging and hitting people," he said. "I don’t think anyone here is in football shape. We’re in great conditioning shape, to be able to run around and do stuff like that, but football shape, that won’t happen until [training] camp."
Smith appears to have adapted to his surroundings in New England quickly. He's worked closely alongside Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, all three of them members of the 2004 draft class who have followed each other's careers for a decade.
Like Smith, Wilfork (Achilles) and Kelly (knee) are also working back from injuries. Each has been limited in his work through OTAs and minicamp, but they're pushing each other to be ready to give the Patriots' line some of the depth it lacked last season.
"We’re all competitors," Smith said. "It’s good to see Vince out there busting his butt. Tommy out there busting his butt trying to get back. We all kind of encourage each other. We all came in the league at the same time and all followed each other’s careers and [we're] excited to be playing with each other now."
Smith said that he's most comfortable on the right side of the line, which is where Jones has played a significant portion of his snaps over the last two seasons.
"As long as I still have the drive and the ambition," Smith said, "and still want to go out and compete each day and win -- as long as I want to win, I’m going to be out there playing."