NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
On Sunday morning, we took a look at New England’s potential 2014 NFL Draft needs on the offensive side of the ball, which you can read here; today, we’ll consider some of their possible areas of weakness on the defensive side of the ball, taking into account as diverse a range of possibilities as possible, including potential free agent losses, 2014 salary cap hits/savings, and player performance.
Tommy Kelly is guaranteed $500,000 of his $3 million cap figure in 2014, meaning that he is a legitimate contender for the starting defensive tackle job. The position could very well be up for grabs, as incumbent starter Kyle Love (who played 592 snaps in 2012) is probably best suited to a reserve nose tackle role due to his lack of pressure in the passing game; Love’s contract is also set to expire at the end of the season.
Free agent signing Armond Armstead is a potential starter at the position, but it is difficult to evaluate the chances of him receiving significant playing time right away because of his lack of experience in New England’s defense; it’s also possible that Armstead, at 6’5” and just under 300 pounds, may be projected as a replacement for reserve/rotational player Brandon Deaderick, who has similar size and played 468 snaps for the Patriots in 2012.
With interior pass rusher Jermaine Cunningham (487 snaps in 2012) expiring alongside Deaderick, the Patriots may find their depth depleted moving forwards, although it’s possible that defensive end Justin Francis could slide inside to defensive tackle on obvious passing downs, a position he played at Rutgers.
Whether or not defensive end is a need entering next offseason will depend on a multitude of factors, most notably starting left end Rob Ninkovich’s contract status; Ninkovich is set to become a free agent at the end of the season, and the Patriots could opt to go in a different direction. 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette is one possible option, although he played just 29 snaps last season behind below-average rotational players such as Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Deaderick, Justin Francis, and Trevor Scott.
At this point, it’s probably too early to expect much from 2013 seventh-rounder Michael Buchanan outside of a reserve/rotational role. Even if Ninkovich returns, the Patriots may want to replace impending free agents such as Cunningham and Deaderick with more effective options.
Implementing more 3-4 looks is one possibility for New England in 2013 based on their 2013 NFL Draft; at 250 pounds, Jamie Collins is probably best suited to a rush linebacker role (the ROLB position in the 3-4), and it’s no sure bet that a player such as Tommy Kelly or Armond Armstead will end up offering starting-caliber play, although both players figure to get opportunities on the end in 3-4 fronts should New England opt to integrate the package into their defense more consistently than they did in 2012.
Chandler Jones would likely feature as New England’s right end in the formation, similar to how Arizona used long-limbed defensive end Calais Campbell. The strength of his bull rush as well as his long arms should allow him to attack blockers effectively in a two-gap front despite his lack of ideal bulk for the position.
Brandon Spikes is set to hit free agency at the end of the season; his limitations in coverage could push New England in another direction. One option that makes sense is to slide strongside linebacker Dont’a Hightower into the middle, where his lack of ideal range would be masked, while starting Jamie Collins on the strongside. However, if New England decides to use Collins as a defensive end instead, they could choose to look for a third linebacker; re-signing Rob Ninkovich and converting his position is another option.
Regardless of what happens with the starting personnel, the Patriots could still use a coverage linebacker; this season, Dane Fletcher may receive some looks in that capacity. Niko Koutouvides, Mike Rivera, and Jeff Tarpinian have yet to demonstrate any value outside of their special teams roles, and seventh-rounder Steve Beauharnais is another strict special teams player.
Starting left cornerback Aqib Talib is on a one-year deal, and any further injuries or off-the-field issues would likely cause the Patriots to cut ties with him at the end of the season. New England has two additional options at left cornerback in Ras-I Dowling and 2013 third-round pick Logan Ryan, but neither player can be considered a future starter at this point. Dowling has struggled to stay on the field and is probably best suited to a backup role, while Ryan’s draft status, intangibles, size, and physicality should not hide the fact that he struggles in coverage.
Based on what the two aforementioned players show in 2013, the Patriots could decide that they need additional personnel on the outside, although this is probably an unlikely scenario for the time being. Fortunately, the Patriots are set at right cornerback (Alfonzo Dennard) and in the slot (Kyle Arrington) moving forwards.
Devin McCourty is a definite starter at free safety, but the strong safety position is currently stocked with quantity rather than an ideal starting option. Steve Gregory could very well be released this season or during the offseason, where cutting ties with him would save $2.35 million of his $3.18 million cap number in 2014. At this point in his career, Adrian Wilson may be best suited to a sub package role, possibly as New England’s third safety or even as a coverage linebacker.
2012 second-rounder Tavon Wilson and 2013 third-rounder Duron Harmon could both compete for starting roles eventually, although it may be too soon to consider either of them a safe starting option. This is probably a minor need for now, but could become more pronounced depending on how the four options (Gregory, Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson, and Harmon) perform in 2013.