In typical Patriots fashion, New England zigged toward defense with their first three draft picks after fans spent months expecting them to zag toward weapons and a shiny new offensive tackle. Ignoring the offense raised understandable concerns, as that side of the ball has dominated headlines since Tom Brady sailed down to Tampa Bay. Their answers at wide receiver and tackle don’t immediately check any boxes either, as each receiver New England did take was a 6th-rounder, and 4th-round lineman Sidy Sow was initially expected to play guard.
But as surprising as the Patriots’ strategy may have been, the team had short- and long-term needs at cornerback and safety, while linebacker was another underrated but significant question mark. It’s also hard to debate the selections Matt Groh and company made, as each player was a freak athlete and potential blue-chipper who came at a bargain (yes, even Marte Mapu).
Adding these young gems to an already dominant pass rush and a competitive, ball-hawking secondary could give the Patriots a contending defense in 2023. After years of being outgunned by the league’s more explosive passers, Bill Belichick could be assembling the tools to not just survive those matchups in the future, but dictate the terms.
Here’s my take on the Patriots’ depth chart post-draft, with most rookies defaulting to the bottom of their respective groups until they earn their stripes in training camp and preseason.
Nose Tackle: Davon Godchaux, Carl Davis Jr., Jeremiah Pharms Jr.
Nose Tackle (Pass): Christian Barmore, Daniel Ekuale, Keion White*
Bill Belichick has called Davon Godchaux one of the best players at his position, and his work as an exceptional run defender/pocket pusher warrants that praise. Godchaux consistently wins 1-on-1 battles and does enough against double teams to make life easier for others. Carl Davis Jr. looks to reprise his role as the top backup when New England wants to beef up its front or Godchaux needs a breather.
Christian Barmore is by far the team’s best pass-rushing tackle when on the field, and he should remain a fixture over the center in New England’s 3-down rush fronts. Daniel Ekuale did a solid job standing in for Barmore throughout last season, lining up all over the interior. I doubt Keion White sees reps at nose if Barmore stays healthy, but the versatile defender could seize the top backup spot if he outshines Ekuale.
Jeremiah Pharms Jr. made a brief switch to the offensive line last season before switching back to defense. He projects as a developmental practice squad candidate.
Defensive Tackle/End: Lawrence Guy, Christian Barmore, Daniel Ekuale, Sam Roberts
Defensive Tackle/End (Pass): Deatrich Wise Jr., Keion White*
Lawrence Guy is getting up there in age, but he was still a monster against the run last season and rushed the passer with maximum effort. He’ll continue lining up wherever the action is, which could be anywhere from a 3-technique outside the guard in even fronts to a 5-technique outside the tackle in odd fronts.
Barmore has flashes of dominance against the run when he wins early, but still gets uprooted and struggles to shed blocks. Ekuale is coming off his best season as a run defender. where he used his quickness and natural leverage to cause disruption in the backfield, though his lack of size and length can make finishing plays difficult.
Deatrich Wise Jr. has been a mainstay opposite those bigger bodies to the weakside of defensive fronts, providing interior pass rush on early downs. But unlike his peers, Wise Jr. can also be a true edge defender in 4-down fronts with the flexibility to kick inside if the defense can’t substitute. Though Wise Jr. can be targeted in the run game, his long arms keep defenders from his body and he’s added enough bulk that he’s no longer a significant liability. The team also adjusts to mismatches by subbing in Ekuale or another bigger tackle in run situations. I envision a similar role for Keion White early on, though he may be the front’s most unique athlete and can make plays from any alignment.
Sam Roberts saw the field late in blowouts against the Lions and Browns, showing legitimate pass-rush upside. He’s someone to watch in training camp.
Middle Linebacker: Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan
Middle Linebacker (Pass): Mack Wilson Sr., Marte Mapu*
Ja’Whaun Bentley took over as the defensive front’s commander after Dont’a Hightower retired and has run away with the role. He gives New England a ton of flexibility as an extra lineman at the second level who minimizes damage in coverage and can make an impact as a blitzer.
Raekwon McMillan popped several times last season with his rare blend of size and athleticism but had some bad coverage gaffs and was burned at times for poor discipline in pursuit.
Mack Wilson Sr. looked like a promising substitute for Bentley in dime packages, using his explosiveness to spy and blitz more athletic passers. However, poor processing speed and mistakes resulted in zero snaps over the final five games of the season.
Potential 3rd-round steal Marte Mapu projects as a dynamic chess piece who can do a bit of everything at the second level and potentially leapfrog Wilson Sr. as the go-to athlete at linebacker. Once the rookie earns defensive snaps through his work on special teams, he could line up next to Bentley in pass-oriented nickel packages and take over for the bruiser in more defensive back-heavy groupings. I see Mapu taking on a Jamie Collins-esque role in the defense, but without as many responsibilities against the run early on.
