Patriots Mailbag: Should There Be More Hype About the Patriots Defense?

The Patriots defense is primed for a turnaround after an aggressive offseason from Bill Belichick on that side of the ball.

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Real football is fast-approaching as the Patriots continue week three of organized team activities and head towards mandatory minicamp.

New England’s quarterback situation is the number one topic on everyone’s minds, especially after Cam Newton’s injury opened the door for first-round pick Mac Jones to dominate spring headlines. 

However, as more veterans report, it’s Bill Belichick’s rebuilt defense that stood out at practice last week and features droves of depth in the front seven that didn’t exist a year ago. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and a photo posted on Patriots.com after Monday’s practice featuring free-agent signing Matt Judon (at his first OTA), veteran Kyle Van Noy, and promising second-year linebacker Josh Uche is one of those moments. 

The snapshot by team photograph Eric Adler didn’t even include star linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who has yet to report to OTAs, the teams’ top pass-rusher last year, Chase Winovich, Belichick’s second-round pick from the 2020 draft in hybrid safety Kyle Dugger, or recent third-rounders in Anfernee Jennings and Ronnie Perkins. 

Add in a sturdier defense line thanks to free-agent additions Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson, along with second-rounder Christian Barmore, and Belichick is building a beast. 

In our last viewing of practice last Friday, it was Uche who stood out with multiple eye-popping reps rushing off the edge during team drills. Although Belichick says spring practices aren’t evaluation sessions, Uche is in excellent shape, and his explosiveness off the ball is very noticeable. 

Belichick admitted that the coaching staff was still tinkering with Uche’s role at the end of last season, acknowledging that it took a little while to figure out Uche’s best spot in the defense. 

The second-year linebacker said that he envisions a role similar to Dont’a Hightower’s, where he’s playing both on and off the line of scrimmage.

For instance, on first down, Uche would line up at inside linebacker to play the run, drop into short zones, or blitz up the middle. When the Pats face a third down, Uche would rush the passer on the line, where he’s arguably the most effective but doesn’t have the size to play on the line full time. 

When we spoke to the Patriots’ assistant coaches last week, inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo tried to slow down the Uche hype a bit.

“I think you have to wait until training camp [to predict a year-two leap]. I will say this, these guys know what to expect. Knowing what to expect, these guys are coming in, and their mentality’s a little different. They’re not on edge about everything. They know where to be,” said Mayo.

“I look forward to seeing these guys in training camp when we’ll get a better evaluation on these guys. But it’s kind of tough right now out there in shirts and shorts. That’s not football.”

Mayo, falling suit with his boss and head coach, is trained to slow the media’s roll when it comes to hyping players this time of year. 

After weeks of discussion about the Julio Jones saga, who was traded to the Tennessee Titans this past weekend, the narratives are weapons-happy per usual around this Patriots team. 

Although it’s easy to get caught up in the arms race, a defense that collapsed for a multitude of reasons to 26th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric last season is buzzing at Pats OTAs. 

We are too early in the process to predict how good the Pats’ defense will be this season, but a turnaround on that side of the ball is coming.

As we look ahead a bit, please subscribe to our YouTube channel for more Patriots OTA coverage from Foxboro, my Patriots Beat Podcast with Alex Barth, and more daily content. 

Without further ado, let’s answer some of your mailbag questions: 

Sticking with the linebacker theme, it seems like Terez Hall, Raekwon McMillan, and Harvey Langi are competing for a roster spot, assuming that fifth-round pick Cameron McGrone will spend the season on IR. If more than one of those three pop in camp, or McGrone makes a speedy recovery, then things could get interesting for either Ja’Whaun Bentley or Anfernee Jennings. Bentley might have some trade value for Pats-like schemes such as Miami if his former position coach, Brian Flores, thinks there’s a role for him as an early-down linebacker. I’m not saying the Pats will get much back, but maybe a swap of players on the bubble or a day-three pick could come back to New England for Bentley or Jennings if they’re on the outside looking in with the new additions. 

Jakobi Meyers was one of the least-hyped players last summer because of injury, and it feels like he’s one of the least-hyped players again this spring. Meyers made one of the catches of the day coming over the middle on a dig route from Jarrett Stidham last week, and even with the additions of Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, he is squarely in the mix. I see the same player with Meyers who broke out in the second half of last year, and still think he’ll be a factor. 

