Patriots Offseason Game Plan Pt. 2: Rebuilding the Pats’ Defense, Front Seven

The Patriots defense was 26th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric this season.

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The regression of Bill Belichick’s Patriots defense during the 2020 season wasn’t surprising. 

New England lost their most impactful front seven defender, Dont’a Hightower, when he opted out of the season due to COVID. Fellow starter Patrick Chung joined him, and key free-agent departures in Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins evaporated their linebacking corps. 

According to Football Outsiders, adding in the departures of Danny Shelton and Duron Harmon, the Patriots lost more defensive value in the 2020 offseason than any team in the last 20 years. 

Looking at the personnel losses, sustaining an unstainable turnover rate that gave the Patriots the best defense in football during the 2019 season was impossible. 

The collapse of New England’s defense, which went from first in many categories to bottom of the league, was as big of a reason for their 7-9 record as their issues offensively. 

Before we turn the page to 2021, we must self-scout the Pats defense to see where the biggest problems were, and many of them were easy to see watching them play every week. 

First, the Patriots’ run defense was dead-last, 32nd, in rush DVOA this season. New England allowed the fifth-highest rushing average on outside runs (5.6) and was 27th in yards per rush against outside zone schemes (4.7), which are taking over the NFL. 

Then, Belichick’s defense struggled to cover the middle of the field, allowing 8.01 yards per attempt (tenth-most in NFL) on passes between the numbers.

In particular, play-action passes killed them, as the Pats allowed an EPA per play-action pass of 0.263 (26th in NFL) and over nine yards per pass attempt (30th in NFL).

Lastly, New England’s pass rush led the NFL in hurry rate this season (14.3%) but was 25th in sack rate and didn’t pressure the quarterback at their usual clip when they blitzed. 

This season, the Patriots were 30th in the NFL in pressure rate when they blitzed (36.4%) and blitzed far less than they did during their dominant 2019 campaign (24.4% vs. 37.1%). 

Most of these shortcomings speak to personnel issues, and we can point to problems at linebacker to explain the poor run defense and middle of the field coverage. 

Without experienced players in the system, it also makes sense that New England’s blitz packages became less exotic, which made them less effective and less frequent. 

However, the one potential schematic shortcoming for the Patriots defense this past season was that, without elite personnel, teams took advantage of their coverage tendencies. 

New England played single-high structures or middle of the field closed on 60.7% of their defensive snaps. Opponents know they’ll get a lot of cover-1 and cover-3 against the Pats, so they prepare coverage beaters that will take advantage of holes in those schemes. 

When you have great players at all three levels of the defense, as they did in 2019, it’s easier to line up in the same looks and dominate. But without a great front seven, teams generated an explosive play on 25.5% of their play-action passes, second-highest in the NFL. 

Here are two examples from back-to-back weeks of cornerback JC Jackson losing in coverage on a post/crosser combination. In both instances, the linebackers get pulled up by the play-action fake, there’s only one deep safety to stay over the top of the downfield routes, and it leaves Jackson out-leveraged on an island with Stefon Diggs and Breshad Perriman.

Belichick began to sprinkle in more cover-two on early-downs to combat single-high beaters off play-action, but calling more two-high shells on first and second down could be an adjustment next season.

Quarters, or cover-four, allows the defense to use two deep safeties to leverage both downfield routes, something the secondary can’t do out of a single-high shell. Belichick likes single-high to have another defender in the box for run support, but he’s getting shredded by the pass. 

The Patriots can get back to their usual brand of defense with personnel upgrades this offseason, though, and that’s where we are heading next. 

For those who missed part one of this series, we already outlined how the Patriots can improve this offseason offensively. We signed free agents Hunter Henry and Tim Patrick while using top 50 picks on a quarterback (Mac Jones) and wide receiver (Devonta Smith). 

With that in mind, the plan on defense will reflect the assets we already used. Here’s a five-step plan to fix the Patriots defense along with my “dream” 2021 defense: 

STEP 1: KEEP BOTH STEPHON GILMORE & JC JACKSON 

Patriots All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore wants a contract extension, and it would go against Belichick’s typical business plan to sign a 30-year-old corner to a multi-year deal. 

As for Jackson, he’s a restricted free agent, that the team will likely use an early-round tender (first or second) to make it difficult for another team to poach Jackson this offseason. 

With Jackson likely to play on the tender next season, the Pats can keep Batman and Robin together for another year. 

(via Sports Info Solutions)

Gilmore makes Jackson a better player. We believe in Jackson’s talents, but making him a number one corner based on the numbers is a shaky proposition and could create a domino effect.

Jackson is probably a high-end number two with number one potential, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but its replacing Jackson as the number two that will be just as difficult.

Without Gilmore, a top cornerback becomes a pressing need. Replacing Gilmore would give the Pats needs at three high-value positions: quarterback, pass-catcher, and cornerback. 

In all likelihood, that means one of those holes doesn’t get filled with a top 50 pick or a substantial veteran addition (free agency/trade), which doesn’t sound like much fun. 

If the Patriots do trade Gilmore, their asking price should be a top 50 selection in April’s draft. A first-round pick from a team in need of a star cornerback would be a good get for New England.

Although it might not make sense to some, we’d do what it takes to keep Gilmore and Jackson. 

STEP 2: DEVELOP JOSH UCHE & CHASE WINOVICH AT LINEBACKER (HIGHTOWER?)

The Patriots’ options to upgrade at off-ball linebacker, which is an absolute must, aren’t great. 

In the draft, Penn State’s Micah Parsons will be our number one target on the defensive side of the ball, but he’s unlikely to last to the 15th pick in the first round. Very unlikely. 

Tulsa’s Zaven Collins fits the ball with the frame (6-4, 260 pounds) and versatility that the Patriots covet. He can stop the run, rush the passer, and drop into coverage, but no. 15 might be too early for him, and we wouldn’t call him a premium prospect. Still, he checks a lot of boxes. 

As far as free agency goes, unless the Patriots will pay big money to Bucs linebacker Levante David, it’s a pretty lousy free-agent class in terms of true off the line linebackers. Free agency is stacked at edge defenders, which we’ll get to, but not inside ‘backers. 

Regardless of how they get it done, the Patriots desperately need a linebacker that can spill and scrape from the second-level;  someone with speed to push runners towards the sideline on outside runs, clean up the trash, and sit in gaps from the second level of the defense. 

Ideally, they could address those problems from within with the return of Dont’a Hightower and offseason work for 2020 second-round pick Josh Uche and 2019 third-round pick Chase Winovich at inside linebacker.

Both Uche and Winovich display excellent pass-rushing skills at the end of the line and can make plays when they drop into coverage. But they aren’t large enough to hold up at the point of attack as edge-setters, making it difficult for them to play on the edge on early downs. 

The two Michigan products can play and really know how to rush the passer, but they need to expand their roles a la Kyle Van Noy to become impact run defenders. 

With their speed and explosiveness, they’d add quite a bit to the linebacker level if they can get comfortable playing from that alignment. 

Inside Linebacker Options

Tier 1/free agent: Lavonte David 

Tier 2/free agent: none

Tier 3/free agent: Patrick Onwausor, Neville Hewitt 

Tier 1/draft: Micah Parsons 

Tier 2/draft: Zaven Collins

Tier 3/draft: Pete Werner 

STEP 3: UPGRADE EDGE DEFENDERS (WILL BELICHICK PAY ONE IN FREE AGENCY?)

As we mentioned, the Patriots had one of the worst run defenses in the league on outside runs, which means that their edge play wasn’t good enough in 2020. 

Free-agent veteran John Simon is a typical lunch pail guy for Belichick but was 111th out of 115 qualified edge defenders in Pro Football Focus grade this past season (48.3). 

Simon is not good enough to play as often as he did (70% of snaps), Wiinovich and Uche don’t have the girth to hold up at the end of the line, and Anfernee Jennings looked lost as a rookie. 

Rather than addressing edge defender again in the draft, the Patriots used three top 100 picks on edge rushers in the last two drafts. Could Belichick break his mold and pay a free agent?

The Pats head coach doesn’t typically pay top-of-market for edge defenders. If he did, he would’ve kept Van Noy. But New England could use a plug-and-play starter rather than another developmental prospect on day two, and this is a stacked edge group in free agency. 

With so many free-agent edge defenders, it’s possible that one could slip through the cracks or come cheaper than expected, which would be music to our ears. 

Edge Defender Options

Tier 1/free agent: Matt Judon

Tier 2/free agent: Haason Reddick 

Tier 3/free agent: K.J. Wright, De’Vondre Campbell, Tyus Bowser 

Tier 1/draft: Kwity Paye

Tier 2/draft: Gregory Rousseau

Tier 3/draft: Carlos Basham, Jr.

STEP 4: UPGRADE INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE (GET A NOSE TACKLE)

The Pats’ depth along the defensive line was so shattered this season that someone like Carl Davis, who was signed off Jacksonville’s practice squad, was a noticeable in-season upgrade. 

We’ll get to re-signing their own free agents on the D-Line in the next section, but first, let’s discuss upgrading in the draft or free agency because that’s a big one on the to-do list. 

First, the Patriots need to find more defensive linemen that can do multiple things. Lawrence Guy is a great run stuffer, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise can rush the passer, but New England’s three best defensive linemen last year were all one-dimensional. 

Second, the absence of a true nose tackle in New England’s odd fronts was palpable. Shelton’s replacement, Beau Allen, never played a down for the Patriots. Butler and Guy are ideally defensive ends in a 3-4, and without a proper nose anchoring the run defense, it was a mess. 

Allen is under contract with the Patriots next season, so maybe the mystery injury that ended his season before it started will disappear, and he can contribute. Still, they need a backup plan. 

Defensive Line Options

Tier 1/free agent: Sheldon Rankins, Dalvin Tomlinson

Tier 2/free agent: Solomon Thomas, Leonard Williams 

Tier 3/free agent: Margus Hunt, Abry Jones 

Tier 1/draft: none

Tier 2/draft: Marvin Wilson, Haskell Garrett, Tyler Shelvin 

STEP 5: RE-SIGN LAWRENCE GUY & ADAM BUTLER 

Lastly, the Pats need to re-sign two of their own free agents, Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler. 

As we said earlier, Guy is the teams’ best run defender who has great instincts, a sturdy anchor to post-up in a gap or two-gap, and takes on double teams as well as anyone in the league. He’s a perfect fit in Belichick’s system as a strong-side defensive end. Make it happen. 

As for Butler, he’ll ideally play 3-4 DE on early-downs or maybe revert to his pre-2020 role as a pass-rush specialist. Butler has great explosiveness and length, which makes him difficult to handle inside, and his willingness to occupy multiple blockers in the pass rush opens up favorable opportunities for others. He’s the definition of a “do your job” type of player. 

The Patriots haven’t discussed a new contract for Butler or Guy at this stage, which is normal, but re-signing both defensive linemen should be a priority. 

With depth issues already on the defensive line, losing them would set things back even further. 

LAZAR’S DREAM 2021 DEFENSE: IT WON’T HAPPEN, BUT LET’S DREAM…REALISTICALLY 

Defensive Line: Solomon Thomas, Tyler Shelvin, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Beau Allen, Byron Cowart

The two significant additions are former first-round pick Solomon Thomas, a free agent, and LSU’s Tyler Shelvin in the third round. Thomas struggled to find playing time on a stacked 49ers defensive line, but his skill set perfectly matches Belichick. He’s more of a “tweener” defensive tackle/defensive end, which Belichick gets the best out of, and has the tools to be a Trey Flowers-type in New England’s defense. Shelvin is a 360-pound nose tackle that gives the Patriots what they need in the middle of their line. He won’t bring much value on passing downs, but he will park himself in gaps and be an immovable object. 

Edge Defenders: Haason Reddick, Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings

New England makes a “splash” by adding another former first-round pick in Haason Reddick. Reddick might be one of the most underrated edge defenders in the league and a player we saw as a fit in the 2017 draft. He had a career-high 12.5 sacks and 56 quarterback pressures, can set the edge, and drop into coverage. He’d be a complete player for Belichick’s ideal edge defender, and early projections have him at around $10 million per year. In an offseason with $60 million in cap space and growing, the Pats can afford that. 

Linebackers: Dont’a Hightower, Neville Hewitt, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall

Since they spent valuable assets on the defensive line and edge defenders, the Patriots go with a value signing at linebacker (Hewitt) while hoping Hightower’s return sparks their defense. Hewitt quietly had a good season as the Jets’ MIKE linebacker and, by all accounts, is a very cerebral player. He moves a little bit better than Bentley, and with Uche and Winovich hopefully factoring in, that’ll be enough. We could also see the Pats take an inside linebacker at any point in the draft, but would hope it would be with one of their picks in the third or fourth round.

Secondary: Stephon Gilmore, JC Jackson, Jon Jones, Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty/Patrick Chung, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Caden Sterns (3-4 round)

The Patriots’ secondary stays intact. Trading Gilmore might be the most likely outcome, but players of his caliber don’t grow on trees, and it’s hard to piece together a new secondary and front seven all in the same season. If the Patriots re-work their front seven and part ways with Gilmore, they’re truly starting from square one defensively. We threw Texas’s Caden Sterns in as a mid-round free safety prospect. The Pats need to start thinking about life after Devin McCourty, and Sterns can do it all in the backend.