The New England Patriots have all sorts of problems they need to solve on offense before the new season arrives, but at least the defense looks super.
If you’re a fan of the New England Patriots looking for a glimmer of hope and optimism during these precarious times, here it is: the defense that led the NFL in most every significant category from wire-to-wire during the 2019 regular season should return just as terrific in 2020.
Yes, there could be some personnel losses to deal with. Kyle Van Noy — an integral part of this defense and certainly the heart and soul of the linebacking unit — is headed for unrestricted free agency. He has always gushed about his love for New England and playing under Bill Belichick, but will he turn down a significantly more lucrative offer elsewhere to remain a Patriot?
He’s not the only one who could command top dollar next month, either. Safety Devin McCourty had his best season since he came into the league as a rookie cornerback. McCourty seems like he’s planted the notion of retiring from the NFL firmly in his rear-view mirror, but could he decide to sign with another team for the first time in his career if the money’s right?
He certainly has enough rings at this point that maybe one last payday would be appealing to him. He’ll almost definitely get more money with another team than he would with the tight-fisted Patriots.
Jamie Collins is another potential loss this offseason. The linebacker was a new man this past season during his second stint with the team that originally drafted him — he was particularly effective during the first half of the season.
Don’t forget: Collins has tasted the other side of the equation. He inked a giant contract with the Cleveland Browns and realized the hard way that money isn’t everything when your team is just plain putrid.
Perhaps a season of adoration from the crowds — and a season spent largely dominating the competition and winning football games — was enough to convince him to come back?
There are a few other names from the defense who could test free agency this spring. Linebacker/emergency fullback Elandon Roberts is one of them, along with nose tackle Danny Shelton and linebacker Shilique Calhoun.
Of the three, Shelton would represent arguably the biggest loss if he signs elsewhere. The former Browns first-round pick came on strong toward the end of his first season with the Patriots (2018) and then in the playoffs. This past season, he evolved into a capable run-stuffer and three-down anchor in the middle of New England’s defensive line.
Justin Bethel and Nate Ebner are also free agents, but both play primarily (if not exclusively) on special teams. Defensive lineman Adam Butler and defensive end Keionta Davis are also restricted free agents this March, though neither sees a ton of snaps with the team on a regular basis.
Now that we’ve listed and identified all the potential losses on this defense, it’s time to highlight just who will still be here — and therein illustrate why this team is still absolutely stacked in 2020, no matter who leaves in free agency.
Let’s start with linebacker. Hopefully the Patriots will find a way to pay at least one of their two starting-caliber UFAs (Van Noy and Collins). Assuming they do, they’ll be able to retain at least two-thirds of their primary linebacking group — the other being Dont’a Hightower.
Add in some capable backups like Ja’Whaun Bentley and whomever else they manage to retain between Roberts and Calhoun, and the Pats should be fine here.
The loss of McCourty in the secondary would be huge — there’s no doubt about it. Still, the Patriots have Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, and Terrence Brooks back there, and all three are high-end playmakers capable of locking down centerfield for New England.
Make no mistake, the Pats should do everything they can to keep McCourty. But if they lose him somehow, it’s not the end of the world at least.
Cornerback will be just as strong in 2020 as it was in 2019 — in fact, it should be even better. Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore returns to lock down one side of the field, and his running mates Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones, and J.C. Jackson are all coming back as well.
Together, this is easily the best top-four cornerback group in the NFL… and it’s not even close. Plus, last year’s second-round draft pick Joejuan Williams should be another year wiser and more adapted to New England’s schemes and plays.
The line itself shouldn’t be too affected — especially if the Patriots can retain Shelton. They’ll likely keep Butler, who will be flanked with other up-and-coming edge players like Chase Winovich, John Simon, Deatrich Wise, and Derek Rivers (if he can ever stay healthy).
Most important of all, the Patriots defense still has Bill Belichick roaming the sideline, along with co-play-callers Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick. Even with some other coaching losses, the Patriots should overall be fine when it comes to their staff.
Overall, the moral of the story this offseason is that the team needs to do whatever it takes to retain Tom Brady at quarterback — and then they need to upgrade the weapons around him significantly.
The defense has several key playmakers that Belichick and Robert Kraft should try to lock down, but if any of them leave — even if all of them leave — this defense is still well-positioned to be among the league’s best in 2020.