Projecting Patriots' Defensive Starters for 2020 Season
After having one of their strongest season-long performances as a unit in the Bill Belichick era, the New England Patriots' defense - much like their offense - has some question marks after two weeks of free agency.
With Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts all leaving to join former Patriots coaches in other towns, the lack of depth at linebacker for the Patriots is an obvious, glaring concern. But before we get into detail about where New England's defense stands heading into next season, let's take a look at the projected starters on the Patriots' defense:
The above table was made under the assumption that New England runs a base 4-3 scheme next season, because it seems at the moment that the Patriots have the personnel to run that as opposed to a base 3-4 scheme, which they ran last season.
With Van Noy and Collins gone, the EDGE would seemingly be filled by John Simon and Chase Winovich in a 4-3 scheme. Because the Patriots signed Beau Allen in the wake of Danny Shelton's departure while already having Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Byron Cowart on the roster (assuming no team signs Butler, who is tendered), the interior part of the defensive line is very strong. That leads me to think the Patriots will utilize that by having more players with hands down on the line of scrimmage, hence the transition back to a 4-3 scheme.
Although the scheme switch can help lessen the damage taken from the departure of Van Noy, Collins and Roberts this offseason, there is still a bit of a hole at the linebacker position for the Patriots. We all know how good Dont'a Hightower is, and Ja'Whaun Bentley is good enough to be a starter. However, once you pass by them on the depth chart, things get a bit uncertain.
Either Brandon Copeland or Shilique Calhoun will fill that remaining linebacker spot on the depth chart. Based on experience within the defense, the nod will be given to Calhoun at the moment. However, the possibility of New England drafting a player at that position is very likely, which could push either of those two aforementioned players down on the depth chart.
At safety, New England can get very creative, which could potentially help them cover up the problem they face at linebacker. Now that the team has Adrian Phillips, it presents the opportunity for the Patriots to use three safeties on the field at the same time. How? Well, because of Phillips' versatility, he could play closer to the line of scrimmage in a linebacker-type role. Then New England can have Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung on the field as well, with McCourty playing centerfield and Chung covering the bigger-bodied pass-catchers in his normal role. Phillips was listed as a starter on the above table because because I expect him to have a larger role within the defense compared to Chung this upcoming season. Based on how Chung performed last season it looks like his playing days are numbered. But I think he has one more year of - not high level - but serviceable play left in him.
The most surefire positional group for the six-time Super Bowl champions is undoubtedly the cornerbacks. They have retained every player from the elite grouping they had last season, which means they are in line for another stellar campaign in 2020. With Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson - who took a big step forward in Year 2 - locking down the outside, veteran Jason McCourty helping out where he's needed, and Jonathan Jones being one of the league's best nickel cornerbacks, there won't be many teams that have enough depth to gash New England's secondary next season.
No matter what New England does for the remainder of the offseason, one shouldn't expect them to reach the level of defensive play they performed at last season when (or at this point if) they take the field this fall. However, if they can hit on a couple of key defensive draft picks, they will still be one of the better defenses in the NFL.