Weakside Linebacker: Jahlani Tavai, Terez Hall
Weakside Linebacker (Pass): Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers, Marte Mapu*
Jahlani Tavai stepped up big last season, becoming Bentley’s primary partner in early-down nickel groupings. He made plays in the backfield, showed range in coverage, and even flashed a bit as a pass rusher. Tavai could be more consistent, but there was more good than bad in 2022 and he’s the team’s 2nd-most reliable “big” backer.
It’ll be interesting to see how Mapu’s presence affects Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers’ roles as pseudo-dime linebackers, especially with Peppers signing an extension this offseason. Mapu (6’3″, 217 lbs) and Dugger (6’1″, 217 lbs) are comparable in size, but the former has the frame to add more weight and be more impactful as a run defender/blitzer while providing similar coverage ability. Dugger could also spend more time as a true safety in the post-McCourty era, leaving Mapu and Peppers to duke it out for snaps in the box.
Terez Hall was asked to step up for the defense back in 2019 and served admirably. He brings valuable experience and high motor but is limited physically.
Edge: Matt Judon, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Keion White*, Ronnie Perkins
Matt Judon has been one of the league’s most successful pass rushers since joining the Patriots, but the team was wise to draft his potential successor with the red-sleeved wonder in his 30s. The investment should also pay major dividends short-term, as it gives New England a trio of athletic freaks who can line up anywhere and wreak havoc on passing downs.
Anfernee Jennings enters camp as the primary run defender on the outside opposite Judon, but White’s three-down potential and rare traits could see the rookie sneak up the depth chart sooner than later.
Ronnie Perkins has yet to play a defensive snap in the regular season, so it’s safe to say this is a make-or-break season for him.
Outside Corner: Christian Gonzalez*, Jon Jones, Jack Jones, Shaun Wade, Quandre Mosely, Isaiah Bolden*
I don’t typically put rookies at the top of a depth chart before we even get to training camp, but Gonzalez was a consensus top-10 player in the draft, where players are expected to contribute early and often. He projects as the team’s #1 boundary and matchup corner who takes on opponents’ top receivers, though New England could also protect him at times by bracketing those targets and having Gonzalez cover #2s.
Many fans want to see Jonathan Jones move to safety with McCourty no longer holding it down in centerfield, but Jones was outstanding in his first season outside when he didn’t face elite talents. I think he’s the best option to start opposite Gonzalez, though his flexibility will certainly come in handy for certain game plans.
Jack Jones had game-changing moments last season, particularly when he could anticipate routes or get his hands on receivers. But when he wasn’t a step ahead, he was often several steps behind. Offenses also began exploiting his wiry frame with quick throws, screens and runs to the outside.
Isaiah Bolden will have to overcome a big jump in competition, but he led Jackson State in defensive snaps last season and has the talent to make some noise at outside corner. Shaun Wade was an exciting addition when he was acquired from the Ravens in 2021, but he’s failed to live up to his physical talent.
Quandre Mosely is an unknown.
Slot Corner: Marcus Jones, Myles Bryant, Rodney Randle Jr.
Slot Corner (Big Nickel): Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers, Jalen Mills, Marte Mapu*
The performances of Marcus and Jack Jones will likely decide where the elder Jones spends most of this season. If Marcus outplays his draftmate, Jon plays outside. If Jack enters the regular season as New England’s clear-cut #3 corner, Jon bumps back to the slot. This will be one of the best battles to watch in camp, and I’m sure iron will sharpen iron.
Myles Bryant is now in a role that suits him best as a depth option who can play any position in the secondary competently. He excels when reading the quarterback and processing route combinations from zone and match coverages.
Dugger and Peppers were explosive presences in the slot when New England countered multiple tight end/running back sets with 3-safety nickel. This is where Mapu spent the majority of his college snaps, so he could compete for snaps in the role and create more of a true base defense defense.
Rodney Randle Jr is an unknown but spent most of his time in the slot for the Chargers last preseason.
Deep Safety: Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Myles Bryant, Jabrill Peppers
Box Safety: Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jabrill Peppers, Jalen Mills
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, Devin McCourty is retired. While his leadership and reliability will be missed, the safety position just became much less predictable.
Dugger is the north star among this group, as he’s set to become a Vince Wilfork/Dont’a Hightower-type where he lines up wherever he’s most likely to make a play.
Adrian Phillips was the go-to deep safety on passing downs when McCourty was closer to the line of scrimmage, while Dugger mostly did so when the defense expected a run or when disguising with McCourty. This makes Phillips the most likely candidate to take centerfield in obvious pass situations while Dugger and Peppers man the box. Myles Bryant also played deep safety in lighter groupings if other safeties had man coverage duties.
While there’s a possibility that Mapu, a college safety, lines up deep and drops into the box in some packages, I see him as more of a linebacker type at the NFL level.