Lazar’s Training Camp Preview: Defense

How will all the pieces to Bill Belichick's new puzzle on defense fit together?

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Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s 3-4 defense lacked the necessary talent at several positions in the front seven that are critical for the system to run successfully. 

Belichick runs an old-school 3-4 alignment with a blend of new age wrinkles, such as safeties disguised as linebackers or “money” backers. Still, the roots are the same as they were in the early 2000s when McGinest, Vrabel, Bruschi, and Johnson made up the Pats’ linebacking corps. 

For the system to work, it needs a true block-eating nose tackle, sturdy edge-setters, and at least one thumping inside linebacker to take on blocks and ball carriers in the trenches. 

The Pats were missing those key ingredients causing the defense to plummet to 26th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric due to a combination of COVID opt-outs and free-agent departures in 2020. 

Belichick dolled out over $60 million in guaranteed salary to free-agent defenders during his offseason spending spree. His big-ticket purchase was 265-pound Matt Judon, who will slide into the “elephant” role as the strongside edge defender. The Pats head coach also signed a new nose tackle in Davon Godchaux, brought back linebacker Kyle Van Noy, and linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s return gives them a physical presence in the middle of the defense. 

Plus, the Pats have recent draft picks who could play significant roles in linebackers Chase Winovich and Josh Uche, safety Kyle Dugger, and defensive lineman Christian Barmore.

In all, a defense that was dead-last in DVOA against the run a year ago looks much stouter, while Belichick will be able to roll through several different combinations in the front seven. 

New England’s football czar is at his best as a defensive chess player when he has versatility and depth to mix and match based on what the opponent is throwing at his defense each week. 

With a combination of sturdier bodies like Judon and Hightower paired with athleticism in Uche and Dugger, Belichick has the tools to operate as a game plan defense this season. Now, the fun begins in seeing how Belichick will fit all of the pieces on his defense together. 

Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the key figures on the defensive side of the ball for the Patriots this upcoming season: 

DEFENSIVE LINE

– One of the minor surprises of the offseason was the team re-signing Deatrich Wise on a four-year, $22 million deal. Wise is a good pass rusher who ranks in the top five among interior defensive linemen in pressure percentage over the last two seasons but is up and down against the run. What is the role Belichick is projecting for Wise? You don’t hand out $10 million guaranteed at signing without a plan. The Pats prioritized keeping Wise amidst the re-shuffling along the defensive line, so they must see him as a player who is starting to round out his game. 

– A lot is riding on nose tackle Davon Godchaux panning out for the Patriots. Godchaux showed tremendous upper-body strength and solid technique to occupy blockers and reset the line of scrimmage in Miami. New England wants to funnel ball carriers back inside where their big linebackers and defensive linemen can get them on the ground. However, the Pats were pushed around far too often in the middle, allowing offensive lines to move the line of scrimmage and get blockers up to the linebacker level. Godchaux needs to keep Hightower and company clean to turn this run defense around. 

– How big of a role will second-round pick Christian Barmore have in his rookie season? The Alabama product will help immediately as an interior pass-rusher, but his technique was streaky against the run in college. The Pats are hoping he’ll clean up some of his footwork and pad level issues to become a base 3-4 end who kicks inside in passing situations. However, how quickly Barmore can make himself an every-down player remains to be seen. At the very least, he’ll be a factor in the Pats’ pass-rush packages in a similar role as Adam Butler, who went to the Dolphins as a free agent. 

– If some of the younger players don’t pan out, Henry Anderson feels like a steadying presence on this defensive line. Anderson isn’t flashy. He’s technically savvy, can rush from multiple alignments, and was a stout run defender throughout his career. Anderson isn’t a game-changer, but he won’t be a weak link either. 

– Lawrence Guy is back as a sturdy veteran presence in New England’s 4i or five-technique role. Guy earned all-decade team honors by finding a home as a strongside defensive end in Belichick’s 3-4. He has terrific block anticipation and technique to hold up against double teams, needing a few running mates on the line to solidify the run defense. Guy wasn’t the problem last season, and it’s easy to see him as a part of the solution moving forward. 

– It feels like Byron Cowart and Montravius Adams are competing for one roster spot if either makes the team. Both have explosive first steps and strong upper-bodies but are more flash than consistent workers. Cowart routinely pops during camp and the preseason, then sort of tails off once the games start to count. Two streaky, explosive players that need more consistency to stick.

– Carl Davis was the best nose tackle the Pats rolled out there last season, which says a lot about the state of the position in 2020. Still, he has immense size, power, and decent lateral movement skills for a player of his stature. Davis was picking up things quickly before an injury derailed his season.  

