Jamie Collins will be a player to watch for the Patriots in 2014. (SBalestrieri/PatsFans photo)

Jamie Collins will be a player to watch for the Patriots in 2014. (SBalestrieri/PatsFans photo)

With the Patriots season in the books for 2013, this is the time to give a final look at how the team played by position and how the team may look to improve in 2014. This was one of the more enjoyable teams to watch during the Bill Belichick era as with so many new, young faces it indeed was an over-achieving bunch.

The Patriots weren’t even picked to win their division by many of the experts this summer but were able to win 12 games, secure a bye and advance to the AFC Championship game for the third season in a row.

The Patriots defense entered into 2013 with a lot of confidence, the secondary was returning all of its starters from the year before and the continuity was something that had been missing for several years. But injuries decimated the defense from nearly Day 1; Adrian Wilson, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo were all lost to IR early in the season.

The secondary was banged up with cornerbacks Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington all playing hurt most of the season. Steve Gregory, in for Wilson battled a thumb injury and missed time as well. Brandon Spikes battled through a knee injury before he too ended up on IR during the playoffs.

Here are the final grades for the defense and what the team may be looking toward in the future.

Defensive Line:
Grade: C

Losing Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly was a huge blow for the defense, as Wilfork has always been a huge gap eater in the run game and Kelly was looked to for providing interior pressure on opposing QBs. Armond Armstead had off-season surgery for an infection and never took the field.


The Patriots will need a healthy Vince Wilfork in 2014.
(USA TODAY Images)

Chris Jones and Joe Vellano were pressed into service and played better than what could be expected. Veteran Isaac Sopoaga was traded for from the Eagles and didn’t work out. But the team found a diamond in the rough with Sealver Siliga who played well down the stretch.

DEs Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich played nearly every snap on defense and deserve high marks but they seemed worn out by the AFCCG and one can hardly complain seeing the snaps they logged during the season. Veteran Andre Carter was brought in and played well in spot duty.

Outlook: The team has decisions to make here; Wilfork’s contract will have to be re-worked. They can’t afford to pay him $8 million as a run-stuffer on the wrong side of 30 and coming off serious injury. Kelly may be released if they can’t rework some cap room.

Siliga will be back and Armstead (if healthy) should compete for playing time. An upgrade is going to be needed inside as both Wilfork and Kelly are reaching the limits of their useful careers. Another pass rushing DE should be explored as well.

Linebackers:
Grade: B-

The team entered 2013 with its starters intact with Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower in place and having drafted Jamie Collins in the 2013 NFL Draft. But Mayo was lost early in the season and Spikes battled a knee injury until he too went down just prior to the playoffs.

The group was excellent in the run game but has had issues in pass coverage. Collins however really came on down the stretch and appears poised to not only play but start in 2014. Hightower was a lightning rod for criticism but played better than was given credit for and was solid in the middle after Spikes was hurt.

Outlook: Spikes is likely gone this spring, he and Belichick haven’t always seen eye-to-eye and his being placed on IR is probably it for the physical, intimidating LB from Florida. Belichick will likely move Hightower inside to middle linebacker with Mayo and the uber-athletic Collins covering the outside.

Expect the team to bring back Dane Fletcher on a team friendly deal but the squad could use an injection of some more athleticism besides Collins.

Secondary:
Grade: B

With the continuity in place for the first time in years, great things were expected from the Patriots secondary in 2013. But injuries ravaged the cornerbacks who all played hurt at various times throughout the season.

Aqib Talib’s importance to the secondary is unquestioned; one look at the AFCCG after he left, like last season should remove all doubt. Devin McCourty had a Pro-Bowl type season at safety and was outstanding.

A bane of the unit in 2012 was giving up big plays and the secondary cut way back on that in 2013. New additions Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon played well. Corners Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington were solid.


Aqib Talib’s contract status is an important story line in the 2014 off-season.
(USA TODAY Images)

Outlook: The biggest question is what the team will do with Talib’s contract status. Like Julian Edelman, the Patriots would be smart to offer him a contract extension prior to hitting free agency. But his injury history has to be taken into consideration.

The team needs an upgrade at strong safety; Steve Gregory has been filling the role but is a true FS. A bigger, more physical player is needed and Adrian Wilson will probably be released in a cost saving move.

Special Teams:
Grade: A

The Patriots core special team players all had outstanding seasons, Stephen Gostkowski had perhaps his best in a Patriots uniform and rookie punter Ryan Allen was a fantastic pickup. LS Danny Aiken, save one horrible snap against the Colts was very solid. Matthew Slater is outstanding and earned another Pro Bowl bid for his work at the gunner position.

The coverage units were solid all season as were the punt returns with Edelman. The kick return game save for the finale against Buffalo were the only downer as they seemed stuck in neutral. Leon Washington couldn’t get on the field and was jettisoned.

Outlook: Aiken is a restricted free agent and should be re-signed fairly cheaply. And the team should look at replacing LaGarrette Blount on kickoffs with the speedier Josh Boyce. Otherwise the units are just fine and the team will stand pat.

Coaching:
Grade: A

With the injuries surrounding the defense and overall on the team, Bill Belichick had perhaps his finest coaching job with the Patriots. As beat up as this team was, they were still #10 on the most important stat, which were points allowed.

It is still amazing that Belichick the GM gets as much flak as he consistently does, the job he did at managing this roster is outstanding. Considering the myriad of injuries and other losses that this team suffered and his ability to plug players into key roles is very under appreciated.

Look around at other top teams from 2012 who suffered less significant injuries than New England did in 2013 (Atlanta, Houston) and see how they fared. And yet this team won 12 games and made it to the AFC Championship game.

Belichick should but won’t get a lot of consideration for Coach of the Year in the NFL for 2013. It was worthy of such.

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