Patriots' evolving D keys Super hopes

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There haven't been many years when the New England Patriots' defense was met with as much optimism and buzz as the Tom Brady-led offense.

This is one of them.

And that's the best thing possible for the team's Super Bowl championship hopes.

The last time we saw the Patriots' defense, it was an injury-ravaged group that was carved up by Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship Game. Not enough pass rush. Not competitive enough in coverage.

There is good reason to think 2014 will be different, so for all the chatter about whether quarterback Tom Brady is still elite and whether he's been surrounded by enough weapons, we're putting our chips on the other side of the table.

For the Patriots to return to their championship days, it starts with the D. It's a unit that Bill Belichick has been attempting to remake for quite a few years, going back to when the likes of Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison were on their way out after the 2008-2009 season.

This looks like Belichick's best unit yet, as there could be seven first-round draft choices in the starting lineup between defensive linemen Chandler Jones ('12), Vince Wilfork ('04) and Dominique Easley ('14), linebackers Jerod Mayo ('08) and Dont'a Hightower ('12), and defensive backs Darrelle Revis ('07) and Devin McCourty ('10).

There are other talented players, such as defensive end Rob Ninkovich and linebacker Jamie Collins, the team's top pick in 2013 (second round, 52nd overall) who looked like a budding star in last year's AFC divisional round playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts. So we come to this thought: Assuming relatively good health, the 2014 season will be a good case study as to whether some of the Patriots' recent struggles on defense (e.g., ranking 26th overall on third down last year) have been related more to personnel than to scheme.

The presence of Revis is where it all starts, because if he can effectively shut down one side of the field, it makes things inevitably easier on everyone else. But what is just as intriguing, if not more, is how the team's top picks in the past two drafts -- Collins and Easley -- represent a significant change in what Belichick has traditionally placed a high value on defensively.

The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Collins was one of the team's most athletic-but-raw draft picks in Belichick's 15-year tenure, a player without a clear-cut position after lining up at safety, linebacker and defensive end during his college career at Southern Mississippi. There was a time when Belichick seemed reluctant to utilize a top pick on such a projection, a point that was often repeated around draft time when it came to assessing how college 4-3 defensive ends might adapt to playing 3-4 outside linebacker.

But in Collins, the general thinking was that his freak-like athleticism doesn't come around often. In today's mostly spread-it-out-and-let-it-rip game, Collins has the potential to be the type of three-down player who can't be passed up.

As for the 6-foot-1, 288-pound Easley, he is a penetrating defensive tackle. In the team's Super Bowl championship run (2001, 2003, 2004), he almost certainly wouldn't have been viewed as a system fit because he's not a two-gapping, big-bodied 300-plus-pound force. Instead, he wins with his get-off quickness and explosion.

But he's a system fit now for a defense that has been in its subpackages (five or more defensive backs) in the middle to high 60th percentile in recent years. So whereas Belichick used to build his big, hard-hitting defense with the 3-4 base alignment in mind, now he seems to be building with the subpackage at the forefront of his thinking.

That's why the free-agent defection of run-thumping linebacker Brandon Spikes is less of a concern than maybe it would have been a decade ago.

"When I played, we used to be in our 3-4 base defense more than 50 percent of the time. Now it's down to about 30 percent of the time," said linebacker Ted Johnson, who played a Spikes-like role on the three Super Bowl championship defenses and now hosts a sports radio show in Houston. "You're going to smaller and faster guys now. It's a different game."

It sure is, and perhaps Belichick wasn't as quick to adjust to that as others around the NFL. He has adjusted now, and the 2014 Patriots defense – with the potential of having seven first-round picks on the field at the same time -- has a chance to be one of his best.

For the Patriots to bring the Lombardi trophy back to New England, this is where it starts.