The New England Patriots’ defense showed promise this season as they battled through injuries. It already has the pieces in place to become one of the NFL’s premier units in 2016.
All 11 Patriots defensive starters, plus valuable role players at nickel defensive back, slot cornerback and situational pass rusher, are set to return in 2016. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is the Patriots’ highest profile defensive free agent, and his role only grew when Dominique Easley went down with a season-ending injury.
All of this is to say the Patriots don’t have very much work to do to improve their defense over the offseason.
Check out the Patriots’ biggest defensive needs going into 2016:
Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are back on the final year of their contracts, and the Patriots have Jonathan Freeny, Jon Bostic, Darius Fleming and James Vaughters as depth. Jerod Mayo would carry an $11.4 million salary-cap hit if the Patriots pick up his $2.4 million option bonus. That seems highly unlikely, since Mayo wasn’t an every-down player in 2016.
Even if Mayo is back, the Patriots could use another young linebacker to serve as depth behind Hightower and Collins.
The Patriots have Easley, Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen under contract, but if they don’t re-sign Hicks, they could use another disruptive three-technique defensive tackle. Easley isn’t a safe bet to stay healthy at that position, and the Patriots’ defense needs a big body to provide pressure on third down unless they believe Jones can serve that role.
How strange is it to go into an offseason without cornerback as a major need? Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan proved they’re the starting cornerbacks of the future, and Justin Coleman, who almost certainly will be back as an exclusive-rights free agent, and Leonard Johnson both had positive moments in the slot this season. The Patriots also have 2015 seventh-round draft pick Darryl Roberts, who showed promise in training camp before being placed on injured reserve with a wrist injury.
The Patriots could decide to bring back veteran Tarell Brown, whose season ended early because of a foot injury. It wouldn’t be shocking to see the team add another veteran to compete with Johnson and Roberts, too.
The foundation is in place with Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards. The Patriots also could bring back Nate Ebner and/or Tavon Wilson, both of whom are unrestricted free agents.
The Patriots have Brock Vereen and Cedric Thompson coming back on future deals. They don’t need another safety, so if history repeats itself, that probably means they’ll draft one in the second round.
Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard are locked up for the 2016 season, and the Patriots drafted Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom in 2015. They also have Eric Martin under contract, and Rufus Johnson is an exclusive-rights free agent.
The smart move here is to extend Sheard and hope either Flowers or Grissom can be a starter for the future.
Jones will make $7.799 million in 2016. The Patriots could extend his contract, but he’d likely have to take a hometown discount.
The Patriots also could elect to trade Jones, though he lowered his value with the synthetic marijuana ordeal.
Thumbnail photo via Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports Images
Thumbnail photo via Dec 13, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Malcom Brown (90) celebrates with defensive end Jabaal Sheard (93) and defensive tackle Alan Branch (97) after recovering a fumble during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Texans 27-6. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports