By: Steve Balestrieri
With the 2013 NFL Draft and the initial surge of free agency in the books, the New England Patriots have 89 of a possible 90 players signed with OTAs and training camp right around the corner. The team building phase of the off-season has identified team weaknesses and they’ve been addressed.
But have they done enough, especially on defense? Many of the experts who cover the NFL don’t think so, citing a lack of starters among their draft picks. But with 20 of 22 starters returning, there wasn’t a ton of starting holes to fill. Their role players especially on defense needed upgrading and the Patriots, on paper at least, have added the needed pieces.
Bill Belichick has always used both the draft and free agency as equal partners in his team building approach. Veteran free agents are brought in to allow young players to ease into their roles rather than it being thrust upon them. We’ll take a look at some of the issues facing the defense and how they’ve been addressed.
Defensive Line Depth, Interior Pass Rush-
This was a big area of concern all of 2012 as Vince Wilfork was on the field for too many snaps and Kyle Love, while good against the run, offered very little in the passing game. Pickings were slim behind them and DEs such as Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis played the interior of the line in sub-packages to help generate a pass rush.
This is an area where the team has attempted to upgrade for the past few years. They brought in Albert Haynesworth who quickly flamed out and tried to lure Red Bryant from the Seahawks. They then signed the Bengals Jonathan Fanene who never took the field due to lingering, unbeknownst to them, knee issues.
The team added veteran Tommy Kelly as well as former USC and CFL player Armond Armstead who should both be immediate upgrades and push to start opposite Wilfork. Kelly has been a durable, big presence in the middle and hasn’t missed a game since 2007. His production dropped off last season, but it’s thought that limiting his snaps and a change of scenery would be a great benefit to him. Armstead was projected to be a higher round draft pick until health issues derailed his senior season at USC.
He went undrafted and played very well in Canada last season. Armstead is kind of like an extra draft pick coming from Canada. Both he and Kelly can push the pocket from the interior of the line and now the rotation should keep fresh legs on the field as the team tries to limit Wilfork’s snaps to a more manageable level. Those players along with Wilfork should prove to be a much better answer to collapsing the pocket and allowing the edge players to make plays.
Continuity In The Secondary-
The Patriots secondary has been woefully bad the past few seasons, but the mid-season addition of CB Aqib Talib and the emergence of rookie CB Alfonzo Dennard provided immediate dividends.
The pass defense was vastly improved and it allowed nickel corner Kyle Arrington to remain there where he is much more comfortable and effective. Talib and Arrington were free agents and Dennard was facing criminal charges from a college issue this off-season. Arrington was signed to a long-term contract and Talib was inked to a “prove it” 1-year deal. Dennard escaped serious jail time and won’t have to serve any time until March of 2014.
These moves coincided with moving Devin McCourty to safety, where he solidified the back end and vastly improved the communication. The difference in the defense in the 1st half of the AFC Championship Game when Talib was healthy and on the field and the 2nd half after he left via injury was easy to see.
The team added Rutgers CB Logan Ryan via the draft to add depth and possibly work himself into a starting role should Talib leave after the 2013 season. If the team can ever get Ras-I Dowling healthy enough to stay on the field, the secondary should be all set. The only remaining issue was an “in-the-box” safety where Steve Gregory played out of position last season. So….
Physical “In-The-Box” Safety-
Early in free agency the Patriots dipped in and signed Cardinals veteran Adrian Wilson to a contract. Wilson is a big, physical presence who has 5 Pro-Bowls to his credit. Where Gregory was undersized for the position, Wilson is perfect for the role. The only question with him at this point is whether he has enough left in the tank to be effective.
Wilson will compete with second year player Tavon Wilson for the role. Wilson had his moments during his rookie season but also had some rough patches as well. The team expects Tavon to make a big jump in his play in his second year.
Both Wilsons can also fill into that hybrid S/LB role in sub-packages that Bill Belichick has been trying to fill for quite some time. The team also drafted, (some say much too highly) Rutgers safety Duron Harmon in the 3rd round. Harmon will be looked at for STs initially and afterwards in the box as he gains some experience.
The Patriots starting three linebackers (Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower) are very good against the run but have issues defending the pass especially on third downs against running backs and tight ends.
Dane Fletcher was lost during pre-season in 2012 and his presence was missed. He has done a good job in the past at covering running backs in the flat. He returns now and is reportedly healthy and ready to go.
The Patriots top draft pick was on Southern Miss. LB Jamie Collins who is versatile and has played safety, linebacker and defensive end. Collins will be eventually looked to, to provide an outside pass rush but for now the team will use his coverage skills to cover tight ends on passing downs. He and Fletcher should immediately compete to be the first option for passing down sub-packages.
The team drafted Steve Beauharnais in the 7th round of the 2013 NFL Draft and he is considered an athletic, smart inside linebacker. He was thought of as the glue for the Rutgers defense in 2012 and he may also try to work his way into the same role.
Pass Rush From The Edge-
The Patriots had tough, underrated Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones at DE last season. Jones started quickly but an ankle injury slowed him in the second half of the season and his production flat-lined in his rookie campaign. In his second season, much will be expected from Jones who needs to improve some in his run defense as well.
Ninkovich does everything well but isn’t great but always seems to elevate his game in the biggest game situations. The team is crowded at DE with Jones, Ninkovich as well as Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis and Jake Bequette.
Bequette was basically red-shirted as a rookie last year, being a healthy scratch for most of the season. Francis showed flashes at times last year and Cunningham at this point is what he is. The team added DE Jason Vega from the CFL and Michael Buchanan in the 7th round of the draft this spring and the Illinois grad will fight it out with the above mentioned players to be the first option behind Jones and Ninkovich.
This is one area where the team still felt it needed an upgrade, having both John Abraham and Dwight Freeney in for free agent visits. The sticking point with Abraham seems to be playing time. The Patriots as well as the Broncos and Titans who have spoken with him want him to be a sub-rusher. Abraham, it’s been reported, wants to start and play about 60 snaps a game. Freeney is still on the horizon and seeing him signed to an offer is not out of the realm of possibility.
So the Patriots roster as it stands seems on paper to be an improved defensive one. Is it enough? We really won’t know until the players start to take the field in July during training camp. But Bill Belichick has addressed the team’s needs and brought in players to fix them. Those in conjunction with the expected second year leaps of production from Jones, Hightower and Wilson should keep the Patriots in the hunt for the AFC crown in 2013.
Stay tuned to PatsFans.com as we’ll bring the latest news from mini-camps and training camp as well as any other breaking news coming out of Foxboro.