By: Steve Balestrieri
The Patriots have made significant upgrades to their secondary during the opening days of free agency with the signings of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Now with the restructured contracts of both defensive tackles Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork the interior of the DL (depending upon their health) should be bolstered as well.
And make no mistake the interior of the defensive line is extremely important. The latest trend has been to diminish the value of run-stuffing interior DL for sake of the pass rush. When in fact both are extremely important, but that isn’t the topic at hand.
So what’s next for the defense? Patriots Nation has been clamoring for a pass rusher, either at DE or OLB and watched as high-profile and high-priced free agents DeMarcus Ware, Julius Peppers and Jared Allen signed elsewhere. On Thursday the Titans signed Shaun Phillips who was very effective for the Broncos in 2013, notching 12 sacks during the regular season and playoffs.
There are still a couple of good free agent DEs out there in Robert Ayers and Anthony Spencer that may or not be on the team’s radar, but a good chunk of the added QB pressure the team is looking for may come via the Draft or more importantly from within.
One of the benefits of having upgraded the cornerback position with physical, bump-and-run, man coverage players is that it allows you to be much more aggressive in getting after the QB. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich did a very good job at that last season, but other than them the production fell off pretty steeply.
Jamie Collins came on strongly at the end of 2013. (USA TODAY Images)
While much talk was devoted to the expected 2nd year improvements of last year’s rookie wide receivers, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that the team will expect much more in 2014 from linebacker Jamie Collins and defensive end Michael Buchanan.
Collins didn’t play much early in the season but worked himself into a starting role due to injuries and was very effective down the stretch. Collins was mainly utilized in a coverage role in 2013 but with his uber-athleticism, the team may have just scratched the surface on his ability to get after the quarterback.
With the revamped secondary and the over-abundance of talented corners, one possible scenario would be to see the big, physical Browner slide his coverage on to the larger WRs or TEs which would free up Collins to bring pressure from the edge. With Kelly back in the mix as well as Jones, whom the Patriots like to slide inside on some passing downs, it would give the team a significant upgrade in QB pressure.
Buchanan, unlike Collins saw more snaps earlier in the season and saw his time decrease as the season went on. He was utilized primarily as a third-down DE whose job was to get after the QB. He did struggle with containment with the run and was caught pinching inside losing the edge, a typical rookie mistake.
But with a year of experience as well as taking advantage of the strength and conditioning program, Buchanan will be in line to play much more than he did as a rookie. And his playing more in 2014 is very needed, as both Jones and Ninkovich were very much overworked last season. With Buchanan able to provide quality snaps, it will allow both starters to stay fresh late in games and down the stretch.
There is another player on the roster slotted as a DE that is an intriguing option for the team in 2014. And that player is Armond Armstead, who never took the field in 2013 after having surgery for an infection prior to training camp.
Armstead is still very much an unknown and one wouldn’t bank too much on his potential until the time when he shows up on the field. And at 6’5, 305 he projects to be a DT in the Patriots system, but it is curious that the Patriots list him as a DE.
Armstead could play anywhere on the line especially if the Patriots decide to utilize some different looks on defense and use him as a 5-technique DE in a 4-3 under similar to how Seattle used Red Bryant.
The Patriots still need to and will add more depth at both the DE and LB positions, and having a player that can get after the QB is much valued and there are plenty available. It will all depend on how the board plays out at the NFL Draft. But they also will look for their second year players to provide some of that pressure. So don’t go to sleep on either Collins or Buchanan.