So, who will be the Patriots' most improved player on defense this season?
Let's weigh the candidacy of two players: safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes. I won't include cornerback Leigh Bodden or defensive lineman Ty Warren because they missed all of last season, and that would just be too easy. And I also won't consider defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth because he didn't play with the Patriots in 2010.
Chung plays the game like a firecracker, and he made some serious strides last season. The 2009 second-round pick was second on the Patriots with 89 total tackles and third with 67 solo stops. His three interceptions were also tied for the second-most on the team.
Chung rotated around the field a ton, and his responsibilities seemed endless. Aside from playing as a traditional safety, he also moved up into the slot to take on something of a nickelback role. The thinking here is that Chung will play the vast majority of his snaps as more of a traditional safety in 2011, and that type of consistency could help him concentrate on a more streamlined level of assignments. And since Chung emerged as the Patriots' best safety in 2010, it's not completely unreasonable to think he could earn a trip to the Pro Bowl this season.
Spikes really started to emerge in November. He was a tackling freak right from the start, and he clogged up the trenches in tenacious fashion with fellow inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. And while Spikes wasn't exactly terrific in passing situations, he did make some noticeable improvements in the department as the season progressed.
And then Spikes received a four-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, apparently didn't practice well when he returned in time for the playoffs and didn't play a whole lot in the Patriots' postseason loss to the Jets. If Spikes can keep a clear head and stay out of trouble — he hasn't done anything overly serious, but the trend is alarming — he should continue to earn starting-caliber snaps.
However, Chung is much more of a sure thing, and he should be the Patriots' most improved defensive player in 2011.
Jeff Howe answered a Patriots question every day for the last two weeks.