USA Today Sports Images

Way-Too-Early 2016 Patriots Projected Defense/ST

Yesterday was offense, and today it's time to take a look at the Patriots defense, a group so deep that they traded away a defensive end with 12.5 sacks and nobody seems concerned. OK, let's breakdown the 2016 preseason defense and set the depth chart.

DEFENSE

Defensive Tackle (4) – Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Terrance Knighton, Vincent Valentine

Notable Exclusion(s): Markus Kuhn

There is no doubt that Malcom Brown (who will be a starter as well), Alan Branch, and Terrance Knighton will all be locks to make the team. The question is who would occupy that team’s fourth defensive tackle slot. Because of his raw (but borderline freakishly good) talent and the fact that he was drafted in the third round last month, Vincent Valentine is the sizeable favorite for the position. Markus Kuhn does have experience after playing for the Giants the past few seasons, but with the first three locks for the roster and Valentine being younger and the team just spending a third round pick on him, Kuhn will be one of the final cuts on the team.

This is a rather deep position with a terrific up-and-coming player in Brown and two solid veterans with Branch and Knighton. This position will be in good hands for the 2016 season.

Defensive End (4) – Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Geneo Grissom

Notable Exclusion(s): Trey Flowers

After trading away Chandler Jones during the off-season, the Patriots will have to find someone to replace his production. Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich are locks for the roster of and will play major snaps in 2016. Chris Long was signed during the off-season and is all but guaranteed a spot on the roster come week one due to his previous production and veteran experience. The big question will be who wins the fourth and final spot between second year players Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers.

Geneo Grissom will edge out Flowers in the end, but it honestly it's a toss-up. Grissom appeared in 14 games last season as opposed to Flowers appearing in just one due to multiple injuries. Grissom also contributed on special teams, while Flowers faltered after having a solid 2015 preseason. Because of his special teams ability and the fact that Bill Belichick values versatile players, Grissom makes the team over Flowers in the end.

Outside Linebacker (3) – Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Ramon Humber

Notable Exclusion(s): NONE

Superstar linebackers Hightower and Collins will be defensive leaders on the team in 2016, and they'll resume roles as major defensive contributors. The Patriots should only carry three outside linebackers as Jabaal Sheard can both play downs as an EDGE player. But the third spot on the depth chart will go to Ramon Humber over the likes of Kamu Grugier-Hill and Rufus Johnson due to his veteran experience. Grugier-Hill is an intriguing prospect due to his potential versatility to play in the secondary, but he'll be bound for the practice squad unless he has an out-of-this-world off-season.

Rufus Johnson is another intriguing prospect who stands out due to his size (6’5”, 272 pounds) who unfortunately dealt with a mysterious illness in 2015 that cost him most of the season. He also has the potential to play defensive end, and he would be a priority practice squad player if he doesn’t make the roster.

Inside Linebacker (3) – Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts

Notable Exclusion(s): NONE

One of the weaker positions for the Patriots, they very well could keep a fourth inside linebacker, but they don’t have much depth behind Freeny, McClellin, and Roberts. McClellin is a lock for the roster after signing a multi-year contract with the team in the off-season and most likely has the inside track for the starting inside linebacker position. Freeny will most likely be on the roster come week one after filling in rather well considering the circumstances last season, which included seven starts.

Roberts is a sixth round draft pick who was top five in the NCAA with 143 total tackles in 2015 along with actually leading the country in solo tackles with 88. Because of the depth issue at the position and his production in 2015 while at the University of Houston, Roberts will make the team. He may only be a special teams contributor, but he's a name to watch.

Cornerback (5) – Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones, Justin Coleman

Notable Exclusion(s): E.J. Biggers, Darryl Roberts

The first three cornerback spots are locked with 2015 starters (and borderline superstars) in Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan along with second round pick Cyrus Jones. Jones will most likely be the team’s slot cornerback in 2016 if not the direct back-up at outside cornerback. Coleman performed well in 2015 after being poached from the Seahawks practice squad. He could be the team’s primary slot cornerback in 2016 though, but he has a decent chance of making the team.

Jonathan Jones is an interesting name; the undrafted free agent from Auburn ran a 4.33 forty yard dash and had a 10’3” broad jump at the NFL Combine. Standing at just 5’9” and 186 pounds, he's an undersized cornerback according to NFL standards. This wouldn’t be the first time we’d be seeing an undrafted rookie cornerback making the team (a la Malcolm Butler). Jones provides explosive qualities and could surprise people by snagging one of the last spots on the team.

Safety (4) – Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards

Notable Exclusion(s): Nate Ebner

McCourty and Chung are sure to be back in 2016 after performing extremely well as the starters in 2015. Duron Harmon is one of the best number three safeties in the NFL, and his roster spot is locked for 2016 as well. The last spot comes down to Richards and Ebner. The competition is pretty much one-sided as Richards proved to be a valuable special teams contributor in his rookie season and was a second round pick last year.

Ebner is currently working his way onto the United States Olympic Rugby team for this summer’s Olympic competition. While it is a great story, Richards has a better shot at taking the last safety position due to missed time in OTAs and training camp by Ebner, and it helps that Richards is entering his second season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Punter (1) - Ryan Allen

Notable Exclusion(s): NONE

This is a no-brainer. Allen is the only punter on roster and is scheduled to make over five million dollars over the next three seasons. He’ll be back with the team in 2016 as the starting punter.

Kicker (1) Stephen Gostkowski

Notable Exclusion(s): NONE

This may be an even bigger no-brainer; Gostkowski is one of the NFL’s best kickers, if not the best. He will be the team’s kicker in 2016 and many years to come.

Long Snapper (1): Joe Cardona

Notable Exclusion(s): NONE

After being cleared by the United States Navy to play in 2016, it all but seals Cardona to return as the team’s long snapper for the upcoming season. They currently have Christian Yount on roster, but he was a precautionary signing as Cardona’s status was unclear for 2016 due to military obligations. With that settled, Cardona will be back in 2016.


Patriots Insider Top Stories