The Patriots’ defense reigned supreme for the 2022 season and mostly played consistently throughout.
As the more talented side of the roster, it will be essential for Bill Belichick to retain as much talent as possible for the right price. With more defensive stars than offensive players set to become free agents in a handful of weeks, there are a few names that are assumed will be back with New England next season and some that are not guaranteed.
Due to sporadic injuries among nearly all of the Patriots’ cornerbacks, Bryant was used a lot throughout the 2022 season. Playing in all 17 games and starting six, he totaled 70 combined tackles, a fumble recovery, six passes defended, and one interception returned for 11 yards.
Because top corner Jonathan Jones switched from the slot to the outside, Bryant became the team’s top slot corner for the season. Although he had big shoes to fill and had some missteps, his versatile performance as a hybrid CB/safety throughout the year was notable.
Re-signed or let go?: Hitting free agency as a restricted free agent, it’s unlikely teams around the league will be clamoring to sign Bryant. However, over 70 players at the cornerback position are set to be free agents in March, many of which are top-caliber players, making it more probable that Bryant will return to New England this fall.
Mainly used as a rotational piece during the season, Davis became a reliable addition sitting behind Davon Godchaux at defensive tackle. Through 16 games, he totaled 11 combined tackles, one tackle for a loss, one sack, and a fumble recovery returned for 17 yards.
Re-signed or let go?: Because Davis was a consistent backup all year, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him back next season. He will have a lot of competition on the free agent market but could draw some interest from teams in need of good defensive line support.
A pleasant surprise and completely under-the-radar performance was Ekuale’s season. He received a lot of criticism to begin the season, primarily due to his not-so-flashy production of 2021. But he wound up playing much better than anticipated and came up big in many instances throughout the year.
In 15 games, he totaled 14 combined tackles, two tackles for a loss, three quarterback hits, two sacks, and one pass defended. He was impressive as a pass rusher, complementing well alongside Matthew Judon and Josh Uche, and ranked fifth on the team with 22 total pressures according to PFF.
Re-signed or let go?: As a solid depth piece on the defensive line and a player that could be brought back on a less expensive deal, Belichick may keep Ekuale around for those reasons alone.
The Patriots’ cornerback room became a worrisome group after the departures of Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson last season, but that didn’t last long as the 2022 season began.
Throughout training camp and preseason, Jones performed like the clear CB1. Despite his transition from the slot to the outside, his production was the best of his career and couldn’t have come at a better time. Through 16 games, he totaled 69 combined tackles, 11 passes defended, three forced fumbles, four interceptions returned for 89 yards, and a touchdown. However, Jones did have a few struggles, particularly when lining up against top receivers like Justin Jefferson and Stefon Diggs. But how many cornerbacks can truly shut those two down?
Belichick has made his feelings about the corner well known, consistently praising him for his performance and work ethic. He has quickly become a dependable piece of an excelling defense through the years and an important mentor to the younger players around him.
Re-signed or let go?: Much of this decision hinges on how much Belichick will be willing to pay and how much Jones will want. He’s certainly proven his worth, playing as the best corner on the team last year, but what direction will Belichick take?
After signing with the Patriots in March of 2021, McMillan missed the entirety of the subsequent season due to tearing his ACL in a preseason practice. However, he was given a one-year contract extension through 2022 and began the year as a starting linebacker.
That didn’t last long, however. With the outbreak of Jahlani Tavai alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley, McMillan couldn’t reach the starting level again during the season. He was primarily used as a backup rotational piece for most of the season but still took the field for 16 games. He totaled 35 combined tackles, five tackles for a loss, one QB hit, and one fumble recovery returned 23 yards for a touchdown against the Cardinals in week 14.
Re-signed or let go?: Because it appears as though Belichick took a liking to McMillan after he suffered a season-ending injury, signing him to an extension, we could see him return to New England in a backup role.
In one of the least likely ‘let go’ scenarios on the team, McCourty’s future with the Patriots seems to be hinging on if the safety chooses to play another year or retire. Because he has discussed contemplating hanging up his cleats for a few years, we may have seen him play the last game of his NFL career.
Despite being one of the oldest players on the team, McCourty’s performance didn’t take a massive hit in 2022. It clearly wasn’t the best year of his career, but he still played and started in all 17 games totaling 71 combined tackles, eight passes defended, one fumble recovery, and four interceptions returned for 66 yards.
Regardless of his performance on the field, the 12-year Patriots veteran will be missed the most for his leadership if he chooses to retire. The defense’s identity has run partly through McCourty, who has remained a pillar of the defensive side every year.
Re-signed or let go?: DMac’s future will undoubtedly be determined based on what he decides is best for him moving forward. Because he’s only played for the Patriots, it’s almost impossible to imagine Belichick would not re-sign him if he chooses to continue playing.
As one of the most versatile players on the roster this season, Peppers made a name for himself during his first year with the Patriots. We saw him make the biggest impact in the second half of the season, with stints as a safety and pass rusher and all around the defense, as well as good time spent (59% of snaps) on special teams.
What stood out most about Peppers was his impressive physicality and awareness, making waves online for his perfectly timed big hits in games. In 17 games with five starts, he totaled 60 combined tackles, two tackles for a loss, and a fumble recovery.
Re-signed or let go?: Because of Belichick’s love for a Swiss army knife-type player, Peppers could see his way back to New England for 2023 and beyond. With McCourty and Slater’s futures up in the air, re-signing Peppers would make a lot of sense, filling in some of those massive gaps left by the future Patriots Hall of Famers.
Unfortunately for Williams’ 2022 campaign, during the first preseason game of the year, the cornerback sustained a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve, ending his season before it began.
Looking back at the three seasons he’s played in New England, Williams never gained much traction to make it on the field often. He’s totaled 36 games with just one start since 2019, tallying 44 tackles and eight passes defended.
Re-signed or let go?: Although he could be a solid depth piece, Williams’ future in New England seems bleak. Because he wasn’t able to truly establish himself on the field, Belichick will likely let him walk.
Wilson was an exciting addition when the Patriots traded Chase Winovich to the Browns early last year. Because Winovich could not bring the athleticism and speed to the defense Belichick hoped for, Wilson was thought to be precisely what was needed.
He flashed on defense at the start of the season, playing in all 17 games, totaling 36 combined tackles, two tackles for a loss and two quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks, a pass defended, and a forced fumble. But he saw a massive decline in his usage defensively as the season went on due to his apparent struggles in coverage, which moved him to finish the latter half of the year solely on special teams.
Re-signed or let go?: Special teams was an utter disappointment last season, making it a big focus during the upcoming offseason. Because Wilson spent so much time with that unit, Belichick could decide to keep him around for special teams alone.