The NFL officially opens up Training Camp a month from now (29 days to be exact). So it’s time to start making your “way too early” bold predictions for the upcoming season and mine is simple. The New England Patriots will have a Top 5 defense in 2021.
Now before you close this article and call me just another one of those blindly optimistic Patriots fans, allow me to present my case. Then, if you still feel like labeling me a Belichick Kool-Aid drinking New Englander, my Twitter handle is at the bottom. Slide into the DM’s and light me up.
Dont’a Hightower Is Back:
When fans criticize the 2020 Patriots, there’s always one crucial detail that gets omitted: Opt-outs. New England had more opt-outs than any team in the league last year with 8. Amongst those who decided not to play was linebacker Dont’a Hightower. How important was that? In 2019, Hightower was 5th on the team in defensive snaps with 785. The defensive signal caller also tallied the most tackles on the team with 71 and racked up 5.5 sacks as well. He was also one of the team captains in 2019, so it’s easy to see how his absence drastically changed the Pats D.
And who was left to pick up the slack? With Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts all departing that offseason, that responsibility was passed to the youth. 2018 fifth round pick Ja’Whaun Bentley has a bright future at linebacker in this league. But it was clear he wasn’t ready to fill the massive hole Hightower left in the middle of that defense. Rookie outside linebacker Chase Winovich is more of a pass rusher than run stopper so his assistance was limited. And second round pick Josh Uche was injured for most of the season, so he wasn’t a big factor. Other than the young guns, the Pats tapped John Simon, Terez Hall and Shilique Calhoun to try to stop the bleeding. Spoiler alert: they couldn’t.
The Patriots defense was bludgeoned for 131.4 rush yard per game. That put them 26th in the league at stopping the run. You have to assume the addition of Hightower will help right the ship. It’ll also let Bentley, Winovich and Uche ease into bigger roles while allowing them to do what they do best.
Thanks to Bill Belichick’s uncharacteristic spending spree to start the 2020 offseason, the Patriots defense is going to look drastically different this season. One of the most noteworthy signings was former Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon. The 28 year old has racked up at least 19 QB hits in the last 4 season while also tallying no less than 6 sacks in that same time span. But Judon isn’t just a pass rusher. He helped stabilize Baltimore’s rush defense in his time there as well, so the hope is he does the same in New England.
Another big addition came in the form of familiar face Kyle Van Noy. In his 4 years with New England he totaled 221 tackles and helped solidify the teams rush defense. He is very familiar with the system, so expect him to have an immediate impact in 2021.
Lastly, nose Tackle Davon Godchaux won’t turn many heads, but he’ll help immensely with this porous Pats run D. He’s a big body to plug in the middle of the defense and can stay on the field in rush OR passing situations. He only played 5 games in 2020 due to injuries, but had 75 tackles for Miami in 2019.
With Hightower back, the rookies steadily progressing and all these additions, it’s easy to be optimistic about the Patriots defense in 2021.
Revamped Front 7 Feeds Into The Patriots Pass Defense:
While 2020 seemed like a total system failure for the Patriots, their pass defense remained pretty good! The Pats secondary only allowed 222.3 yards per game which was 8th in the league. Going into 2021, there’s no reason to think this unit won’t jump into Top 5 territory.
One of the main reasons to be excited for this optimism is second year safety Kyle Dugger. With Patrick Chung opting-out last season, Dugger filled in admirably. Ironically, not only will Dugger be taking Chung’s position this season, he’ll also be taking his jersey number. A move that recently retired Chung approves of:
The Patriots will also have Adrian Phillips and future Hall of Famer Devin McCourty to patrol the secondary at the safety as well. And newcomer Jalen Mills will likely be dipping his toe in that position too, so that group is ready to go.
When it comes to corner, the elephant in the room is Stephon Gilmore and his contract situation. Gilly has yet to report to the facility, but it’s believed by people around the team that everything will get sorted out and he’ll be ready to go for the season. Assuming Gilmore is back, he and JC Jackson would again be one of the strongest corner-duos in the league. And Jonathan Jones is a name that won’t get brought up much, but he’s a solid third corner to have. Additionally, as I mentioned before, former Eagles DB Jalen Mills will likely be playing both safety and corner this season.
With the instant facelift of the front 7, teams will be forced to pass on this Patriots defense. And that’ll be playing right into their strength.
COVID Is All But Gone:
Last but certainly not lease, this team will hopefully no longer be ravaged by COVID. It’s no secret the Patriots could barely practice last season and that showed with the product on the field. With a team as detail-oriented as the Pats, diminished practice time is a death sentence. Assuming things are back to normal for the 2021 season, expect this defense to be back in it’s elite form.
Look, at the end of the day, what this defense should be may very well be different than what they show on the field, but the optimism should be there. With the new faces being added to the old ones, Belichick has more than enough tools to work with. Now let’s just hope the offense follows suit.
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-Mike Sullivan (@msully5433)
(Featured Photo Credit: fanduel.com)