Football can be a frustrating game, especially when you know something works but it is impossible to keep intact. That is basically the story of Darrelle Revis's Patriots career; one year of brilliance, a championship, a fit that clearly worked but was ultimately undone because of money. Revis wanted the Brinks truck backed up to his house and the Patriots simply refused to pay a cornerback north of 30 that kind of money. In a perfect world, Revis would have returned and the secondary would remain among the tops in the league, but we don't live in a perfect world, and now Revis is a Jet, again. The Patriots decided to move on from Brandon Browner too, signaling the return to more of a zone style pass defense.
Revis and Browner weren't the only defections from the secondary; Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard were both released, which seemed like odd personnel moves, but it is tough to question what the Patriots do with the results they've had. Logan Ryan and Super Bowl-hero Marcus Butler are the only returning cornerbacks from 2014, but it appears New England has replaced a good amount of the talent they lost. Robert McClean, a free agent signed from the Falcons, will most likely take over the nickel back job that Arrington has played for the last six years. It appeared that Ryan and Butler had the inside track on the starting cornerback spots, but the signing of veteran Tarell Brown, that could change things. Brown has been a starter for the last four seasons, his best years coming with San Francisco in 2011 and 2012. Brown is still only 30 years old, and if he's healthy, he should have a good chance to win a starting job.
Malcolm Butler has picked up where he left off in the Super Bowl, looking excellent in mini-camp as he mirrored Julian Edelman and gave Patriots quarterbacks fits. Butler appears to be a real find for New England and he has a good chance to start opposite Brown, which would leave Ryan as the dime back or possible nickel back if he outplays McClain. Bradley Fletcher also has a chance to win a starting job, but he'll have his hands full, especially after the addition of Tarell Brown. The cornerbacks may take some time to gel, but the one advantage the Patriots have is their safeties, specifically Devin McCourty, the best free safety in the NFL. McCourty will help the cornerbacks and their transition into the New England defense, and by the end of the season, they should be pretty good.
New England didn't have the same wholesale changes in the front seven as they did in the secondary, but there were some big moves that could ignite a pass rush that will need to be more disruptive in 2015. The Patriots finished with 40 sacks in 2014, which is a decent number when you have lockdown cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis, but the defense doesn't have that luxury this year. Vince Wilfork did not have his option picked up and he signed with the Houston Texans. His role will be filled by Alan Branch, a 2014 in-season pickup that impressed in the second half of the season. Jabaal Sheard was also signed to provide an injection into the pass rush, and he'll also allow them to move Chandler Jones inside on passing downs, a move that will put the Patriots best pass rushers on the field at the same time.
Rookie Malcom Brown, a defensive tackle out of Texas, will see playing time immediately. He is extremely talented and probably shouldn't have been available at 32, but other teams always make mistakes that New England takes advantage of. Brown is excellent defending the run and he's also a good pass rusher, the type of multi-talented defensive lineman that Bill Belichick loves. Dominique Easley, the 2014 first round pick out of Florida, returns after having his rookie season cut short due to injuries and is expected to be a part of the rotation at defensive tackle and end. If he does stay healthy, he could provide a big spark for the interior pass rush, an area that has been non-existent in New England.
The Patriots were solid against the run in 2014, and with the return of Jerod Mayo to the linebacking core, they should be able to defend the run again in 2015. Losing Wilfork does hurt, but when he went down in 2013, Belichick was able to scheme to stop the run and I'm confident he can do the same; he also has the personnel to shut down the run, assuming health. Brandon Spikes was going to be part of the Patriots linebacking core again, but he made an off-the-field mistake that cost him his job. He did plead guilty and admitted to his mistake; if the Patriots have injury problems, Spikes would most likely be welcomed back again, although he could be facing a suspension. Dont'a Hightower did have offseason surgery, but he's on track to be ready for the season opener against Pittsburgh. Hightower is crucial to the Patriots defense as he has the best mix of talent and awareness out of anybody in the front seven; without him, they will struggle.
Overall, the front seven is deeper than it has been in a long time after the free agent and draft additions, and the secondary, although not pretty, appears good enough to be able to get the job done. 2015 is going to be about generating pressure, stuffing the run, and gaining confidence and continuity in the secondary as the season wears on. Great defenses come in many forms, and New England's re-invention for 2015 may turn out to be exactly what they needed moving forward with their young, talented roster. Go get the quarterback, get after the ball and be opportunistic; it works for Seattle and it may just work for the 2015 Patriots.
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