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Projecting New England Patriots Starters on Defense

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COMMENTARY | Who will be the defensive starters for the New England Patriots in 2013?

The Patriots made some huge defensive improvements in the second half of last season and with some key additions in the offseason, there is a common eagerness in Patriot Nation to see how it'll all look come the regular season.

With the understanding that things can (and usually do) change throughout training camp and that there is a limited body of evidence to draw from, here is a way-too-early projection of the Patriots 2013 defensive starters (using a 4-3 base defense).

Defensive Line

Vince Wilfork, DT

No surprise here.

The immovable object in the middle of the Patriots' defense will remain a centerpiece in 2013. Wilfork consistently attracts double teams and is coming fresh off a First-Team All-Pro performance in 2012.

Tommy Kelly, DT

Wilfork's double teams are all for not if the guy next to him can't win one-on-one battles.

Newcomer Kelly can do just that.

Kelly has a rare combination of size (6'6'', 325 lbs) and athleticism, which makes him a factor against both the run and the pass. The Patriots haven't had a guy like that next to Wilfork since Richard Seymour was around.

While first-year defensive tackle Armond Armstead may be able to push Kelly for the starting gig, Kelly's veteran knowhow gets him the nod here.

Chandler Jones, RDE

Jones is going to be the starting right defensive end in this defense for years to come and after his performance as a rookie, there's no indication that anyone will be able to steal starting time from him.

He's the best defensive end on the team, and it's not even close.

Rob Ninkovich, LDE

Since joining the Patriots in 2009, Ninkovich has done nothing but improve. He's become an all around solid player who is coming off his best season as a pro (eight sacks, five forced fumbles, 58 tackles).

While it's possible that former third-round pick Jake Bequette takes a huge developmental leap in his second year or that rookie Jamie Collins starts turning heads from the defensive end spot, as it stands today, Ninkovich is your guy.

Linebackers

Jerod Mayo, WLB

Not only is Mayo the quarterback of New England's defense, he's also one of the very best linebackers in the NFL who is clearly in his prime after a Pro Bowl performance in 2012.

No further explanation needed.

Brandon Spikes, MLB

In 2012, Spikes emerged as one of the best run-defending linebackers in the game.

While his pass coverage still leaves something to be desired, it's hard to envision a scenario where Spikes isn't starting for New England. Maybe he comes off the field more on third-and-longs and other obvious passing situations, but Spikes is the starting middle linebacker in the base 4-3.

Dont'a Hightower, SLB

With four sacks and 60 tackles, Hightower showed a lot of promise in his rookie campaign. I thought he started to play some of his best ball down the stretch last season as he became more comfortable with the system.

Hightower is big part of the defense's future.

We'll see Hightower a lot in 2013. Don't be surprised if we see him more in different roles--perhaps more snaps from defensive end spot in sub defenses.

Secondary

Aqib Talib, LCB

Talib is the prototypical modern-day NFL cornerback. He's tall (6'1''), fast ( 4.44 sec. 40-yard dash), and physical at the line of scrimmage.

Talib came aboard halfway through last season and seemed to pick things up in a pinch. He instantly became the Patriots best corner and I expect that to continue in 2013.

Ras-I Dowling, RCB

Perhaps the most controversial of these projections, Dowling gets the nod here over second-year man Alfonzo Dennard.

Dennard really blossomed into a good corner last season, but as Mike Reiss and Field Yates of ESPNBoston remind us, Dowling has been lights out at OTAs.

As of now, Dowling is healthy and playing well. If he continues that throughout training camp--while I'm sure it will be a tough decision--Dowling's physical traits may sway Bill Belichick's decision in his favor. He's got the size (6'1'') and speed ( 4.40 sec. 40-yard dash) of a true No. 1.

Devin McCourty, FS

McCourty looked like a natural free safety after being moved from cornerback about halfway through last season.

He helped limit big pass plays down the field and made some big plays of his own from the position. He has the range and ball skills that NFL teams need from their last line of defense.

McCourty isn't going anywhere.

Adrian Wilson, SS

At last, the long awaited "enforcer" has arrived!

Wilson is one of the most accomplished strong safeties in the NFL. I need to use both hands to count how many times he's been to the Pro Bowl/named All-Pro.

Yes, he's on the back nine of his career at 33 years old, but he can still play at a high level. The Patriots' youthful secondary could stand to be a little longer in the tooth, anyhow.

Admittedly, the best-case scenario from an organizational standpoint would be for last year's second-round selection Tavon Wilson to emerge as a starter, but they probably don't feel so bad about him learning under one of the best ever for a full season either.

Disagree with any of these? Let me have it in the comments section!

All 40-yard dash times per NFLDraftScout.com

James DiMaio is a Yahoo! contributor who also covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for Bleacher Report.

Follow James on Twitter @JamesDiMaio or visit his profile .
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