Just how much the Patriots can help themselves defensively when free agency begins on March 14 remains to be seen, but there are some gaping holes at every level.
“Bend don’t break” went up in flames in Super Bowl LII, the New England defense revealing itself as a paper tiger that was fifth in the league in points per game (18.5) but 29th overall and 30th out of 32 teams against the pass.
Fixing all of the woes would be impossible – and unwise, given salary cap ramifications – in free agency. Improvements have to be made on that side of the ball one way or another though, because when your quarterback throws for 505 yards in a game and loses, it’s hard not to circle back to the collective performance of the defense.
The Patriots will have a new defensive play-caller this season in Brian Flores, who won’t officially be named the defensive coordinator according to Yahoo’s Charles Robinson. Who else could Flores be working with this season following the departure of Matt Patricia to Detroit?
The Patriots declined tackle Alan Branch’s option for the 2018 season, making him a free agent and saving the team roughly $3.5 million in cap space. Branch re-signed with New England last off-season but fell out of favor down the stretch to the point he was a healthy scratch in Super Bowl LII. Ricky Jean-Francois is also a free agent.
Something has to change in the middle, where the Patriots had the No. 20 ranked rushing defense in the league (114.8 yards per game) and were second-to-last in terms of yards per carry against (4.7). Malcom Brown was steady when healthy last season, as was Lawrence Guy, but a disruptive force a la Vince Wilfork would be ideal for this group.
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Along the edges, Trey Flowers is as solid an all-around defensive end as there is in today’s NFL, but he can’t do it all alone. Rookie Deatrich Wise Jr. started strong and finished stronger last season as a compliment to Flowers.
There’s not nearly enough room against the cap to make it happen, but either one of a pair of former New York Jets in tackle Sheldon Richardson or defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson fill a need for the Patriots along the defensive front. Dontari Poe, Star Lotulelei and Haloti Ngata are more big names among the free agent crop of defensive linemen.
Assuming he’s ready for OTA’s, Dont’a Hightower will be the best player in New England’s linebacking corps, regardless of who it may sign in free agency. But after missing 11 games last season and not having made it through a full season since 2013, how much longer can the Patriots truly rely on Hightower to be the nerve center of the defense? The fact that New England made it as far as it did without Hightower likely says more about the favorable draw it had in the AFC playoffs rather than the players who filled in for Hightower.
Hightower needs helps, as it affects the entire operation defensively. It speaks to another area of need on this side of the ball that Hightower and Kyle Van Noy were asked to play out of position along the edge at times last season.
The free agent crop of linebackers isn’t the strongest, so the draft is the most likely avenue the Patriots will opt for when it comes to upgrading this position. Some notable veteran names who are available include Derrick Johnson, Nigel Bradham and Pernell McPhee.
In terms of guys who were on the roster last year for New England, Marquis Flowers is a pending free agent who came on strong at the end of the season with 4.5 sacks in a three-game stretch between the end of the regular season and the divisional round. That kind of production is unsustainable, but he’s definitely worth bringing back to play in sub-packages as a rusher, spy the quarterback and contribute on special teams. Soon-to-be 40-year-old James Harrison also makes sense to retain as a free agent, which Christopher Price of the Boston Sports Journal reported last month had a “reasonable chance” of happening.
New England’s secondary, particularly its safeties, comprise one of the most stable groups on the roster heading into free agency.
That comes with one notable exception, of course, in pending free agent cornerback Malcolm Butler. As you may have heard by now, Butler did not play a single snap on defense in Super Bowl LII despite playing more snaps than any Patriot on that side of the ball in the regular season.
The Super Bowl XLIX hero and 2015 Pro Bowler is gone. Butler never developed into Darrelle Revis, who he essentially replaced as the team’s No. 1 corner following the 2014 season. That’s not to say Butler didn’t work out at all, particularly in those first two seasons despite being completely unproven beforehand.
If the Patriots take a similar approach this time around, that would mean replacing Butler with a lesser-known commodity on the back end of the roster such as Jonathan Jones or Johnson Bademosi – the latter of whom is also a free agent. Third corner Eric Rowe wound up playing 95 percent of New England’s defensive snaps in the Super Bowl in place of Butler, but both he and Bademosi and safety Jordan Richards struggled mightily to contain the Philadelphia passing attack led by Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles.
It’s almost impossible to fathom the Patriots taking that approach. Bill Belichick should be scouring the open market for corners, of which there are many. Two intriguing names who aren’t free agents – yet – have also been linked to New England to varying degrees in Aqib Talib and Richard Sherman.
Talib is 32 and Sherman turns 30 later this month, but make no mistake about it: pairing either one of them with Stephon Gilmore would give the Patriots the best starting cornerback tandem in the NFL. Even if that was a possibility last season with Butler.
It’s very unlikely you’ll see a change in the status quo with New England’s three key specialists in kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Ryan Allen and long snapper Joe Cardona. Check back around this time next year, when the current contracts of all three players are set to expire.
Gostkowski connected on 37 of his 40 field goal attempts in 2017, good enough for the fifth-best percentage in the NFL at 92.5. In the postseason, however, Gostkowski made only three of his five field goal attempts and also missed an extra point. One of the missed field goals, as well as the PAT, came in Super Bowl LII. The botching of the field goal had more to do with Cardona’s snap, but it’s nevertheless three years in a row now that Gostkowski has missed a kick in New England’s final game of the season (2015 AFC Championship Game vs. Denver, Super Bowl LI vs. Atlanta).
With Sebastian Janikowski done in Oakland, hard as it is to believe, Gostkowski is currently tied for the longest tenure with one team among kickers in the NFL. Adam Vinatieri, whom Gostkowski replaced in 2006, shares the mark. Gostkowski has the third-best career field goal percentage in NFL history at 87.63 percent.