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The Patriots finished last season in embarrassing fashion. As that wild-card playoff game played out, it became abundantly clear that their defense wasn’t close to the level of talent as the Buffalo Bills offense.
When it was all over, quarterback Josh Allen and the Bills scored a touchdown on every drive before the backups came on the field. The Patriots exited the 2021 postseason looking to rebuild their defense. That’s one reason why many were surprised that the Patriots added just three defensive players in their 10-player 2022 NFL Draft class last week.
The offense-heavy selections begged a few questions. Didn’t the Patriots see what we all saw? Is this roster in better shape or worse?
One thing that’s become clear is that the Patriots value their roster differently than outsiders do. That’s where someone like veteran cornerback Terrance Mitchell could come in. After losing All-Pro cornerback J.C. Jackson in free agency, the Patriots rebuilt their depth chart by adding Mitchell, Malcolm Butler and two rookies, Marcus Jones and Jack Jones. They join Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, Shaun Wade, Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant at the position.
Mitchell, who started last year for Houston and the season before that for Cleveland, said he was ecstatic to be in New England after signing a one-year deal with the Patriots.
“Man, it’s beautiful,” Mitchell said on Thursday. “It’s like you’re at the toy store — getting a whole bunch of toys. It’s fun.”
Mitchell finished last year with 60 tackles, 10 passes defended and an interception. He’s someone who could surprise us this offseason as the Patriots get ready for organized team activities, or OTAs, in three weeks.
If this defense is going to turn around, it’ll be under-the-radar players such as Mitchell who will need to step up.
“I just want to go out there and put my best foot forward,” Mitchell said. “Play hard, play smart and help win some games.”
Mitchell could play a part in the Patriots doing just that. He might surprise us in 2022 along with these five other defensive players:
Jalen Mills, cornerback
Mills shouldn’t surprise anyone if he has a standout season with the Patriots, but many are forgetting that his absence in the wild-card loss was huge. The Patriots didn’t have the depth to replace him in that game and it showed. Last season, Mills allowed catches on just 49% of his targets. In the final nine games, he gave up seven catches on 21 targets (33%) for 72 yards with two touchdowns and four pass breakups. Many observers predict Butler will be the Patriots' top cornerback, but a repeat performance like that could put Mills in the driver’s seat.
Getting a shot: Patriots undrafted free agent tracker
Ronnie Perkins, edge rusher
Perkins, a 2021 third-round pick, is not in good company. He didn’t play last season, joining Yodny Cajuste (2019), Antonio Garcia (2017), Tyrone McKenzie (2009), Shawn Crable (2008), Guss Scott (2004) and Brock Williams (2001) as third-rounders who did not play during their rookie seasons in New England. That’s not ideal. The Patriots' failure to draft a linebacker or bring back Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, however, leaves room for younger players like Perkins to stand out. After drafting him, head coach Bill Belichick said Perkins “had good ability to be disruptive on defense.” The Patriots could use that.
Henry Anderson, defensive line
Anderson is one of the forgotten players from the Patriots' 2021 free-agent splurge. He appeared in three games last year before finishing the season on injured reserve. Anderson then took a pay cut to stay in New England. He certainly doesn’t have high expectations. Before signing with the Patriots, however, he was one of the best run defenders in the NFL, ranking 25th in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. The only new addition to the defensive line this offseason was sixth-rounder Sam Roberts. Perhaps the Patriots see a bigger role for Anderson.
Raekwon McMillan, linebacker
McMillan had a great rookie season in Miami, finishing with 105 tackles in 2018. His playing time went down the next two seasons, including a backup role in Las Vegas in 2020. The linebacker spent last offseason in New England and looked as if he could be a solid player for the defense. McMillan suffered a torn ACL in August, however, and missed the season. He’s someone who could step up after a few veteran linebackers left the team this offseason. Last summer, Belichick said he was impressed with McMillan’s “intelligence and work ethic.”
Shaun Wade, cornerback
The Patriots traded for Wade late last summer, sending a 2023 fifth-round pick to Baltimore for the young corner. The 23-year-old joined the Patriots so late in training camp that he never really had time to catch on with the defense. With the Patriots drafting two corners (Marcus Jones and Jack Jones), Wade could be on the outside looking in but he showed promise last summer in Baltimore. He also has great size, at 6 feet 1 inch, for the position. We’ll see if a year in the Patriots' system has Wade ahead of rookies and other newcomers at the cornerback position.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Patriots defense: Five players poised to surprise in the 2022 season