After viewing 15 training camp practices and two preseason games, here’s a thought on every defensive player who participated in Patriots training camp this summer:
– Lawrence Guy: Some might say what Lawrence Guy does on the defensive line isn’t sexy, but others would call it downright erotic. Guy’s ability to absorb double-team/combination blocks and park his massive frame in his gap is teach-tape for every D-linemen that wants to play for Belichick.
– Davon Godchaux: The Patriots finally have a true nose tackle again in Godchaux. His upper-body power and overall play strength make two-gapping and eating blocks easy for Godchaux. When the Patriots put Matt Judon, Lawrence Guy, and Godchaux on the same side of the line, good luck running the football in that direction.
– Deatrich Wise: Wise has to live up to the contract the Patriots gave him this offseason. He’s an effective inside pass rusher who wins with good hand usage and length. But we are still waiting to see consistency out of Wise against the run. With stouter early-down options now on the roster, there’s a role for Wise in the D-Line rotation that will allow him to play to his strengths. The Pats might try him as a base 3-4 DE at first, but the feeling is he’ll eventually play more on second and third down when passing becomes more likely.
– Christian Barmore: New England’s second-round pick is dealing with a foot injury that held him out of a handful of practices. However, Barmore flashes the tools of an every-down difference-maker. Barmore is already the Pats’ best interior pass-rusher, with a toolbox of rush moves from various alignments. He has to improve his pad level and technique against combination blocks inside, but, eventually, it’ll be tough to keep Barmore off the field. He has game-changing potential and is the only player in this group who can consistently make splash plays behind the line.
– Henry Anderson: Anderson is having one of those weird Patriots summers. He is showing well in practice, especially during one-on-ones, but played into the second half of both preseason games. Is he not grasping something in the coach’s eyes? Anderson is still a good player who seemingly fits the system well. But the situation is low-key trending towards Mike Pennel/Michael Bennett territory.
– Carl Davis: the 6-5, 320-pound defensive lineman is doing everything he can to make the team. Davis has the length and play strength that fits the mold in New England. Plus, he moves well laterally and explodes off the ball for his size. Davis is on the bubble because there are more than 53 NFL players in Pats camp and is competing for a roster spot with players at different positions (J.J. Taylor, Kristian Wilkerson, etc.). Still, we have Davis on after a strong camp.
– Akeem Spence: The Patriots’ decision to start Spence in the preseason opener was a head-scratcher. He has barely played in camp due to injury, and even when he does, he’s not in our top six on the D-Line. Spence wins with a low center of gravity and intelligence due to years of experience in the league. But if he makes it over the players listed above, it’ll be one of those things where Bill Belichick sees something we don’t.
– Montravius Adams: Adams has flashes as an interior rusher that make you like his upside in a situational role. However, he’s hot and cold. If his first move doesn’t work, Adams has a tough time countering. He’d be a useful player to keep around on the practice squad if he goes unclaimed.
-Nick Thurman and Bill Murray each had their moments in the second half of the opener against Washington. They’d provide good depth on the practice squad but aren’t viewed as 53-man roster material.
– Matt Judon: Judon is everything Belichick dreams of in an outside linebacker; sturdy edge-setter, effective pass-rusher, able and willing to drop into coverage. The Patriots paid a pretty penny for Judon’s services, but he was worth it. He’ll be a stud in Belichick’s system for multiple seasons.
– Chase Winovich: Winovich was extremely late to the party, so it’s tough to evaluate him on the field. He was repping almost exclusively on the line of scrimmage in practice and beat-up the backups on the Eagles’ offensive line on Thursday night. It’s clear that Winovich belongs in an attacking role that allows him to rush the passer. He’s a very good situational rusher. But the fit in Belichick’s system as an every-down edge defender isn’t there.
– Kyle Van Noy: As is always the case, Van Noy looks much more comfortable on the line of scrimmage than playing off the ball. He has enough initial burst off the line as an edge rusher to test tackles around the corner and is a high IQ run defender. KVN also has a knack for batting passes down at the line. However, he isn’t the guy you want playing in space off the line. Van Noy isn’t a liability in that role, and he provides good ILB depth, but he’s far more effective on the edge.
