New England Patriots Summer Six-Pack

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 26: The New England Patriots logo is seen on a video board during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft at AT
ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 26: The New England Patriots logo is seen on a video board during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft at AT /
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ATLANTA, GA – NOVEMBER 12: Adrian Clayborn #99 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates a sack during the second half against the Dallas Cowboys at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 12, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

New Faces on Defense:

While the focus will be on Brady and Gronkowski, it should really be on the defense. After all, Brady and Gronkowski were a large part of putting up 613 total yards and 33 points. They had nothing to do with allowing 41 points, 164 yards rushing, 374 yards passing and 538 total yards.

The Patriots will go into 2018 with a number of changes on defense. Cornerback Malcolm Butler–who did not play on defense in the Super Bowl–is in Tennessee. Edge rusher James Harrison (68 snaps played in the Super Bowl) retired. Cornerback Johnson Bademosi (11 snaps) and defensive tackles Ricky Jean-Francois (15 snaps) and Alan Branch are not back in New England. Shea McClellin–who spent the season on injured reserve–also will not return and likely retire.

In the NFL Draft the Patriots added cornerbacks Duke Dawson in the second round and Keion Cresson in the seventh round. They also added linebackers Ja’whuan Bentley and Christian Sam in the fifth round. Dawson is expected to compete with Jonathan Jones immediately while Crossen is a project for the practice squad. Bentley and Sam will compete for a back-up/special teams role with holdovers Marquis Flowers, Elandon Roberts and Nicholas Grigsby.

In free agency they added edge rusher Adrian Clayborn from Atlanta and traded for tackle Danny Shelton and cornerback Jason McCourty. All three are expected to step into the starting defense and contribute immediately.

Coming back from injury are a number of potentially valuable contributors to the defense. First and foremost is linebacker Dont’a Hightower who missed most of last season and was on injured reserve all of the second half of the season and in the playoffs. His ability to coordinate the defense, stop the run and contribute to the pass rush cannot be understated.

Edge rusher and 2017 third round draft pick Derek Rivers showed promise last year in training camp but spent the season on injured reserve. He should be back to full strength heading into 2018.

A player who was a key contributor in 2016 who missed all of 2017 was defensive tackle Vincent Valentine. A quiet, huge body in the middle of the defense, Valentine was the Patriots’ best run stuffer in 2016 while playing 288 snaps (27%) on defense. His return provides much needed depth behind Shelton and Malcom Brown.

Another player on injured reserve last season was cornerback Cyrus Jones. The Patriots’ second round draft pick from 2016 has struggled to get on the field and contribute. He flashed impressive ball skills and quickness at Alabama and was expected to play a key role on defense. He has played ten games over two seasons and just 147 snaps on defense. This is a make-or-break season for Jones who will have to challenge rookie Duke Dawson and holdover Jonathan Jones for playing time.

Finally, the defense should have linebacker Harvey Langi back on the field for training camp. Langi was a high-profile undrafted free agent who went on injured reserve after a bad accident off-the-field when he and his wife were injured being struck in their car by a drunk driver. Langi only played one game, but he flashed talent and could be in the mix for a top back-up linebacker role in 2018.

The new faces and returning veterans and young players should give this defense a boost in 2018. But the most impactful new face on defense could be Brian Flores who is defensive coordinator in every way except title. Flores replaces Matt Patricia who is head coach in Detroit. A fresh perspective and a little more creativity and aggressiveness could give this defense a big boost next year.