The initial wave of NFL free agency is over so it’s time for the first Patriots roster breakdown of the season as we look at the defense.
The Patriots defense is a work in progress heading into 2022.
We are about two weeks into the 2022 NFL League Year, and the Patriots are busy down in Foxborough finding players they believe will fit their current roster. The Patriots have lost key players through free agency and trade, and they’ve also added a few from outside the organization while retaining key leaders. It’s time to break down the current Patriots roster to get an idea where the biggest holes still lie. With the draft and the second wave of free agents coming available after inevitable cuts, there IS time for the Patriots to clean up some of the areas that really hurt them in ’21.
DE: Deatrich Wise Jr., Lawrence Guy, Henry Anderson, Carl Davis
DT: Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux, Byron Cowart, Daniel Ekuale, Bill Murray
This area needs help badly, from an overall talent and depth perspective. They have their young star to build around in Barmore, and with Wise, Guy, Anderson, and Godchaux, you would think they are in decent shape. It may appear that way, but Anderson missed all of ’21 with an injury, so he isn’t dependable. Lawrence Guy is getting older and it showed last season. Godchaux had decent games, but for the most part, he has not been worth the money New England paid for him. Cowart is a decent depth guy, but that is all he is. The Patriots like Ekuale, but we’ll see how that works out. Murray and Davis are depth guys that could be replaced by younger guys with more upside. This depth in the incoming rookie class on the defensive line gives the Patriots an opportunity to add talent, possibly even in the later rounds.
There are still free agents available that could REALLY help New England. Defensive end Trey Flowers has been connected to New England throughout the start of free agency and he still hasn’t signed yet, and he would be a very good fit considering he knows the franchise and the defense. Jadeveon Clowney is another free agent that would be a strong fit in New England, but he is looking for more money than the finance-conscious Patriots want to pay. Defensive end is not a position where teams typically save money, so if the Patriots are playing a game of contract chicken with some of these leftover free agents, it might be a while before someone signs.
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WLB (WILL)- Matthew Judon, Ronnie Perkins, Anfernee Jennings, Raekwon McMillan
MLB (MIKE)- Jahlani Tavai, Cameron McGrone
SLB (SAM)- Ja’Whaun Bentley, Mack Wilson, Josh Uche, Terez Hall
The Patriots are all set at the weak side linebacker spot (WILL), and with Bentley back after signing a new deal, Mack Wilson arriving via trade, and Josh Uche still out to prove he can play (he can), the strong-side linebacker spot seems solid too. The problem is at the MIKE position, which is the middle linebacker spot. Tavai and McGrone are not going to cut it, and there have to be more moves coming at this position. Could Hightower be re-signed? It could definitely happen, but how does that help you get faster at that spot? Hightower’s production was actually on par with the rest of his career and he did it on fewer snaps than he typically averaged, but he does look like he is in decline. If it comes down to Hightower or any remaining free agent, Hightower would be the easy choice.
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If the Patriots are going to go the route of the draft, they are going to need to find someone that can step in and contribute immediately. New England has been very good at that in the past, so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Nakobe Dean of Georgia is the top-rated inside linebackers on most boards, and he flies around, but does he fit the Patriots? Would he even be available at 21? Christian Harris of Alabama is another potential target that has the physical build the Patriots look for, while also adding athleticism to the defense. Again, they may have to move up to attain a specific player, but that is how Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower ended up in New England. We may see an aggressive Patriots team come late April, especially considering they have so much cap space in 2023. Could the plan be to use the ’23 picks to be aggressive this year and then attack ’23 free agency? Food for thought.
CB: Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, JoeJuan Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell, Myles Bryant, Shaun Wade, Justin Bethel
SS: Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Joshuah Bledsoe
FS: Devin McCourty, Cody Davis
After the departure of J.C. Jackson, the Patriots were left with a large hole in the starting defensive backfield. Jackson made plays, it’s as simple as that. Is he irreplaceable? Absolutely not, but it won’t be easy. New England has added two corners in free agency- Terrance Mitchell and former Patriots hero Malcolm Butler, who is returning after a year in retirement. Butler was actually very effective in 2020, and Mitchell has started 29 of a possible 30 games over the last two years. Would adding Stephon Gilmore, especially after Miami added Hill, make sense? Absolutely, but that isn’t going to be cheap and I’m not so sure Gilmore is looking for a reunion. Unless a trade occurs, cornerback is likely set until the draft.
Safety is solid, but not very deep. Phillips and Dugger are good, McCourty is still effective, but Bledsoe is a complete unknown, as is Cory Davis. This is an area of the Patriots defense that may need to be addressed in free agency because if one of the top three were to go down, that would potentially be a huge problem for New England. Safety play is huge, and if your team is weak back there, that could be the difference between being a playoff team or a top-10 draft team.
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K: Nick Folk, Quinn Nordin
P: Jake Bailey
LS: Joe Cardona
Although Bailey did struggle last year and he is highly paid for a punter (four million??) this is one of the Patriot’s most steady areas, which is crucial in the NFL. Last season the coverage units struggled, so that is an area that must improve. With Gunner Olszewski headed to Pittsburgh, the Patriots will be looking to fill the punt and kick returner role. It is likely that more than one player will handle those responsibilities.
The sudden demise of the Patriots is definitely overstated, but the holes cannot be ignored. Middle linebacker is the first area they need to worry about. They simply don’t have anyone with any experience whatsoever, so they need to figure out how they are going to fill that role. Hightower? The NFL Draft? Both? That is priority number one for this team right now. The second priority is finding a starting guard. You could really call them 1A and 1B because both areas NEED to be fixed before the year starts.
Cornerback is an area that would be nice to improve, but the return of Malcolm Butler in free agency, Terrance Mitchell providing starter depth, and Jonathan Jones returning from injury at least gives the Patriots defense a group that can compete. Yes, the receiver position definitely needs to improve and speed would be nice, but again, that position has to take a back seat to linebacker and guard. Teams build from the inside out, especially when they have a rookie quarterback they need to protect. There is a draft and a good amount of good free agents on the market that will start games. This next month is going to be interesting but just remember- inside linebacker, guard, THEN wide receiver, and cornerback.
The sky isn’t falling, but they definitely need to fix these holes or they could be looking at the top half of the draft again, and that is not a place that Bill Belichick wants to be…unless he trades up to get there.
Follow me on Twitter @chris_simoneau
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