By: Steve Balestrieri
With their win over the Dolphins on Sunday in the books, the New England Patriots reach the half-way point of the 2013 at 6-2 and have a two game lead in the AFC East.
They are in very good position to win the division again and gain a seat for the playoffs although there is still a long way to go. It hasn’t been an easy ride however and every game has been a struggle thus far.
Tommy Kelly has been a valuable addition and the Patriots hope that he can return from injury soon.
(USA TODAY Images)
So at the half-way point, here are the mid-season grades by position for the Patriots defense, feel free to chip in with your own grades or ideas. We’ll put up the grades for the defense tomorrow.
Defensive Ends: A-
Chandler Jones has been very good this season, producing 6.5 sacks, already more than his rookie season and he’s done a good job of stopping the run. With the losses at DT, Jones has even slid inside and provided interior pass pressure.
Rob Ninkovich has been underrated for so long, it is now reaching the point that he’s now expected to play well. Ninkovich can do it all, rush the passer, stop the run and play linebacker and drop back into coverage. He’s the consummate professional and is invaluable for this defense. He’s been extremely solid this season.
Michael Buchanan was drafted in 7th round of the 2013 NFL Draft and the long-framed DE has gotten in quite a bit of playing time. He’s done well rushing the passer but has had issues setting the edge. He could use a year in the system and beef up some.
Andre Carter was just added to the roster last week and played very well for the Patriots when here in 2011. He’s expected to add veteran presence and mentor some of the younger members of the defense. He won’t be an every down player but come in on sub-packages.
Jake Bequette was a 3rd round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but he’s never been able to break thru and be a viable part of the defense. This season, he’s only played a handful of snaps and Carter’s signing can’t be a good long-term signal for his future with the team.
Defensive Tackles: C
Tommy Kelly was signed as a free agent this season and was supposed to pair with Vince Wilfork giving the Patriots a huge immovable pair in the center of the Patriots defense. Kelly was looked to upgrade the pass rush with interior pressure, and he has performed as advertised….until he was injured against Cincinnati.
Kelly hasn’t been seen since and probably won’t be back until after the bye week. But when he’s in there, he provides a good, physical presence against the run and better than average pressure on the passer.
Joe Vellano was signed as a rookie undrafted free agent out of Maryland and was given little chance of sticking on the roster. But he performed well and won a slot on the roster. Once Vince Wilfork went on IR, Vellano became a starter and has played better than what should be expected. He’s been pushed around in the running game a bit but has done a good job of getting after the passer.
Chris Jones was another rookie free agent from Bowling Green who was drafted and cut by Houston and Tampa Bay. Like Vellano the slightly undersized DT (6’2, 300) has been a very pleasant surprise for the Patriots. He too has been pushed around a bit in the running game but has gotten a great push in the passing game. Has 4.5 sacks in just five games.
Marcus Forston and Armond Armstead are unknown qualities at this point, Forston has got in the past three games and has three tackles and Armstead who was highly thought of by the team this off-season has been on the NFI list and can begin practicing at any time or be placed on season-ending IR.
***Isaac Sopoaga was acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles at the NFL trading deadline.*** Sopoaga is built in the Vince Wilfork mode (6’2, 325) and is a two-gap space eater in the running game which should immediately help the Patriots run defense which has been suffering as of late. He’ll probably be used as a two-down run stuffer and allow Chris Jones to play in more sub-packages as a pass rusher.
The Patriots will miss Jerod Mayo down the stretch. Mayo was placed on IR and has led the team in tackles every season since joining the team.
(USA TODAY Images)
Brandon Spikes has been an outstanding run-stuffer in his Patriots career. Spikes is a downhill, physical and very instinctive player. While not the fastest linebacker, nor the best in coverage, Spikes has played well this season and has had his role increased since the Mayo injury.