EDGE DEFENDERS

– Matt Judon’s monster four-year, $54.5 million deal is one of the biggest contracts Belichick has ever given out in free agency. The former Ravens edge defender is coming from a system where he did many Pats-like things already and did them well, so it makes sense. Judon is first known as a stout edge-setter who has the athleticism to play in space and effectively rushes the passer within the scheme’s framework. He has some go-to finesse moves in one-on-one pass-rush situations but will also collapse the pocket, operate in schemed pressures, and stack up blockers. Judon might not have the same value in every defense, but he’s a great fit in Belichick’s system.

– Chase Winovich is entering the biggest camp of his career, and at least for now, is on the PUP list. Winovich was dealing with a nagging injury that held him out of minicamp in June. However, he is not expected to miss much practice time, per a team source, and can come off the PUP list at any time. The Patriots’ coaching staff’s offseason assignment to the 2019 third-round pick was to bulk up and get stouter on the edge. Winovich wasn’t a reliable edge-setter last season, so his usage began to diminish into a situational role as a pass rusher. Wino can get after the quarterback, there’s no doubt about that, but his aggressive, upfield style might not work here long-term. It’ll be interesting to see how Winovich’s career progresses moving forward, and if he starts losing time to stouter options, he could be a sell-high candidate. 

 

– Kyle Van Noy looked like the same player who had a career year with the Pats in 2019. Van Noy’s ability to play on and off the line makes him a prototypical Patriot, and he’s a good athlete with a sneaky-quick get-off and play strength to set the edge. KVN might not play as much as he did the last time around as New England cycles in younger players at the position, but he’s still a solid option for what the Patriots want their outside linebackers to do. 

– Parting ways with a third-round draft pick after just one season is a tough pill to swallow, but Anfernee Jennings finds himself buried on the depth chart. Plus, Jennings struggled with the speed of the game during his rookie season. The 2020 third-rounder needs a good camp to hold onto a roster spot, focusing on being as versatile as possible. Jennings developing on and off the line is his best bet to stick on the roster. 

– Rookie Ronnie Perkins could surprise, but it feels like a redshirt year for the 2021 third-round pick. Perkins is transitioning from a 4-3 defensive end playing to a standup outside linebacker in the Patriots’ system. Winovich made a similar change as a rookie relatively quickly, but everyone is different. I don’t anticipate Perkins landing on IR as a full-on redshirt, but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities. There are a slew of vets ahead of him, and he’s in for a steep learning curve. 

LINEBACKERS

– Dont’a Hightower’s return to the middle of the defense is a significant development for the 2021 Patriots. Hightower could have some rust after opting out last year, and Father Time will come for him eventually, but he didn’t look like an aging linebacker in minicamp. The quarterback of the front seven is back, which is music to everyone’s ears in New England.

– Josh Uche is a rising star. I’m a big believer in Uche’s talent. I loved the pick at the time, and he has flashed some elite skills. Uche is a blur off the ball as an edge rusher and has excellent bend to turn a tight corner. Plus, he has the movement skills and IQ to play off the line as well. The 2020 second-round pick said he wants to play the Hightower role in New England’s defense as a chess piece for Bill Belichick, and he has that kind of ability. However, Michigan fans will tell you that they heard all the hype with Uche before, who flashed throughout his career in Ann Arbor but never put it all together for an entire season. If he can finally find consistency and stay on the field, Uche is a big-time talent.   

– Ja’Whaun Bentley’s style of play is going extinct in the NFL. He’s a limited player who needs to come downhill and avoid foot races at all costs. As much as his power at the point of attack is intriguing, Bentley can only play in early-down run situations where the coaching staff can hide his lack of athleticism. With that said, the Patriots now have the depth again at linebacker to put Bentley in a specialized role. For example, Elandon Roberts comes to mind. Bentley will likely make the team because Belichick loves his big thumpers at linebacker, but his playing time should decrease significantly. 

– Raekwon McMillan and Terez Hall are likely competing against one another for a roster spot. First and foremost, both players need to carve out prominent roles on special teams. As a former second-round pick, McMillan has more upside than Hall. He was a good player at Ohio State and had starter potential, but injuries became a factor. On the other hand, Hall had some good and bad tape when thrust into a far bigger role than what they hoped. It feels like they’ll find a spot for at least one of these guys. 

– Rookie linebacker Cameron McGrone is unlikely to play this season after suffering a torn ACL last November and is already on the non-football injury list. The Patriots, at least for now, are keeping McGrone on the active list, so there’s a sliver of hope that he could return this season. The fifth-round pick likely goes in the top 100 in April’s draft if it wasn’t for the injury.

OUTSIDE CORNERBACK

– Stephon Gilmore effectively ended his holdout by reporting to the team on Thursday, according to ESPN’s Field Yates. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport added that there’s no new deal for Gilmore yet. Gilmore is currently on the PUP list as he continues to rehab from offseason quad surgery, but missing reps at the beginning of camp isn’t a big deal for the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year. If the Patriots want to be contenders this season, they need Gilmore to play their brand of coverage. Gilmore allows the Pats to play cover-one man with a single-high safety, freeing up an extra defender to play closer to the line of scrimmage. To play that coverage, you need a stud corner who can take the league’s best wide receiver on an island, and it’s unclear if J.C. Jackson is ready for that yet. Gilmore’s camp seems open to a pay raise this season, which is the most likely resolution. 

