COMMENTARY | Sharing some thoughts on the state of the New England Patriots defense heading into the offseason, in rapid-fire fashion:
Bye Bye Brandon Spikes. Spikes was a lot of fun to watch in his tenure in New England. His enthusiasm on the field was second to none. However, the emergence of second-round selection Jamie Collins coupled with Spikes' lack of pass-coverage ability spells the end for the former Florida Gator. It doesn't help that Spikes' landing on injured reserved looks to have been an act of discipline more than anything else (h/t Michael David Smith, ProFootballTalk ). It's been fun and you're good against the run, but your time is done son!
Jerod Mayo and Collins in Nickel. The idea of having Mayo and Collins as your two linebackers in nickel packages is pretty intriguing. Both are fast, athletic and have shown the ability to cover. This alone should drastically improve New England's third-and-long defense as well as their pass defense in general. I think we'll see Dont'a Hightower move to Spikes' vacant middle linebacker spot on early downs with Mayo on the weak side and Collins on the strong side. Given its talent, balance and versatility, it's a very promising group of linebackers going forward.
Chandler Jones is a Beast. I don't think people are giving Jones enough credit for his 11.5-sack season. People forget that he received the majority of the double teams after Vince Wilfork went down. Offensive lines clearly game planned around No. 95. When big Vince and Tommy Kelly return in 2014 (if healthy, of course) Jones won't see nearly as many double teams. He looks like a beast going forward.
Bringing In a Big DT. The need for a defensive tackle this offseason is directly tied to the health of Wilfork and Kelly and, to some extent, Armond Armstead. Given the slim depth they built behind Wilfork and Kelly tells me they had big plans for Armstead. If those guys aren't ready to go, the thought here is that they draft a defensive tackle in the first or second round.
Aqib Talib Needs to be Re-signed. Talib has emerged as one of the best corners in the NFL when healthy. He hasn't always been healthy and it's two years in a row now that he's left the AFC Championship game with a game-ending injury, leaving the rest of the secondary to run around like sugar-high toddlers who need their diapers changed. But when Talib is on the field, he really makes a difference. He consistently slows down the opposing team's top option and, for whatever reason, brings out the best in his teammates. Everyone plays a little tougher when Taib is out there and little crappier when he's not. We've all seen it. Franchise tag him if need be, but he needs to stay in New England.
Devin McCourty Should Get Extended. OK, maybe I was a little rough on the secondary in the last bit. McCourty actually put together a terrific season at free safety. I thought he was one of the better safeties in the league at defending the deeper half of the field. Apparently I wasn't the only one with that thought as he was named second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press this month. Captain DMac looks like a core piece of the defense moving forward. Entering the final year of his rookie deal in 2014, this offseason looks as good of a time as any for a lengthy extension.
Strong Safety Still Needs Upgrade. Steve Gregory isn't a bad player. He just isn't good enough to start for this defense. When asked to play strong safety, he's often out matched. He's a small guy and displays an inability to tackle on a weekly basis. I'm not saying cut him, just don't start him. Duron Harmon looks like a possible starter. He looks like a good athlete with great size (6'1'', 205 lb) and unlike Gregory, he's a good tackler. I didn't see Harmon make any bonehead plays in his rookie campaign like we saw Tavon Wilson make in 2012, so it's a possibility that he takes over the safety spot alongside McCourty in 2014.
The Defense Should be Good in 2014. If not for a rash of injuries to multiple starters, the Patriots would have had a good defensive unit in 2013. In fact, they did have a good unit before everyone fell victim to the injury bug. Through the first six games of the season--when the Pats still had most of their defensive big boys--the defense was 36% on third down, allowed under 230 passing yards per game and allowed just 16 points per game. Not too shabby. If they get their guys healthy and bring in a few more pieces, they should be a pretty formidable bunch soon enoughJames DiMaio is a Yahoo contributor who also covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for Bleacher Report.ESPN.com .
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