Chandler Jones, Aqib Talib Have Patriots’ Defense Looking at Top 10 Ceiling If Starters Can Stay Healthy

Chandler Jones, Justin FrancisThe Patriots have kept a ton of young players on the roster heading into the regular season, and that’s reason for concern for some New England fans. If the Patriots are supposed to be contenders again this year, it doesn’t make sense for them to look like a rebuilding team.

But the Patriots certainly aren’t rebuilding, and all that young talent doesn’t mean they’re off their stride compared to last year. In fact, the newcomers — whether they be in the receiving corps that was depleted coming into this season or on a defense that is only expected to get better — could be a sign that this team is on the upswing.

Let’s look at that and more in this week’s mailbag.

Do you think all the rookies mean we’ll see more vanilla concepts on defense for a while?
–@MPLogick

I actually think it will be the opposite on defense this season. In today’s NFL, there are basically 13 starters on defense — the 11 players who start in the base defense and the two that come onto the field in sub packages (the slot cornerback and pass rusher). Of those 13 players, 11 will be returning starters from last season, one is a 10-year veteran (Tommy Kelly) and one, well, we still don’t know who the third-down pass rusher will be, but he won’t be a returning starter, that’s for sure.

It’s very rare for a team to have so many returning starters. The Patriots have a ton of rookies — 14 in all, seven on defense — but unless injuries occur, they won’t be key contributors. Joe Vellano, A.J. Francis, Michael Buchanan and Jamie Collins could all be candidates for the previously mentioned third-down pass rush job. Collins could also contribute in the nickel defense in pass coverage. Steve Beauharnais will likely only participate in special teams, and Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon are currently one injury away from being starters.

Because of so much continuity on defense, the Patriots will likely show more complex looks. That means switching between three- and four-man fronts, zone and man coverages, one- and two-gap assignments and more elaborate blitz schemes. Bill Belichick has been building this defense for years now, and the Patriots have added more and more pieces over the years. The longer those players are in the system, the more they can pick up from Belichick and Matt Patricia.

One thing is obvious when speaking to some of the rookies on the roster — they’re all smart. So even if Harmon, Ryan or Francis has to take on a bigger role this season, they’ll be ready for it.

Do you think Boyce will get playing time this season?
–Ben Anamani via Facebook

Yes, I expect Josh Boyce to get extensive playing time on offense and on special teams this season. The Patriots may not keep all six wide receivers active every game, though, so one player may get left out. Kenbrell Thompkins looked like the best bet to get the starter job during training camp and the preseason.

That means the battle will be between Boyce and Aaron Dobson to be active on game day (unless someone gets injured, of course). For now, Boyce looks to be more game-ready, but both had their moments in training camp and the preseason. It may be worth keeping Dobson active just to have a deep threat on the roster, but it’s a bit of a crapshoot to throw to the rookie wideout. Dobson was intercepted on three targets this preseason, and there was one more that came dangerously close to being an interception.

Are Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson good enough to play a lot of snaps to compensate for the loss of Adrian Wilson?
–@luketansley52

Harmon and Wilson still have some room to improve, but both should be good enough to contribute this year. Wilson may retake his spot in the “money” role in the dime defense. In that position, he replaces the middle linebacker and plays opposite the slot cornerback.

Harmon could take that role, too, but we didn’t see him doing that much during the summer. The hope is probably for Harmon to start taking some snaps away from Gregory this season as a deep Cover 2 safety. The team will have some limitations at safety all year, but if Harmon can start to adapt better, he can be a quality player. Harmon proved to be a good run-stopper for New England, so if he is forced into action, the team will probably have a surer tackle at the strong safety position.

Why would a team like the Pats have 14 rookies on board? Worrisome…
–@eternityroad01

I wouldn’t say it’s worrisome, but it is interesting that the team decided to have a youth movement, as it’s still trying to compete for a Super Bowl title. Fortunately for the team, most of those rookies won’t take on major roles this season. The team is only expected to have rookie starters at wide receiver and tight end, and Zach Sudfeld will likely only be starting until Rob Gronkowski comes back.

The rest of the rookies will be role players and should be able to fill in those spots fine. It’s a typical Patriots move to keep a lot of rookies around, though. Keeping 14 first-year players gives a much better chance for some of those players to hit.

Having so many rookies may be good for the locker room, as well. Veterans are more likely to cause a rift within the organization due to bitterness. Rookies are just happy to be around and will follow their veteran leaders.

Leading receiver for this year? Don’t pick Amendola.
–@Hcarb1086

I wish I could pick Danny Amendola, because he’s the pick. But since I can’t, I’ll say Thompkins. It would be Gronkowski, but I’m afraid those missed games to start the season will affect his statistics too much. I probably have way too high of expectations for Thompkins, but so far, there’s no reason not to.

What is the ceiling and floor for the defense this year?
–@bigghuffdaddy

The ceiling is a Top 10 squad. The floor is their ranking last year, which was 25th in yards allowed and ninth in points allowed.

The team should be much better. Chandler Jones, Alfonzo Dennard and Dont’a Hightower are another year older. Devin McCourty has more experience at free safety under his belt. Aqib Talib has a full year in the system, and Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes certainly don’t look to have regressed, nor has Vince WilforkTommy Kelly looked much better than Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love this summer, and there’s no reason to think Steve Gregory or Rob Ninkovich will take a step back.

The key for the Patriots will be to stay healthy. The team may have had better depth last season, but that’s not definite. If the rookies can improve, the depth may not be an issue. But there are some real question marks along the defensive line and secondary. Linebacker should be all set.

Should we expect Mulligan to take the place of what we saw with Ballard in preseason?
–@MattToTheFuture

As long as Matt Mulligan sticks around, he should be used in that Ballard position. Ballard rarely went out to run routes in the Patriots’ offense, and we won’t see Mulligan doing much of that either.

The Patriots could have elected to use a third tackle as the second tight end on the field, but having Mulligan adds some deceit to the defense. The Patriots will likely run the ball when Mulligan is out on the field, but there’s always the chance he goes out to run a route or stays in to help out in pass blocking.

Why does Amendola always get injured? Is he made of glass like Gronkowski?
–Ryan Bauman via Facebook

Nope. Both are made of skin and bones.

Does Belichick lead off with the cutoff hoodie or a polo?
–@JinDenver

I’m guessing he goes with the polo — or the short-sleeved, quarter-zip jacket he’s been wearing throughout the summer.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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