Unit is Deeper, More Athletic Than a Year Ago
The Patriots made some big changes on the defensive side of the ball this spring and parted ways with two of their younger players that were high draft picks. But despite trading former 1st round pick Chandler Jones to the Cardinals this spring and cutting ties to another former 1st round draft pick in Dominique Easley, as well as losing Akiem Hicks in FA, the Patriots are primed to have an even better defense than a year ago.
Much like last season when Bill Belichick and the team cut the three starting cornerbacks from the Super Bowl winning team and many saw disaster befalling the defense, this year’s squad is beginning fresh with new blood, better depth all over and a more athletic group that made it to the AFC Championship Game a year ago.
So here are our 5 Reasons why the Pats Defense will be better than a year ago.
The Core of the Defense is Still Young:
Most of the core members of the defense are young and still have plenty of productive years left. On the front seven, Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower are 26, Jabaal Sheard is 27 and Malcom Brown only 22. Young edge rushers Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers are only 24 and 22 respectively.
The secondary is also young with Malcolm Butler on 27, Logan Ryan is only 26 with both starting safeties Pat Chung and Devin McCourty only 28. Top draft choice Cyrus Jones is only 22.
While Hightower, Collins, Butler, Sheard and Ryan will soon be in line for new contracts there is no reason why the Patriots can’t lock up the majority if not all of them. If they are able to do that, the defensive core can stay intact for the next several years.
Belichick will Rely on the Defense the First Four Games:
With all due respect to Jimmy Garoppolo, but if Tom Brady does indeed miss the first four games of the season, Bill Belichick will rely on the defense to get it done in the first month and try to take as much pressure off of Jimmy G.
You can already see that the message has been passed down to the players and the leaders of the defense are acting accordingly even during the spring OTAs and minicamps. There hasn’t been any of the half-stepping and lightheartedness one usually associates with spring workouts. It’s been all business.
And the veterans like Hightower, Collins, Ninkovich and McCourty are leading the way. Hustling on and off the field, they’re setting the example for the others to follow. With the defense having to step up in the first month, the veterans are taking the task at hand seriously and they’re preparing with September in mind right now.
Defensive Line will be better, deeper and have a better pass rush:
We are already hearing the rumblings that the defensive line will take a step back in 2016. We’re not buying that. While the team would have loved to have had Hicks back, I think they no plans on retaining Jones. While a very talented pass rusher, he was good but not great, and he was weak in setting the edge in the running game. Jones pass rushing production was like a Halloween mask, it disappeared after October 31.
With Jones gone, this elevated Jabaal Sheard to a starting position. Not only is he much better at setting the edge in the running game, but he registered eight sacks in about 400 fewer snaps than Jones. But the team wasn’t done.
They signed FA Chris Long who was an elite level DEs before injuries took their toll the past two seasons. Long is looking to resurrect his career here as a sub-package pass rusher, taking over Sheard’s position from a year ago.
The team also has second-year players Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers who both made the team a year ago as rookies before injuries cut them down. They can play the edge or jump inside as interior pass rushers on obvious passing downs. Their depth on the edge is such that they can move Rob Ninkovich and Rufus Johnson to linebacker with Shea McClellin and provide extra rushers from the second level.
Easley’s selection in the draft was a gamble that failed. He ended up on IR both seasons and while flashed glimpses of his speed off the snap, it never really materialized consistently. Rumors of his refusal to rehab the way the team wanted compounded things and the team cut bait quickly.
They instead brought in big bodied defensive linemen who can stuff the run inside, allowing the edge rushers and linebackers to provide the quarterback pressure. Terrance Knighton is a huge man who will be called upon to stuff the middle and play over the nose. They also brought in veterans Markus Kuhn and Frank Kearse. During the draft, they selected big DL Vincent Valentine. All of them are over 300 pounds and will be looked to control the line allowing the linebackers to flow and make plays.
Secondary is much deeper than a year ago:
With all the injuries the team suffered in 2015, one area they were fortunate to avoid injuries was at cornerback where they were thin. While the safety position is as deep as any on the team, the real depth the team added was at corner.
With starters Butler, Ryan and Justin Coleman returning, the team’s top draft choice Cyrus Jones should immediately push for reps at the slot corner position. Darryl Roberts who had a big camp a year ago returns and he too will push for reps. The team also brought in some smaller but extremely athletic corners to compete for roster slots this season. Jonathan Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc and V’Angelo Bentley are all very athletic. Veteran E. J. Biggers came over from the Eagles and will also compete for a spot.
The safety position is set with starters Pat Chung and Devin McCourty in place ably backed up by Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards. Chung has thrived in his second go-round with the team, playing down in the box and McCourty remains the QB for the backend of the defense. Look for the secondary to play much better with an improved pass rush in 2016.
Linebacker is the strength of the defense and they’ve improved:
Last season the team looked solid while Hightower and Collins, one of the better tandems in the league, were in the lineup. But then they lost them both for a time and the play, especially against the run suffered. They just didn’t have the depth needed to back those two up. Jonathan Freeny was mainly a ST player and while he performed well, they needed an upgrade.
In free agency the team landed McClellin who can play inside as well as give them a blitzer in passing downs. The team also added the very athletic if undersized Kamu Grugier-Hill who could prove to be an intriguing option in the future.
With the work in minicamp showing that they can slide edge rushers like Ninkovich (the Patriots current version of the Swiss Army Knife) and Rufus Johnson back to the linebacker position if needed shows the depth the defense, especially this front seven has.
Because they can drop different players into coverage or get them after the passer. With the versatility, opponents won’t have the luxury of knowing where the pass rushers will be coming from and the Pats have the men who can drop and cover.
This Patriots defense …on paper looks to be a much better unit than the one that was 10th in points allowed in 2015. Now they just have to go out on the field and prove it. Is it July 27th yet?
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary
Tags: 2016 NFL Combine 2016 Patriots Roster 53 Man Roster Projection Bill Belichick Chandler Jones Chris Long Geneo Grissom Kamu Grugier-Hil Malcolm Butler New England Patriots NFL Patriots Patriots edge rushers Pats Rob Gronkowski Rob Ninkovich Tom Brady Trey Flowers Vincent Valentine