– Ronnie Perkins: Perkins is starting to pick up his new role as a standup edge rusher versus a defensive end in a three-point stance. His speed-to-power rush is effective, and once he learns the steps to contain runners on the outside, he has the play strength to set the edge. It’ll take time for the third-rounder to adjust, but he looks like he belongs on an NFL field.
– Tashawn Bower: Bower had some good pass-rush reps against Washington, even if his sack came against a backup tight end. He has good length and some punch-power to disengage. There might be a roster spot for him if Winovich isn’t on the team, but he’ll more than likely end up on the practice squad.
– Dont’a Hightower: Hightower is moving well and looks like he might be in better shape than he was before the opt-out. The Pats linebacker spoke about how the year off without injury allowed him to re-charge and focus on his body. There’s no need for Hightower to go all-out in these preseason games, but there is a little rust there. Our concern level with Hightower is at zero, and the belief is that he’ll be a force this season.
– Josh Uche: We could’ve put Uche with the edge defenders, but he’s doing a little bit of both. The second-year linebacker is an explosive playmaker. Uche is at his best while rushing the passer from on the line of scrimmage, and his snap anticipation and speed off the edge make him unblockable at times. You’d like to see him develop more advanced hand usage as an edge rusher, though. He wins with straight speed right now, which is mostly fine when you have so much of it like Uche. But using his hands more effectively will go a long way. Uche has the tools to play well in space and coverage at inside linebacker, but you’d hate to see them take him out of the rush in passing situations. On early-downs, Uche is developing into an effective inside linebacker who can drop into coverage to defend play-action concepts. The only thing holding Uche back from a breakout season is durability.
– Ja’Whaun Bentley: Bentley is having a nice summer and is improving in coverage. He now has three interceptions during team drills, including a pick of Jalen Hurts in joint practices. With Godchaux, Guy, and company eating blocks more effectively this year, Bentley’s is clean to fit into the A-Gaps and meet runners in the hole, where he’s most effective as a downhill run defender. The Patriots should get better D-Line play in front of Bentley, making him more effective. For those theorizing he might be a surprise departure, we doubt it.
– Anfernee Jennings: Jennings is going down a bad path for the Patriots in his first two seasons. He was mainly repping at off-ball linebacker with the scout team defense in practice, but he mysteriously sat out the preseason opener, and we haven’t seen him since. With so much depth at linebacker, the undisclosed injury could land Jennings on IR. He looked fine at inside linebacker with the scout team and was getting to his spots a bit faster than his rookie season, but you can’t make the club from the tub.
– Harvey Langi: There was a point in time this summer where Langi had the inside track for the fourth linebacker spot after Raekwon McMillan’s injury. McMillan was going to provide depth at linebacker while also playing a prominent role on special teams, which could still be a path onto the roster for Langi. However, Langi is a liability in coverage, and we see that at practice and on the game tape. In theory, Langi could fill McMillan’s role, and he did play a lot of snaps for the Jets defense last season. But the Pats don’t want to be in a situation where Langi is playing significant snaps on defense this year.
– Cassh Maluia: The Patriots brought Maluia back after McMillan’s injury to fill out the scout-team defense. At this stage, he’s considered a long shot to make the roster. He fills downhill with some force, but he’s too raw in other areas to make a push for the 53. Maluia could spend the year on the practice squad as he did in his rookie season.
– J.C. Jackson: Jackson isn’t perfect. There are stretches of dominant play where he’s either ignored or breaking up passes, but he has given up a few plays as well. The theory here is that Jackson uses practices to try new things and work on his weaknesses. When he’s locked in and playing his brand of coverage, Jackson is very tough to beat. Concern level zero.
– Jonathan Jones: The Pats’ top slot corner is a great football player. Based on his role, Jones is going to give up some plays here and there. There’s too much space to cover inside to prevent a completion on every target. Still, he competes on every rep and is always making it difficult on the receiver. New England is in good hands with Jones handling the slot.
– Jalen Mills: Mills is two different players depending on where he’s lining up in the defense. As an outside corner, he’s a borderline liability. Mills struggles with staying square in press-man, opening his hips to even the slightest movement by the receiver, making it easy for wideouts to expose him. However, the Pats moved him inside for practices with the Eagles, and he was better there. Mills strikes us as a jack of all trades, master of none, which is helpful as a sixth defensive back but not so much in your top five. Let’s hope Gilmore is back or Joejuan Williams emerges, so Mills isn’t on the outside often.
