Players aren’t due to report to training camp for another three months, but don’t expect that to stop fans, analysts and fanalysts from projecting how this year’s draft and free agent signings will impact the team’s abysmal defense in 2012. The Patriots like to mix and match between the 3-4, 4-3 and various sub packages, and some of the fresh faces in camp will offer a wealth of scheme diversity that fits well with the team’s philosophy. Here’s a quick look at how Coach Belichick might use some of his new toys.
Wilfork will continue to anchor the middle, but he could see plenty of new faces around him in 2012. The Patriots added veteran lineman Jonathon Fanene in free agency, and he should be a strong pass-rushing presence as a DE in 3-4 packages. He could also see some time inside at DT when the Pats switch to the 4-3, though Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love or Ron Brace could also push for playing time. All three of those players will be competing with 1st round pick Chandler Jones for the other starting DE spot opposite Fanene, but the Pats would probably prefer to match Jones up against opposing tackles as an OLB to make use of his speed and wingspan off the edge when they go to a three-man front.
When the Patriots go to a four-man front, Jones should be locked into a starting DE spot. Fellow rookie Jake Bequette could challenge for the other spot due to his prototypical size and skill set for the position, but he’ll have an uphill battle for the position given the number of other options that are available. He seems like a guy who needs a year or two of seasoning, but could definitely benefit from some playing time when they can squeeze him in.
Rookies Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Bequette will add a ton of depth to a unit that desperately needs it. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes anchor the defense in the middle, and Rob Ninkovich provided a competent presence at one OLB spot. Beyond those three, 2011 was a mishmash of mediocrity. Jones should see plenty of time with his hand on the ground up front, but he could also provide the outside pass-rushing threat New England needs as an OLB in 3-4 fronts. Hightower should be able to fit in as a strong side OLB in 4-3 fronts, and he could contribute as an ILB along with Spikes in the 3-4, giving the Patriots the ability to take advantage of Mayo’s athleticism as an OLB in coverage in some packages, particularly against teams that feature athletic pass-catching tight ends. Hightower may lack the speed and range to play WLB in a 4-3 front, but he might be able to help set the edge in run support as a 3-4 OLB in certain packages. Bequette is probably best used as a situational pass-rusher. He has the athletic ability to drop into coverage, but getting after the quarterback will be his best way to earn playing time in 2012.
At this point, the corners and safeties make up the murkiest unit on the team. While there was some talk of moving CB McCourty to FS after he played that position in the playoffs, his future is almost certainly at corner (if only because New England doesn’t really appear to have any other surefire starting corners). The only way he ends up at FS is in the unlikely event that several of the team’s CB prospects make a huge impact in camp and the preseason and injuries force Belichick’s hand. CB Sterling Moore filled in admirably as a starter during the stretch run and the playoffs, and the Patriots could do worse than starting him alongside McCourty. Kyle Arrington should continue to play a role as a nickel corner, and a healthy return of 2011 2nd rounder Ras-I Dowling could provide a boost to the secondary. Don’t be surprised if Dowling challenges for a starting spot. 7th round pick Alfonso Dennard had a second-round grade prior to his arrest. If he can avoid punching any additional cops, he could earn plenty of playing time. If three quality players emerge from this group of five varying degrees of question marks, the Patriots’ pass defense will undoubtedly improve on last year’s dismal performance.
Pat Chung’s name is already written on the depth chart in permanent marker at one safety position, most likely at SS. The FS position was a gaping chest wound in 2011, but free agent acquisition Steve Gregory should help shore up the position. Surprise 2nd round pick Tavon Wilson is probably viewed more an insurance on Chung bolting for greener pastures next year, but he could earn some playing time in sub packages (though the less he’s on the field as a rookie, the better).
The two keys to improving the defense this offseason were improving the pass rush and shoring up the secondary. Adding starter-quality players in Gregory and Fanene and potential star power with Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower should go a long way toward accomplishing both of those goals.
The defense was ravaged by injuries last year, but the 2012 team appears to have solid depth across the board. I think it’s fair to expect this unit to take a huge step forward in 2012, very possibly into the top 10 in overall defense.