Dont’a Hightower is in his second season and is one of the bigger (6’3, 270) linebackers in the league. He got off to a slow start this season but like Spikes saw his role increased when Jerod Mayo went down. Wore the green-dot communication device against the Jets and perhaps played his best game of the year against Miami.
Jamie Collins was the Patriots first selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. The uber-athletic Collins was tried in a variety of roles during the pre-season but has mainly been used in a coverage role this season. Like the previous two, he’s seen his role increase lately. He’s still green but shows promise.
Dane Fletcher returned from serious injury suffered in 2012 and has played sparingly. Fletcher is best used in coverage against linebackers or backs out in the flat. Chris White and Steve Beauharnais have been used very sparingly and are depth at this point.
Aqib Talib was traded for at the 2012 trading deadline and the transformation of the New England secondary was begun. The Patriots were much better down defensively the stretch and his play both during the pre-season and during the beginning of 2013 has been outstanding.
Talib has covered the likes of Julio Jones, Vincent Jackson, A.J. Green and Jimmy Graham extremely well, prompting Deion Sanders on the NFL Network stating that he was producing the best corner play in the NFL this season.
Lost in the Talib spotlight has been the excellent play second year corner Alfonzo Dennard in 2013. Dennard has been quietly putting together an overall solid second season, something that’s been rare for Patriots corners in recent years. Since Talib injured his hip against New Orleans, Dennard has assumed the mantel of the top corner and played well.
Kyle Arrington was re-signed to a big contract in the off-season and the money has been well spent. Arrington plays his best when in the slot and has been very effective there this season. When moved outside he’s fared less effectively but overall his play has been very solid.
Logan Ryan was selected in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft and has played more and more as the season wears on. So far, the rookie’s performance has been solid. Ryan had a 79 yard pick-six against the Jets during Week 7 and should only see his role increase down the stretch.
Marquice Cole is an established veteran who plays a big role in special teams and in dime packages. Cole has played well in his role this season and was involved in a high light reel interception tip with Devin McCourty against Miami where he was able to stay in-bounds and haul in the pick.
Devin McCourty is playing at a Pro-Bowl level this season at safety this season. He’s been outstanding in coverage and the communications issues that plagued the team back in 2012 have all but disappeared with his leadership on the back end.
Devin McCourty has had an outstanding 2013 for the Patriots.
(USA TODAY Images)
He and Talib have been the best players in the Patriots secondary by far this season. And it is no coincidence that thru eight games the team is allowing only 215 yards a game passing, good for 5th in the league, 66 yards less than this point a year ago.
Steve Gregory was a guy thought to be firmly on the bubble during training camp. Not only did he make the team, he’s been a starter, has played very well and now has had his role increased.
Gregory wore the green-dot communication device against Miami. At times he’s taken some bad angles but his overall play thus far has been very good in 2013. Not the biggest guy, but he’s not afraid of running up and lending a hand in run support.
Duron Harmon has gotten some playing time early in 2013 and his production has been mostly what’d you expect from a rookie, up and down. The 3rd round pick from Rutgers still has some learning to do but does have some upside.
Nate Ebner and Tavon Wilson are strictly depth or special teams players at this point.
Special Teams: A-
Stephen Gostkowski is having a Pro-Bowl type season in 2013, after suffering an un-even pre-season, he’s really stepped it up and has been a consistent bright spot for the Pats.
He’s only missed one field goal attempt and his kickoffs are almost always inside the end zone. So far, it has been one of the better years in his career.
Ryan Allen the rookie punter from Louisiana Tech beat out veteran Zoltan Mesko in training camp and has gotten steadily better as the season has progressed. He’s averaging 46.2 yards per punt with a 40.4 yard net average. He’s also done an excellent job of holding on the field goals and extra point attempts.
Danny Aiken is the Patriots long snapper and has done very well in 2013. The best way to judge that is to think back to how many times his name has been called this season. The only time LS’ names are called is when the make a mistake and Aiken’s hasn’t been called at all….so far.