– Joejuan Williams: Since the preseason opener, Williams is separating himself as the third outside corner behind Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson. He has the size and physicality to match up on the boundary. Williams’s length allows him to contest at the catch point, but he must remain in phase more consistently when receivers cut across the field. As a number three, the 2019 second-round pick does enough. The question is can he take it up a notch to become a CB2 in 2022?
– Michael Jackson: Jackson is a physical press-man corner who has traits that the Patriots like at the position. He can ride receivers downfield to stay glued to their vertical routes and has decent ball skills with his back to the QB. However, he gets grabby at times, and like Williams, has his issues on in-breaking routes. Still, there are things to like about his game as a poor man’s J.C. Jackson. It’ll be challenging to find a roster spot for Jackson, but if Gilmore starts the season on PUP or there’s a surprise veteran cut, they could sneak him on.
– Justin Bethel: Believe it or not, Bethel isn’t an awful cornerback. He has issues finishing plays at the catch point, but the veteran has the movement skills to stay in the vicinity of the receiver. He’s also a pretty heady corner who sniffs out route combinations well in zone coverage. Hopefully, the Pats don’t need to use him there, but Bethel gives them more depth.
– Devin McCourty: McCourty is an interesting player to watch in practice. There are times where it feels like he’s taking mental reps and lets receivers go instead of trying to break up the pass. Then, McCourty will give a smile and say something to the receiver. Probably along the lines of, “if that were in a game, that’s going the other way.” McCourty knows what he’s doing, obviously, and is still moving well. He’ll anchor the backend for another season.
– Kyle Dugger: The hope here is that the light will eventually come on for Dugger in man coverage, but we haven’t seen that yet this summer. The second-year safety struggles to stick with tight ends at the top of routes. His feet stall, and receivers find separation at the break point. I’m sure the Pats’ coaching staff is working on footwork techniques to help Dugger, but he has to find something that works for him, whether it’s a little side-step pedal or a T-Step technique. His feet stop, and that’s when he gets into trouble. The speed and physicality we saw in his rookie season are still there. Dugger is also effective at reading the quarterback as a “robber” in the middle of the field. But, again, the man coverage stuff is still a work in progress.
– Adrian Phillips: Until he got to Philly, Phillips was locking down the Pats’ tight end duo in practice. Then, Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz gave Phillips some problems. Still, Phillips is emerging as a core contributor in the secondary with man coverage skills on tight ends and linebacker-like instincts in the box. Although the team wants to develop Dugger, playing Phillips as the money-backer and Dugger in a strong safety role might be best for the 2021 defense. It’ll be interesting to see how long a leash they give Dugger to work out his man-coverage issues. Phillips plays the Chung role at a high level.
– Myles Bryant: Bryant is in a difficult spot. He’s a capable defender in coverage and does the best he can against the run at his size. However, he’s behind Jon Jones in the slot, and the Pats have Dugger, Mills, and Phillips as hybrid DBs. The opportunities aren’t there with the starting defense for Bryant, but the Pats should hang onto him because his time will come eventually. The second-year defensive back has the talent to play in an NFL secondary.
– Adrian Colbert: There are things to like about Colbert’s game. He has size (6-2, 205) to match up with tight ends and is a physical hitter in the middle of the defense. Colbert’s problem is also finding playing time with the depth the Pats have at safety. He could stick as a reserve safety and special teamer who is all-in on the Patriot Way. But it’s a number game for Colbert.
– D’Angelo Ross, Dee Virgin, Malik Gant are practice-squad level talent. Gant is probably the best of the bunch, as he plays with the necessary physicality to hang in the box.
– Jake Bailey: There isn’t much to say about Bailey other than he’s an absolute stud. Bailey might be the best player at his job on the team.
– Matthew Slater: Slater is Slater. He’s still a challenge to block on every punt as a gunner, and the Bailey, Slater, Bethel trio puts on a show during special teams periods.
-Cody Davis and Brandon King are capable coverage specialists, but it’ll come down to how many roster spots the Pats have for special teamers this year. Davis has guaranteed money on his deal, so the expectation is that he’ll make the team. King is on the bubble after two years away.