By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots made a concerted effort during the free agency period to upgrade the defense by mainly re-signing their own free agents but it should be noted that many of the second year players on the roster should make significant strides in productivity in 2013.
Resigning Own Free Agents Priority-The team was criticized in some circles for “not adding playmakers” which roughly translates in that the team didn’t sign Ed Reed and has yet to sign another DE edge rusher (John Abraham or Dwight Freeney) who both visited Foxboro but left without signing a deal.
The team did re-sign CBs Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington and they played very well together when all were on the field. The signing of SS Adrian Wilson, actually makes more sense than the Reed signing since he provides what the team lacks which is a big physical presence in the box who can take on tight ends. Reed and FS Devin McCourty are basically playing the same position so it makes little sense to add Reed.
Playmakers Need To Make The Jump- But it is the players they added in the NFL Draft last year that should be looked upon more to add productivity to the defense. Last year’s first round picks Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower performed well in their first go-round in the NFL but much more is expected in their second season as they should make a good jump this season.
Jones’ has prototypical length, and showed good power, and the speed to beat offensive tackles to the edge. Through the first 10 games he was on his way to a solid if not Rookie of the year campaign with 6 sacks, 15 hurries, 12 knockdowns, 33 total pressures, and 7 runs for a loss.
After missing two games with a hurt ankle, Jones was never quite the same and in the final six games had 0 sacks, 4.5 hurries, 4.5 knockdowns (9 total pressures), and 1.3 stuffs. The one bright spot was that he still wound up leading the team with 42 QB pressures.
Hightower also started off strong with outstanding efforts against Tennessee and Arizona but then was very inconsistent until the final handful of games. He played nearly 700 snaps on defense and provided a hint of what he can be with 4 sacks and 16 pressures on the QB coming off of the edge.
He did appear to be barely adequate in coverage and was tested by more athletically gifted tight ends, not at all uncommon in today’s NFL. His lack of experience caused him to come off the field during sub-packages against Baltimore during the AFC Championship Game leaving MLB Brandon Spikes, who isn’t the best coverage linebacker himself, on the field.
Hightower with an extra year of work can be expected to improve in both coverage and blitzing off the edge. He showed glimpses of instinctive play in the running game at times. That along with an overall better run defense will be counted upon this season.
Two other second year players will be interesting to watch, DEs Justin Francis and Jake Bequette. They have the potential to make things interesting in the inevitable training camp battles.
Francis was an undrafted rookie free agent from Rutgers and although he showed much promise during training camp he started the season slowly. He played a mix of DE and at times was moved inside during sub-packages and provided 11.5 QB pressures for the season. It should be noted however that 9.5 of those were during the final half dozen games in 2012.
Bequette on the other hand was drafted in the third round from Arkansas in the 2012 NFL Draft. He had a pretty non-descript camp and was inactive for 13 of the 16 regular season games. He has the size (6’5, 265) that the team likes on the edge and is known for having a high motor. This training camp will tell the story for him on whether he can play or that the team swung and missed with him.
Both Francis and Bequette, like Jones and Hightower should benefit from an extra year in the system, getting stronger in the Patriots weight training program and knowing the defense better. Without having to think so much, they can just react and play a more instinctive game.
Still Interested in Free Agents?- So where does this leave Freeney and Abraham? Either one of them could be signed today, this week or not at all until the smoke clears from the NFL Draft. It could be them who are waiting until teams decide who they’re going to draft and pick a team that they will fill a need.
Look no farther than Trevor Scott who signed with the Patriots early last spring only to find them drafting Chandler Jones. Jones quickly transplanted him and Scott found himself on the bench. Freeney and Abraham may be playing patient and seeing who drafts edge rushers who are plentiful in this year’s draft.
So the Patriots could still add one of them or draft one in NYC but one thing that they will be counting upon is their second year players making a big step up. And that begins with Jones and Hightower.