The Patriots offseason was a two tale of two sides of the ball.
On offense, there was turnover and strife galore. Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead parted, Rob Gronkowski had surgeries-galore and those University of Florida players couldn’t stay out of the headlines.
But on defense, 10 of the 11 defensive starters from last season are back. And if any of those 10 players don’t begin the season with the first team, it’s only because those positions have been upgraded.
Players who are entering their second year in the league, like Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Alfonzo Dennard and Justin Francis, could make the jump this season. And relative newcomers like Aqib Talib and Adrian Wilson will benefit for a full summer to prepare with the team.
By all accounts, the defense should be better, if not much better this season. If all the pieces fall into place, this unit should be as good as the Patriots defenses that shined until 2010, when the team saw a steep and dramatic decline as the almost-complete turnover began.
The defense has looked good so far in training camp, though certain players have stood out in the crowd. Check out the top 5 most impressive defenders below.
Marcus Benard: The Patriots need another player who can take off after the quarterback to mix in with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Benard is not without his question marks (he missed most of 2011 and all of 2012 with injuries), but he’s been the best pass rusher on the team during training camp.
Benard told reporters on Saturday that he’s a pass rusher. That’s what he does and that’s what he excels at. And in limited snaps early in his career, he was borderline dominant with the Browns. Benard fits the mold of Mark Anderson and Trevor Scott, both of whom had success early in their careers and were picked up on the cheap by New England in free agency. Anderson worked out swimmingly, while Scott served his role, but there was a reason he wasn’t re-signed in 2013.
Benard has put on a show going up against offensive linemen in 1-on-1 drills and his hard work has paid off, as he’s been receiving first-team snaps with Jermaine Cunningham out of practice. Watch Benard closely Friday when the Patriots take on the Eagles. He could be the one flying around tackles to disrupt Michael Vick, Nick Foles or Matt Barkley.
Marcus Forston: The Patriots decided to enter training camp shockingly shallow at the interior defensive line position. High-profile CFL import Armond Armstead started the season on the non-football illness list due to a surgery for an infection (the cryptic email we received from the Patriots did not specify where the infection was), so Forston became the de facto No. 3 behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.
Forston was an undrafted free agent out of Miami last season and spent the season split between the practice squad and active roster. Forston has been impressive during training camp, getting inside blockers in 1-on-1 drills and being a solid force stopping the run at nose tackle behind Wilfork.
The year under Wilfork must have served Forston well, since the team apparently trusts him enough to not bring in any veteran defensive tackles. Forston should get plenty of snaps in 2013 as Kelly and Wilfork will not play every snap.
Jamie Collins: Collins received more praise than any player in recent memory from a Patriots coach. Linebackers guru Pepper Johnson raved about the rookie last Monday, applauding his hard work, intelligence and versatility.
Collins has been as impressive as Johnson said, too. He’s been working with the first and second teams all over the front seven. While he’s mostly stuck at linebacker, he has been getting some snaps on the edge.
Collins has been especially impressive in coverage, where the team certainly needed help in 2012. None of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes or Hightower are known for their cover ability due to lack of elite athleticism. Collins is the athlete the team needs and could be stealing snaps from Hightower and Spikes in the nickel defense as he takes on tight ends and running backs 1-on-1.
Aqib Talib: If there’s been a single-best defender on the Patriots during training camp, it’s Talib. Unfortunately, he’s usually covering his target so well, he rarely gets thrown to.
Talib has covered every receiver on the team at some point, including Danny Amendola, who should give the former Buccaneer good experience taking on shiftier receivers. Talib struggled at times in 2012, even though his presence made the Patriots’ secondary better as a whole. But a full offseason with the team seems to have benefited Talib well.
The sixth-year defensive back signed a one-year, $5 million contract this offseason with the Patriots. That should put him on the straight and narrow as he attempts to earn a longer, bigger deal this offseason. He’s certainly on the right path.
Duron Harmon: Harmon was the third-round pick that sent draft analysts scrambling on April 26. While ESPN and NFL Network showed highlights of the rest of the players taken in the first three rounds, Harmon did not. That prompted his mother to ask, “Baby, where are all your clips at?”
So far, Belichick looks to have outsmarted the rest of the league (shocking). Harmon missed OTAs and minicamp with an injury, but has acclimated himself to the defense surprisingly quickly. He’s even taken some snaps with the first team, and might be the safety that would play back deep with Devin McCourty if the team goes into a cover two with two players in the back half of the field.
Harmon has come with away with some impressive pass deflections and at least one interception during training camp. It probably helps that he feels comfortable with so many of his former Rutgers teammates around, especially McCourty, the captain of the secondary.