Patriots Mailbag: Reordering Free-Agent Priorities; Examining Defensive Struggles


The NFL schedule gods were looking out for the New England Patriots this fall.

The Patriots’ defense forced New Englanders to hit the panic button Sunday night in a 31-24 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Concerns over the unit festered all season and finally reached their tipping point as the Patriots forced just two punts in a game they were supposed to win.

Now, the Patriots face quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick, Bryce Petty, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, Petty again and Ryan Tannehill to close out their schedule. What a time to turn around and build some confidence in the defense. Get ready for the optimistic fans to regain trust in their defense and for the more pessimistic ones to scream about strength of opponent.

Watch above and read below for this week’s mailbag.

@DougKyed who’s been the 3 most improved Patriots his season? Conversely who’s are the 3 that have taken a step back?
— @realnesportsfan
Improved: Trey Flowers, Marcus Cannon and the third is tricky. Maybe James White? Tom Brady? