How much better might the Patriots be on defense in 2014?
That is the topic leading off this week's mailbag, which is dominated by defensive-minded questions. While part of the offseason has focused on whether Tom Brady has been surrounded with enough weapons on offense, another line of thinking is that a better defense is what could help him the most.
So let's get right to it.
Q. Hey Mike, with all the additions on defense this offseason and good health from Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley and Jerod Mayo, I can see the potential of a top 5 defense this season. Can you see it happening, Mike? -- Heavy D. (Bainbridge, Georgia)
A. The defense should be improved, Heavy, and the key part of the projection, as it is with every team, is the "good health" aspect of it. I think adding Darrelle Revis, who at his best can essentially shut down one side of the field, is also huge. To have that type of player on defense is a rare thing in and of itself and that's why I'd be more optimistic about the unit in 2014. The other part of it to me is the potential improvement in the sub defense, which the Patriots were in 67 percent of the time last season. There are more pass rush options and better athleticism at the linebacker level, which should help the sub. It looks good on paper. Now we have to see what it looks like when it comes to life on the field.
Q. Hi Mike, it seems everyone believes that the addition of Darrelle Revis instantly makes the Patriots defense significantly better, but how much of an upgrade is he really over Aqib Talib? In my mind, the improvement of the Patriots' defense will be because of the return of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly, etc. The defense looked very impressive before all of the injuries last season. -- Scott (Boston)
A. Scott, I go back to what Talib himself said last year -- there's Revis and then everyone else at cornerback. I thought Talib was terrific for the Patriots the last season and a half, and was one of my favorite players to watch on a week-in and week-out basis. He also brought what I'd call "soul" to the defensive backs meeting room with his personality and flair. But his reliability from a health perspective was a bit of a wild card, and Revis is a bit steadier in that regard based on his track record.
Q. Hi Mike. For the first time since 2004, I feel like our defense could be a primary strength of our team (as long as we are blessed with health). I am excited to see what Brady and company can do with the extra possessions and good field position that a strong defense can give them. Based on your observations so far, how are we looking in the power running game, and at TE, to complement a strong defense? Any news on reinforcements in that area? I see Brady feasting on play action all season with that defense behind him. -- John (Cumming, Georgia)
A. John, the Patriots have worked on the between-the-tackles running game in both practices I've seen, but it's really tough to judge anything without pads. From a general sense, it looks like the returning running backs showed up in good condition, so that's a start. Stevan Ridley, in particular, caught my eye a few times with his explosion through the line; then again, I could have been influenced by the flash of color from his bright green footwear one practice, and bright red footwear the next practice. But this will be something that will be better judged in the preseason and training camp. Tight end looks a little light to me personnel-wise.
Q. It's third-and-8 and you need a stop to get the ball back for a winning drive, assuming a perfectly healthy Patriots roster. Who do you have out there? If the answer is going to be matchup related, let's presume it's the Broncos. Do you go with nickel with a front 6 of Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Rob Ninkovich, Jamie Collins, James Anderson and Jerod Mayo? In this case no Armond Armstead or Dominique Easley? Does your secondary consist of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington (slot), Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon? In this case, no Alfonzo Dennard or Logan Ryan? When I put it all on virtual paper, this looks very solid to me (maybe not enough bulk up front against a draw?). I don't think many teams would have a matchup advantage, especially if Revis eliminates the need to bring safety help to an opponent's best receiver. There's been a lot of talk of giving Brady weapons to work with. I think getting him more possessions with the defense getting off the field on third down is the best weapon there is. (OK, a healthy Gronk is game-changer, too.) -- Brian M. (Middletown, Rhode Island)
A. Brian, I'd go a little bit lighter on the defensive front with the idea of attempting to get Peyton Manning off the spot with a better interior rush. So I'd pair Easley and Chandler Jones inside, with Ninkovich and Will Smith (assuming a return to health and performance) on the edges. That leaves me with two linebacker spots to fill and I'd go with Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins. I feel like that's an athletic front six with some pass rush explosion and versatility as well. In the secondary, it's Revis, Browner and Arrington as the cornerbacks, and then it's McCourty and either Harmon/Ryan at the other spot.
Q. Is it fair to say that Dont'a Hightower should have been playing at the inside linebacker position from the moment he was drafted? I notice in your recent posts about the front 7, you seem to slot Mayo into an OLB position and Hightower at the middle LB, effectively a reversal of each player's role in the past two seasons. The James Anderson signing also immediately made me think of Marcus Thigpen's game-winning catch over Hightower in Miami in December. Do you get the sense that the NE coaching staff is ready to acknowledge that Hightower needs to work out of the middle of the field? -- Jeremy (Boston)
A. Jeremy, I don't think Hightower needs to be restricted to solely inside linebacker duties. I just projected him there in the base because I thought he was the closest player the team had to the downhill presence that Brandon Spikes brought and there might be weeks where that is valued more than others against power running teams. I think he has some versatility to play other spots, including on the line of scrimmage. So he's a little bit of a wild card when projecting the defense, and that fits his "tweener" status -- part DE, part LB. He doesn't really fit one position like some other players.
Q. Why didn't other teams try to pick up James Anderson? His stats are impressive and he had a good season. On paper, it looks like a great acquisition by the Pats. He should be a good backup this season, maybe an upgrade from what they had last year. -- Ashley (Worcester, Massachusetts)
A. Ashley, the Bears would have been the obvious suitor, as that is the team he played for last season. They've drafted some linebackers fairly high the past few years, and also re-signed veteran D.J. Williams, so Anderson was the odd man out. Elsewhere around the NFL, I think it's a safe assumption to say teams generally want to go younger if they can. I think Anderson would have been high on several teams' emergency lists in training camp and into the season in the event of injury. The Patriots were willing to make the move now, Anderson was happy to take the deal instead of waiting for something potentially more lucrative, and when that happens it usually leads to a deal.
Q. Do you think that newly acquired LB James Anderson will earn a roster spot, and maybe even start? Also, who will earn the right corner spot? -- Michael (Sandusky, Ohio)
A. Michael, I wouldn't call Anderson a lock to make the roster. He is competing for a backup spot and adds depth in the event something unexpected happens, such as last year's torn pectoral muscle for Jerod Mayo on Oct. 13. At right corner, I think it sets up for Brandon Browner to have the inside track, but we know that Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan will compete hard and make that as tough a decision as possible on the coaching staff.
Q. I haven't seen much about Tommy Kelly. Is he expected to be fully recovered? What has been his OTA status? -- Johnny (Rutland, Vermont)
A. Johnny, Kelly has been a limited participant in OTAs as he attempts to come back from a knee injury. Because there are no pads and hitting in these sessions, it is tough to say anything definitive with most every player who aligns on the line of scrimmage.
Q. Hi Mike, I haven't heard or been able to find anything on Armond Armstead. Has he been on the field for OTAs? Do you think he'll be able to contribute in the rotation at DE this season? -- Pete (Watertown, Connecticut)
A. Pete, Armstead was a limited participant in the first OTA, and then I didn't spot him in last week's session. Not sure the details of his status and progress. He's more of a between-the-tackles projection as a tackle than an end if he is ultimately cleared to play.
Q. I've heard no buzz at all about DT Chris Jones. He had six sacks in 11 starts last season, and recently said he is bigger, faster, and stronger than he was last season. What are your expectations for him, and how did he look at OTAs? -- Bob (Alexandria, Virginia)
A. Bob, Jones falls into a similar category as Kelly given the non-padded environment. We'll definitely get a better feel for the linemen in training camp with one-on-one drills and other contact-related stuff. The one thing I'd say about Jones is that when the team works 11-on-11, he's been on the field with top players as a result of Kelly and Wilfork not being fully cleared to participate.
Q. Hey Mike, the visit of DT Kevin Williams raises a flag to me. Did you notice anything in the OTAs for Wilfork/Kelly status and also the absence of Armstead? Or is it as simple as being considered an upgrade over Kelly as an internal pass-rusher? -- JB (Boston)
A. JB, I think it's more due diligence so that a team is prepared in the event there is an unexpected occurrence in the days, weeks and months to come. Williams would be on the emergency list at that position, similar to how the Giants and Seahawks previously visited with him.
Q. Hey Mike, do you think the Pats are actually going to sign either Dustin Keller or Jermichael Finley soon, or they are moving away from the two-TE offense? I want them to stick with it, because a Gronk/Keller or Gronk/Finley duo on the field would make them a whole lot better, and could alleviate or make up some responsibility for the wide receivers if they have an off day or such. Last year, we had no Gronk due to injury and no depth behind him, and in my opinion that hurt us a lot, and put more pressure and reliance on our wide receivers. What do you think the Pats will do regarding the TE position from now until the preseason and if they choose to add one, who do you think they pick? -- Travis (Boston)
A. Travis, there has been a lot of chatter about the two-TE offense in recent weeks, and I understand why -- it was lethal for the Patriots in 2011 when both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were healthy. I don't think there is a conscious effort to go away from it, but it's also important to understand that one of the main reasons the Patriots used it so heavily was the unique talents of the two tight ends they had. They don't have that right now, and might never again, so they're not going to force it just to say they're a "two-TE" offense. Even if they signed Keller and/or Finley, I don't think we'd see a major shift in that direction over other packages, even though it would make them better at the position. I think that type of decision would all come back to how the team viewed their health, and right now, the lack of a signing speaks volumes to me.
Q. Hey Mike, I thought the signing of James Anderson was great, and in my opinion another steal for the Pats to bolster up the LB depth. However, we had to release Mark Harrison who I thought could possibly help them. Does this mean the Patriots might need one more outside receiver alongside Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell, and Kenbrell Thompkins to provide depth in that area? We most likely have Amendola, Edelman and Boyce/Gallon for the slot, and we could benefit from having four outside receivers. Your thoughts? -- Wesley D. (Quincy, Massachusetts)
A. Wesley, as intrigued as I was with Harrison based on some of his traits (6-3, 230) and athletic testing skills, he was still facing an uphill climb to earn a roster spot. His release does thin the depth at receiver, although I wouldn't restrict Edelman, Amendola and Boyce to slot duties only. I think they could line up outside in two-receiver packages as well. The question to me becomes if there is enough diversity within the receiving corps, because sometimes it's nice to have a bigger option, especially in the red zone. I think they're OK in that area right now.