For the first three weeks of the season, it looked like the New England Patriots were going to have a top-tier defense for the first time since their run of Super Bowl titles.
Then the injuries started and wouldn’t stop. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork was the first to go down with an Achilles injury, then the Patriots lost defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to season-ending injuries.
Cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington and safeties Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty also got hurt along the way. Still, even with all the injuries, this season’s Patriots defense was an improvement over the 2010, 2011 and 2012 squads.
Check out how each position graded out below.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich were Nos. 1 and 2 in snaps played by a defensive end this season, so any production and consistency should be viewed through that lens. Obviously Jones and Ninkovich would pile up sacks and pressures, since they play so much, but it’s also clear that their production per snap will be lower since fatigue sets in at some point.
For the most part, Jones and Ninkovich were very good, but not spectacular. Jones had more sacks, but Ninkovich had more total pressures. Ninkovich was the more consistent run defender, though that was by no means one of Jones’ weaknesses.
Moving forward, the team needs to do better than Andre Carter, Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette as reserves. Ninkovich and Jones need more rest. The Patriots’ lack of depth drags this mark down.
Coming into training camp, Wilfork, Kelly and Armond Armstead were supposed to be Nos. 1 through 3 on the depth chart. By Week 6, they were all done for the season.
The team started out by trying to replace them with rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. Third-year pro Sealver Siliga took over as the team’s starting nose tackle in Week 14 and helped solidify the defense. Marcus Forston, Andre Neblett and Isaac Sopoaga also filled in along the way, though none of them had much success.
It was a valiant effort by all the defensive tackles after Wilfork and Kelly went down, but Siliga was the only lineman that played at a high level. Jones racked up six sacks, but he had just one after Week 8.
Depth was not considered a strength of the Patriots coming out of training camp, but linebacker was one of the few positions considered deep on the Patriots’ roster. That depth came in handy once Mayo and Spikes went down for the season. Second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower had a few down weeks after Mayo went out, but he came back extremely strong to finish the season.
Rookie Jamie Collins was unspectacular until the final week of the regular season, when his play started to improve. His best game was the Patriots’ divisional-round playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts. Dane Fletcher provided nice depth and had some strong moments in coverage. Spikes was having a great season as a run defender until he suffered a knee injury that negatively affected his play in the final weeks of the regular season.
Cornerback was another position of strength for the Patriots. Talib played himself into defensive player of the year consideration before suffering a hip injury in Week 6 against the New Orleans Saints. Dennard and Arrington were playing well before a multitude of injuries held them down in the second half of the year.
Rookie Logan Ryan stepped up in everyone’s absence. By the end of the season, he was playing so well that Belichick was finding snaps for the Rutgers product even with a fully healthy secondary. Despite the injuries, the Patriots’ cornerbacks played well all year.
McCourty emerged as one of the best safeties in the NFL. He didn’t receive Pro Bowl honors, but he did get named a second-team All-Pro, which was well deserved.
Gregory played better in his second season with the Patriots, especially in the first half of the season. Rookie Duron Harmon provided valuable depth when Gregory went down with a thumb injury and McCourty missed a game with a concussion. Harmon appears to be a keeper and could emerge as a starter in his second season.
Grade: B+ Follow @DougKyedNESN