Dec 10, 2012; Foxborough, MA USA; New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones (95) attempts to block a pass by Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub (8) during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots: A look at the defense

Training camp is upon us and much will be made of the Patriots defense. This group has been rebuilding since the loss of former stars Richard Seymour and Asante Samuel. What can be expected from a group that is opportunistic and stingy in the Redzone (9th in points against last season).

Defensive line

At the top this is a strong group. Wilfork has anchored this group for years. He is everything you look for in a Patriot. He’s versatile playing all over the field. He’s humble and he works hard. Whether he is called on to 2 gap in an odd formation or penetrate in the even set he is set for the challenge. He has great lateral quickness for a man of his size and can move people. He is the leader of a young group and the last great defensive player with a ring on his finger

Armond Armstead and Tommy Kelly have been brought in to aid Vince in the middle. The release of Deaderick and Love came as a shock to me. Kelly had a down season last year after back to back 7+ sack seasons. I believe the down turn came because of an injury to Richard Seymour and the emergence of Desmond Bryant with Oakland. Armstead is interesting as he could have been a first or second day pick in the NFL draft. Instead he signed in the CFL after a heart issue in college. Last year for Toronto in the CFL he registered 43 tackles and 6 sacks. He should make the team as his 2013 salary is guaranteed at $405K.

Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones will be the starters at the defensive end position. Ninkovich has carved out a nice roll for himself since coming over from the Saints as a special teams player. He has excelled as an outside line backer and with last years move to the defensive line he showed a knack for the big play. Jones last years first round pick played extremely well the first half of the season before an injury slowed him. He showed good burst around the edge. He does need to develop more pass rushing moves to take the step from good rookie to elite rushing status

7th round pick Buchanan out of Illinois is someone I am going to watch very closely at training camp. In 2011 he had 7.5 sacks. Last year it dipped when Houston Texans first round pick Whitney Mercilus left. He needs to bulk up some but can be a solid backup to Jones and Ninkovich. He will push Cunningham for playing time and could push him off the roster.

Cunningham is going into his forth year. He has shined and he has stunk. A PED suspension last season dulled a decent year. I expect the Patriots to cut ties with the former 2nd round pick.

Jake Bequette basically redshirted last season. He is a high motor guy. He had 7 tackles and a sack in the preseason last year but that wasn’t enough for him to see the field.

Vega and Forston will battle it out for a spot on the roster but I’m not expecting much from either.

Camp battle to watch.
Defensive End behind Jones and Ninkovich. I really think Bequette could be a lightening rod in sub packages

Linebacker.

The all SEC linebacker corps of Spikes, Mayo, and Hightower played well. Mayo is the leader and has all the makings of an all pro. They need to let the leash off him and watch the sacks pile up. Spikes is a difference maker in the run game. Hightower was uneven but that was to be expected. He played well in spurts but didn’t play coverage the way some expected. Enter second round pick Jamie Collins from Southern Miss. Originally a Safety he has the ball skills to play in coverage. Not only that but he got after the passer to the tune of 10 sacks his senior year.

The backups should include Dane Fletcher a former rookie free agent. Fletcher was coming on until a torn ACL ended his season in the preseason. He played well at the Mike in 2011 when Spikes was out. He is a solid player who barring any setbacks should regain his form.

Steve Beauharnais drafted in the 7th round out of Rutgers. He played strong side his freshman year but moved into the middle and had productive seasons. He might be brought along slowly and could be a candidate for the practice squad. Playing linebacker for the Patriots takes smarts He has the ability but can he pick up the scheme?

Other backers on the roster Edds, Rivera, Tarpinian, and Koutouvides will all battle it out for one maybe two spots

Training camp battles.

With Spikes entering the final year of his contract is there someone on the roster that could replace him? It will be interesting to see how Collins and Beauharnais are used. Either of them could be the heir apparent to Spikes. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Hightower move inside.

Cornerback.

Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard formed a very formidable duo the second half of last season. Talib signed a 1 year deal to come back to the Pats. He should be motivated to cash in. Many eyes will be on Dennard who was arrested for suspicion of DUI. If its a violation of his probation he could immediately serve jail time. If that happens they could move Arrington back to starting corner but he is much better in the slot. If Ras-I Dowling could ever stay healthy he could be a star. The problem is its been 3 seasons since he last played a full season his junior year in college.

Logan Ryan another Rutgers draft pick is a solid player he had 94 tackles as a corner last season to go along with 17 passes defended and 4 picks. He could develop as a solid corner but putting so much faith in a first year player is dangerous.

The Pats still have Marquice Cole who played well when called upon in a sub package roll. He plays well on special teams but making the roster will be tough. Keep an eye on rookie free agent Stephon Morris from Penn State. He’s small 5’8″ but he plays vigorous in the clips I’ve seen.

Training camp battles. With Dennard’s court date being pushes back it puts the team at a disadvantage. Had his original court date of July 31st been kept the team would know if they had their corner for the season a heck of a lot earlier in camp. Dowling and Ryan will be something to watch. If Dowling stays healthy he’s a solid cb. If he can’t it’s bag packing time.

Safety
Devin McCourty was drafted as a CB. He made the move to safety last season and rewarded the team with solid flexible play. I thought they should have left him on the outside but with the acquisition of Talib his play at safety made the defence better. He also plays well facing the QB

Adrian Wilson’s better years are behind him but he still packs a wallop. I expect the Pats to use him at the strong safety spot in the box this season. He might not play 3 downs but he can still contribute

Steve Gregory started 12 games last year and had 3 picks but he is better suited as a backup. With 2 surprise picks in the last 2 years of Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon the Pats have taken chances. Wilson played decent his rookie year but need a big jump to start. Harmon played both safety positions at Rutgers and he makes plays. Can he do that at the pro level?

Nate Ebner plays a great special teams with 14 tackles.

Camp Battles
Do they keep 4 or 5 safeties. 4 and Harmon and Wilson make the team Gregory and Ebner are gone. 5 and I say Ebner makes the team.

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