– At the very least, J.C. Jackson is one of the league’s best number two cornerbacks with the talent to develop into an upper-echelon number one. But the stats without Gilmore are what they are, and Jackson got beat for four touchdowns and allowed 9.9 yards per target without Gilmore in the lineup. Jackson needs to improve his route anticipation and footwork against horizontal-breaking routes. He smothers vertical routes with the best of them but has issues sticking to receivers when they work across the field or underneath. If he can develop his game there, he’ll be a number one corner in this league, and you love his mentality about his current contract situation as well. Speaking to NFL Network’s Mike Giardi, Jackson isn’t worried about a contract extension or a big pay despite playing on his RFA tender this year. 

– For Joejuan Williams, it’s now or never. With the departure of Jason McCourty, the Patriots desperately need Williams to step up as the third outside corner. Plus, New England didn’t draft a corner this year with Gilmore and Jackson set to be UFAs next offseason. They need depth, they need a future starter, and Williams was drafted in the second round in 2019 to be the guy. Although he needs to play a certain matchup, Williams hasn’t looked completely lost at outside corner or covering tight ends. The rose-colored glasses view is that he was buried on the depth chart and now will get his chance. Still, if he had earned more playing time, he would’ve gotten more playing time. It’s not great that he couldn’t breakthrough as a top 50 pick. 

– Mike Jackson, Sr. is an insurance policy in case Williams doesn’t step up. Jackson had a few nice moments in camp practices with tight coverage on the boundary. But let’s not sugarcoat it. If Jackson is playing serious snaps for the Pats this season, you can’t feel good about that yet. 

SLOT CORNERBACK 

– Jonathan Jones’s job as New England’s top slot corner is not in jeopardy. He was squarely in the mix during minicamp, plays a challenging position at a high level, and is on a steal of a contract. Jones is a good football player who can track inside vertical threats like Tyreek Hill or jitterbugs such as Cole Beasley. He’s a valuable piece of the puzzle. 

– Although Jones is the starting slot corner, second-year DB Myles Bryant will get some run. Bryant was spelling Jones as a nickel corner in the starting defense. His size sometimes becomes an issue against the run, but he has strappy man coverage skills and can play a little bit of deep safety as well. 

SAFETY

– Like Uche, Kyle Dugger is another budding star in New England’s defense. His play speed, strength, and versatility already translated to Dugger making impact plays as a rookie, even as he transitioned from the division two level. The next step in his development is trusting his football instincts more to fly to the ball and improving his technique in man coverage. The hope here is that Dugger isn’t pigeon-holed to a role covering tight ends where his impact will be lesser than if they let him roam free. Dugger said he was watching Rodney Harrison and Troy Polamalu tape this offseason, and I’m hoping that’s the plan. 

– The Jalen Mills signing is in the same boat as the Deatrich Wise contract. What’s the plan? You don’t hand out $9 million guaranteed without a plan, and Mills was a mess in Philadelphia at outside corner. He was forced to take reps there in minicamp because of Gilmore’s absence, but Mills is much better off as a hybrid safety. How does that fit into the puzzle with Dugger, Adrian Phillips, and Jon Jones playing out of the slot? Belichick has a plan to use all of these DBs. My theory is he sees Mills as a Jason McCourty replacement. McCourty played 60 percent of the snaps last year at both outside corner and safety. Mills’s calling card is his versatility. 

– Speaking of Adrian Phillips, there’s a log-jam that we just mentioned in the hybrid safety role. Dugger, Mills, Phillips, two slot corners/safeties, and even Joejuan Williams might take some reps guarding tight ends. Depth is a good thing to have, and Phillips’s veteran savvy and special teams ability likely keep him on the roster. Last year, he had a good season in an unconventional role, but now the Patriots have more invested in other players at the position. We’ll see how much playing time Phillips gets, or if he’s just injury insurance and a core special teamer.  

– Devin McCourty is Devin McCourty. There isn’t much else to say other than he’s the leader of the entire team and the QB of the secondary. His ability to play the deep middle as a premier center fielder allows the Patriots to play their coverage system at a high level. 

– Adrian Colbert is a physical safety who has some versatility and is worthy of being on an NFL roster. There might not be a spot for him here, but he’ll have his moments in camp and will likely stick on another team after roster cutdowns. 

– Sixth-round pick Joshuah Bledsoe was also on the active/non-football injury list as he rehabs from a broken wrist. Bledsoe is a high IQ player who wore many hats for the Missouri defense, but this has redshirt year written all over it. Too many veterans ahead of him on the roster, plus an injury that will likely cause him to miss practice time. See you next year.