2018 Season Preview

Bedard: Analyzing the Patriots’ defensive roster – Big questions at LB loom large

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(All photos via Adam Richins for BSJ)

We already posted our thoughts on the offense after the initial waiver period. Let's take a look at the defense, starting with the team-wide depth chart.

(This depth chart is visible to members, but not non-members)

[table id=131 /]

LEFT END

Between switching sides from right to left end, and missing a lot of camp and all the preseason with some sort of mystery injury, all signs point to Trey Flowers taking a step back this season. I've been a big believer in Flowers during his time with the Patriots but, much like Tom Brady and his preseason experience, I have some uneasiness about Flowers entering this year. I'll admit I'm a data guy. If I don't have a lot of information on a player for whatever reason (usually injury), I don't have a good feeling — and it's not always accurate. Let's hope that's the case with Flowers. But before his injury, he wasn't as impressive as a pass rusher on the other side.

Both Derek Rivers (knee) and Keionta Davis (neck) are on this roster with the hope that they will be good players as they gain more confidence coming back from injury. Because if you were going off what either of them has actually shown to this point, neither would be on the roster and you'd develop them on the practice squad. Rivers seems closest to becoming a factor as a sub rusher because he has flashed on occasion. Davis ... I'm not sure what he does well. Honestly, he seems like a potential replacement for Flowers (similar body and playing style) if he leaves in free agency — but that's a huge stretch at this point.

This was the summer where I fell in love with Geneo Grissom, and I'm happy he was rewarded for a great summer with a spot on the roster even though I projected him to be cut. He's actually productive (unlike Rivers and Davis) when he gets an opportunity, and he's very good on special teams. I would not be surprised to see him get some sub looks if Rivers starts slowly.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Yes, Lawrence Guy is my guy. He's just rock-solid and tough to move. He has great feet to help thwart zone-blocking schemes to boot. I love his game, but I will concede that he's not the most productive guy in the world. That's not his role. His job is to occupy blockers and allow others to make plays.

Adam Butler is the same guy as he was as a rookie — and that's not a bad thing. He just knows how to make plays and get to the QB in sub packages. He often out-quicks guards and gives them headaches. To play more, he's going to have to get stronger against the run.

NOSE TACKLE

I have a feeling you'll see a bit of a platoon between Danny Shelton and Malcom Brown. Shelton is the better overall player, but he hasn't quite gotten the Patriots' two-gap scheme and has lacked gap integrity so far — which is a mortal sin in this defense. But it's early. He's learning, and he's far from a lost cause. He can get it and I expect him to. He has the potential to be an excellent player for them on all downs — the Patriots have never really had a big man with this sort of quickness.

Until that time, I would not be surprised to see Brown get a lot of early-down assignments. When Brown buys in, he evokes memories of Vince Wilfork. But his focus can wane. The Patriots have the added bonus of Brown being in a contract season, so hopefully he brings it and doesn't start playing out of scheme in an effort to fill up the stat line for free agency (I can't see Brown doing that).

Vincent Valentine is a good player to have on the practice squad in case of injury. There's nothing special about him, but he can be solid at both tackle spots if the Patriots need him.

RIGHT END

I'm not sure what they're going to do here. Adrian Clayborn was the starter at the beginning of camp, but a much-improved Deatrich Wise got off to a hot start and went from sub rusher to playing all three downs. But then, Wise tailed off at the end of camp and in the preseason, while Clayborn has come on. I think this is a toss-up, but I would expect the Patriots to start Wise and Clayborn would enter as a sub rusher to go with Rivers, Butler and Wise.

Wise got pegged as a rush-only player as his rookie season to the point he only played six snaps in the Super Bowl (while Marquis Flowers played 17 as an end ... yes, I'm still bitter about that). As has been the case probably since Bill Belichick devised his scheme in his crib, if a player can't defend the edge first, he's not going to have much of a role. Give Wise credit, because he has vastly improved on the edge. But there are still concerns about him there. That's why this is a fluid situation.

Clayborn got off to a slow start as a Patriots, but he's become much more confident and it shows on the field. I expect him to have a major impact on this defense, and would not be surprised if he emerges as an every-down player.

Practice squadder Trent Harris flashed at times and was worth a longer look. Another potential Trey Flowers replacement in 2019.

LINEBACKER

Two pretty big questions here — and the answers could tip whether this is a better defense or not in 2018: Who's starting at middle linebacker? And is Dont'a Hightower still the impactful player he was before all the injuries?

It's a tossup as to whether Elandon Roberts or Ja'Whaun Bentley will be the starter as the Mike. Bentley, who looks to have been a fabulous pick in the fifth round, should be the starter at some point, it's just a matter of when. He's everything the Patriots have been looking for — smart, tough, physical and faster than advertised — to solidify the linebacker group. Roberts is better than people realize, and has improved since last season. Yes, he's prone to a mental error here and there. But he's largely a good player and helps the team.

Hightower ... my concerns about him have been well-documented here at BSJ. Have the Patriots just been bringing him along slowly to preserve him for the season (sort of like the defensive Gronk)? That could very well be the case, and if that's the deal, my concerns would be negated. I hope that's the case because Hightower, when right, is one of the Patriots' few impactful players on defense. But he didn't make any plays in the preseason, didn't show much during camp, and seems to be battling some lower-body issues. There's no question he's a vital cog no matter where they play him from week to week and down to down (strong-side, Mike, end, weakside?).

Kyle Van Noy looks much healthier and active this season. Flashed some good coverage ability in camp. He's just a good, solid football player who can play every spot and some end when needed.

Nicholas Grigsby doesn't look like much — he's small (6-feet, 220 pounds) and his lower body doesn't look forcefully built — but he knows how to play and he's deceptively fast. First and foremost a special teamer, he could be a cover option. But I do worry about his overall athletic ability.

Brandon King ... I have no clue what he could be as a linebacker, because I've never seen him there. Your guess is as good as mine.

LEFT CORNERBACK

Eric Rowe is a good player and was better in the Super Bowl than a lot of people give him credit for. The Patriots' pass rush just stunk. Give Rowe a ton of credit for playing hurt all last season — he missed substantial time with a torn groin that would land most players on injured reserve — and toughing it out. He is a good, solid No. 2 corner.

J.C. Jackson ... I don't think I've been this excited about a young defensive back in some time — even Malcolm Butler didn't show Jackson's potential as a rookie. He has all the potential in the world with great size, athletic ability and nose for the ball. I wouldn't sweat it much if Jackson has to start at any point in the season.

RIGHT CORNERBACK

Stephon Gilmore should live up to his big contract this season as a shutdown cornerback, but the question still lingers as to whether he's improved all that much since last season. He still had technique and communication issues in the preseason and that's .... disappointing. But, at the least, you can say Gilmore is durable, solid and has shown a knack for coming up large in the biggest spots. You'd probably take just that. But you'd like to see a little more for what he's getting paid.

Keion Crossen is definitely a future bet, but one worth taking and I'm glad the Patriots did it. He might not contribute much this season. Jason McCourty was probably kept to backup two spots (corner and free safety).

Patriots needed another body on the practice squad and Jomal Wiltz was the best of the rest. Don't think his spot is secure if a better prospect comes along.

SLOT CORNERBACK

Jonathan Jones needs to prove he's past his foot issues from the end of last season, but the early returns have been very good. Love the kid's compete level, speed and ball skills -- he has a chance to be the new Malcolm Butler.

Would love to be able to tell you anything about Duke Dawson, but I can't since he missed basically everything this summer. Showed good traits in college, but we'll have to see how it goes.

FREE SAFETY

Devin McCourty had one of the worst games of his career in the Super Bowl. Was that just a fluke with McCourty a victim of all the other issues on defense, or was that a sign of things to come for the 31-year-old? The Patriots' switch to a three-safety system probably has not been the best thing for McCourty. But, as always, he just rolls with the changes for the betterment of the team. We saw a lot of McCourty playing closer to the line during the summer, and I don't think that's playing to his strength. It will be interesting to see how he's ultimately played.

It was interesting that the Patriots took some looks at McCourty with Duron Harmon as the only safeties this summer. Could be a better option against pass-happy teams. Harmon is only a deep free safety, and he's solid if unspectacular. If you entertained the thought of adding, say, an Earl Thomas (not happening), Harmon's spot would the one upgraded.

Jason McCourty showed some potential as a safety — what's the deal with the McCourty's not being able to play corner in this scheme? — so, at the least, the Patriots finally have a viable player to fill-in at safety if need be (Nate Ebner can't).

STRONG SAFETY

Patrick Chung hasn't shown any signs of slowing down at age 31, so he's still elite as box safety who can cover tight ends in man coverage. Just don't ask him to cover receivers in the slot like in the Super Bowl (yes, still bitter).

Ebner ... you know the drill with the special teams-only players.