Chandler Jones lines up at Defensive End for the Patriots in training camp (Steve Balestrieri photo)

Last season the New England Patriots came once again oh-so-close to another Super Bowl victory but fell short to the New York Giants. While going 13-3 the Patriots, due to injuries and sub-par play played a “bend but don’t break” kind of defense, instead focusing on outscoring opponents. Using QB Tom Brady and a high octane offense, the Patriots rolled through the regular season with a just a few speed bumps along the way

The philosophy did have some merit, while the Patriots were an atrocious 31st in yards allowed per game; they were only 15th in points allowed. While respectable in terms of points it ended up not being good enough that ultimately led to their downfall in February when they couldn’t stop the Giants at crunch time in the NFL’s biggest game.

Changes in Philosophy-
Head Coach Bill Belichick, then in the off-season shifted the Patriots defense in a change of philosophy fundamentally. The Patriots, under Belichick have always relied on a base 3-4 defense with big, physical players to set the edge. But having played in sub-packages over 62 percent of the time, Belichick knew as the game evolved, so must the defense.

This season, the team has gone to slightly smaller and much more athletically gifted players, especially on the edge. First, they brought in OLB/DE Trevor Scott from the Raiders. Scott showed potential as a pass rusher before a knee injury set him back. Bobby Carpenter was brought in to play in sub-packages as the cover linebacker.

But the biggest change is when the Patriots moved up not once but twice in the NFL Draft in April. First they selected Chandler Jones from Syracuse with their first pick. Then the team selected LB Dont’a Hightower from Alabama with their 2nd pick of the 1st round.

None of these players fit the old Patriots mold on edge players and signified that the defense, like the game, is evolving into a design more akin to stopping the pass from the spread offense.

With a surprise in the second round, the Patriots selected S Tavon Wilson from Illinois. The clamor over that pick was heard all over the country as draft experts scrambled for information on Wilson, whom most had going in the 7th round or undrafted. Then the Patriots selected Jake Bequette in the 3rd round as a defensive end.

Rookies Making Impact Immediately-
While Hightower was considered the most ‘NFL Ready’ of the Patriots rookie class, his integration into the Patriots scheme and his level of play through the first dozen days of training camp has been extremely impressive.

Hightower, is a big linebacker but moves extremely well for someone his size. He’s been a very imposing figure on the outside and has quickly picked up the defense. The coaches have already begun giving him responsibilities of calling out defenses and he has even been given the task of covering some of the more athletic tight ends in the game (Aaron Hernandez and Jimmy Graham).

Chandler Jones was considered more of a project, a 2nd or even 3rd year player who would blossom into a Willie McGinest clone, playing the ‘Elephant’ position on the edge. But Jones, who during the spring looked a tad lean, hit the weights hard during the spring and early summer and now looks the part at defensive end.

His play has been far advanced from what was envisioned for him at this point in his young career. While bulking up, he’s lost none of his quickness and is showing some nice moves as well as physicality from the edge. His play has already being compared to Jason Pierre-Paul of the Giants. While that is a stretch at this point, things are looking up and quickly for the rookie.

Tavon Wilson’s selection in the 2nd round was subjected to more boos and question marks at the NFL Draft than anyone since Donovan McNabb. Everyone thought Bill Belichick made a big reach for the defensive back from Illinois. But like another Illini product Eugene Wilson, Wilson received high marks from Belichick for his versatility, football IQ and work ethic.

And the safety has performed very well thus far in camp, he’s been consistently the first safety into the mix when the Patriots start substituting and he has done a good job of subbing for projected starter Steve Gregory.

The safety position was a nightmare last season with Pat Chung missing considerable time and a revolving door of players in and out and most of them ineffective. Wilson however, gives the Patriots a versatile player who can cover the slot or play deep safety and may find himself with a big role this year in the team’s nickel and dime packages.

Watch the ‘Young Guns’ against New Orleans-
The first pre-season game against the New Orleans Saints should result in a lot of playing time for the rookies. This is their first true test against NFL competition and against one of the most prolific offenses in the league. So their first test will be a trial by fire.

Schemes, as Mike Reiss said last night on “Patriots Goal 2 Go” radio aren’t what to look for, watch the individuals play and see how they perform from a positional and fundamental standpoint. We should watch them and see how they match up and know their jobs both individually and collectively. Enjoy the game…football is back.

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Dont'a Hightower has been very impressive thus far in his first NFL training camp (Steve Balestrieri photo)