During the 2021 NFL season, the New England Patriots were one of the slowest teams in the league. This weakness was especially apparent in their Wild Card round game against the Buffalo Bills. Despite the ups and downs of Mac Jones' rookie season, the Patriots managed to reach the playoffs, but the Bills' dominance on the field exposed the team's flaws, particularly their lack of speed. Patriots Nation went through that game and realized that times have indeed changed.
As painful as the loss was, it served as a wake-up call for Bill Belichick and the Patriots' personnel department. They realized that their old team-building strategy was no longer viable, given the league's trend towards faster and more agile players.
The likes of Jaylen Waddle, Ja'Marr Chase, and Justin Fields were among the rising stars in the NFL, and the Patriots simply didn't have the speed to keep up with them.
For years, the Patriots had followed a middle-out philosophy, that focused on building a strong defense and a north-south style of offense. This approach worked well in the past, thanks in part to key players like Jerod Mayo and Donta Hightower, who were instrumental in controlling the middle of the field.
However, with the Shanahan coaching tree and its emphasis on east-west action spreading throughout the league, the Patriots had to adapt their strategy. Crossers, motion, and zone running schemes are some ways offenses are trying to stretch defenses and test their range and athletic ability.
For years, the Patriots' lack of speed had been exposed by fast-moving teams. Teams with running quarterbacks, such as Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson, and Colin Kaepernick, have consistently caused trouble for the Patriots. With this style of play becoming more common in the league, the Patriots knew they had to change their entire roster-building philosophy. They began by restructuring the linebacker room, letting go of fan favorite Dont'a Hightower, and bringing in faster, more agile players.
In the 2022 draft, the Patriots continued to prioritize speed, selecting Marcus and Jack Jones, both of whom demonstrated elite speed on the field. This focus on speed extended beyond the defensive side of the ball, as Marcus Jones also shone on offense and special teams, becoming a fan favorite after a game-winning punt return touchdown against the Jets.
Despite a tumultuous 2022 season, the Patriots committed to their focus on speed, which paid off with a top three defense in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. As they prepared for the 2023 draft, the team's Director of Player Personnel, Matt Groh, emphasized once again that speed was the key to success.
""You can put these guys all over the place and that's one way to increase the overall speed of the defense." "- Matt Groh
In addition to adding fast players at various positions, the Patriots were also exploring new ways to incorporate speed into their game plan. They value versatility in their players, particularly in the secondary, where players like Kyle Dugger have the speed, agility, and ball skills to play both safety and linebacker effectively.
In the 2023 draft, the Patriots selected Marte Mapu from Sacramento State, another LB/S hybrid, to further enhance their defensive versatility. Drafting CB Christian Gonzalez and CB Ameer Speed was another step in going from one of the slowest defenses to maybe the fastest and most dominant defense.
With a range of fast and agile players at their disposal, the Patriots are well-equipped to face any team, using quarter packages with seven defensive backs on the field as needed. With multiple players capable of filling the swiss-army knife role, like Kyle Duggar and potentially Marte Mapu, the Patriots pose a serious challenge to their opponents in the 2023 season.