With all the turnover that the Patriots experienced on the offense this year, it seems all the scrutiny that usually followed the defense has shifted. No one is talking about the struggles in pass-defense, they are more concerned with Brady’s weapons. The plays made by Chandler Jones, Tommy Kelly, and even the rookie Jamie Collins in the first preseason game against the Eagles provided reasons to be optimistic about the defensive unit as a whole. In fact, if the majority of the defense remains healthy they could emerge as a top 10 defensive unit this season. The Patriots finished last season 9th overall in rushing defense and could easily improve on that rank this year while slowly growing the pass defense up from its 29th place finish. This is the first in a four part series that will highlight each position on the Patriots’ defense.
As I said, last season the Patriots were excellent at defending the run. Fans will remember the complete shut down of Chris Johnson in week 1, holding him to only 4 yards the entire game. Aside from “CJ2K,” they were able to handle two of the league’s best rushers in Ray Rice and Arian Foster. The obvious staple on the defensive line is big Vince Wilfork. He brings his all every game and mentors the whole team, not just players on the defense. He is the main reason newcomer Tommy Kelly wanted to play in New England. The addition of Kelly should boost the pass-rush tremendously since an offensive line will have a difficult time maintaining a bull-rushing Kelly and Wilfork. On the right side, second-year player Chandler Jones has high expectations for this season and told fans they can expect 19 sacks from him this season. While that number is lofty and a show of confidence instead of a promise, he has the potential to double his sack total last season of 6 and build on that. Jones was so anxious to start playing in the first preseason game last week that he was pacing the sideline while the tarp was still on the field. This guy is a dedicated athlete that should turn a lot of heads this season with his level of play. On the left side of the line, veteran and fan-favorite Rob Ninkovich is the master of clutch plays. In his past three seasons with the Patriots, Ninkovich has tallied 18.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 10 fumble recovers, and 4 picks. Not only are his stats impressive, but the timing of his big plays couldn’t be better. Fans will remember his clutch strip sack and fumble recover of Mark Sanchez during OT of the week 7 game.
As impressive as the starting defensive line is, there are a few additional backup playmakers on the line. Armond Armstead was originally said to be a first-to-second round pick in the 2012 NFL draft until he had a heart attack. He went undrafted and ended up playing for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL last season where he was named a league All-Star and won the Grey Cup. Armstead recently had surgery to clear an infection and has been on the non-football illness list. Obviously, success in the CFL does not predict success in the NFL, but Armstead is a player to watch this season once he returns to the field. After his break out performances at the very end of 2012, Justin Francis is another player to keep an eye on this season. Francis joined the Patriots as an undrafted rookie free-agent from Rutgers and finally earned playing time towards the end of the year. His impressive 3-sack performance in week 17 against the Dolphins and five tackles against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game showed he has the ability to be a playmaker. Wilfork has been a mentor to Francis since he arrived and has taught him about football, being a professional, and even family matters. Another player with high potential like Francis is defensive end Jermaine Cunningham. He has shown flashes of his playmaking ability, but he struggles to remain consistent. In his three years with New England he only has 3.5 sacks, 43 tackles and 6 stuffs. While these aren’t terrible stats, they aren’t good for a player drafted in the 2nd round. This is his contract year so he needs to prove his worth or he risks getting cut like Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick.
If one of these players were to be injured *knock on wood*, there are plenty of players that can step up and take on a bigger role. Second year defensive end Jake Bequette was drafted by New England in the third round, so he could prove to be an asset if he continues to grow. Marcus Forston, a practice squad player last year with only three game appearances, has been competing fiercely for a roster spot as Vince Wilfork’s backup. He has seen significant reps in practice which is a sign that he will eventually make the team, but nothing is certain. If the Patriots do not see one of these players as a fitting replacement in the event of an injury, there are a few remaining free agent options available. Kyle Vanden Bosch, a favorite of mine, is still unsigned after being cut by the Lions. Vanden Bosch is 34 years old and near the end of his career, but he still has plenty left to offer any team that takes a chance on him. Another intriguing free agent lineman is Richard Seymour, who could possibly make a return to the Patriots if the stars were to align. While the best case scenario for the Patriots is for everyone on the current roster to remain healthy, in the NFL there are no guarantees against injury.