It’s not a major surprise, but viewing practice without Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson put into perspective how thin the Patriots are at outside corner behind their starters. Any team would be light down two starters at a position, but given their contract situations, the Pats are staring at a reality where either Joejuan Williams or Michael Jackson would need to play significant snaps. The entire offseason would be a waste if they deal one of those two and force themselves to put lesser talent on the field. Shades of 2009-2011. 

The only scenario where I could envision Stidham starting games is if Cam is hurt and Jones isn’t ready. The Pats could then use a few Stidham starts to hopefully increase his trade value while allowing Mac time to develop instead of throwing him into the deep end of the pool. If we are talking Stidham winning the job out of camp with no outside factors, I doubt it. He’s had his flashes in his first two seasons in camp or preseason games but never strings it together consistently, which was his problem in college as well. He’ll have a career as a solid backup, and there’s nothing wrong with that for a fourth-round pick. 

My heart wants to say Nixon, but the answer is Isaiah Zuber. Zuber made a nice diving grab on an in-breaker at last week’s open practice and has impressive speed. I could see a role for him in specific packages offensively where he’s featured on motion sweeps and as a kicker returner. Zuber’s ability to play on special teams gives him the roster value to make it as a sixth receiver, assuming Harry is on the roster as well. 

I don’t see Nordin beating out Folk unless Folk has an awful camp. Nordin has a booming leg, there’s no doubt about that, and his accuracy is better than expected. But Folk was great for them last year. I do think Nordin has a future in the league. 

Plenty, often. Both Henry and Jonnu Smith can play with their hands in the dirt, so McDaniels has tons of flexibility there. My guess is Henry will line up almost as often detached (out wide or in the slot) as he does in-line and will have packages where he’s aligning as the X receiver. The Pats used to love isolating Gronk on the backside of the formation to work a matchup, and they’ll probably do the same with Henry. 

Extending Gilmore’s contract will create space for the Patriots in 2021. They’ll have less cap to work with next year since Gilmore’s isn’t currently under contract in 2022, but it’ll lower his 2021 cap hit and give them more money to roll over into next year. Extending Gilmore would’ve made room for Julio’s contract, not taken up cap space. For those reasons, I don’t see how passing on Julio relates to a Gilmore extension. A salary advance or raise like they did a year ago might explain their lacking pursuit of Jones, but mostly, these two things are separate issues. Will Belichick give Gilmore another contract? History says no. But if Gilmore is willing to sign for a shorter term, let’s say a two-year deal, then maybe Belichick will make an exception. 

Patrick Chung is retired. I’m not sure why his retirement isn’t processed yet, probably because they aren’t in a hurry to use the cap space, but the team isn’t expecting Chung to play.

Every time we speak with Mayo, it becomes clearer that he’ll be a head coach someday. Along with coaching inside linebackers, Mayo aids Steve Belichick in making the calls for the front seven, with Steve handling the secondary and Bill overseeing the entire operation.

Here’s an example of a Pats defensive call: dime odd magic-zero. Dime is the personnel (six DBs), “odd magic’ is a five-man pressure with an interior stunt wrapping opposite the running back, and zero is cover-zero (typically with a bracket/double on the #1 receiver). Mayo’s role is to advise Steve Belichick on the “odd-magic” part of the equation based on the opponent and situation. Mayo isn’t the primary play-caller, but he has a role in calling the defense on game day, helping orchestrate the front seven. 

The beat will go on in New England without Caserio. Still, the impact of his departure is that Belichick needed to spread his responsibilities across multiple people because he had so many duties. Caserio was a de facto GM, coaching assistant on the practice field, and a game-day advisor in the coach’s booth. Many of those things are a part of Matt Patricia’s new role. Assistant director of player personnel Dave Ziegler, front office consultant Eliot Wolf, and college scouting director Matt Groh are also more involved. Caserio was a valuable member of the Pats’ operation, but having multiple sounding boards and new voices have reinvigorated things a bit. Overall, there’s a lot of positive developments coming from Caserio’s departure.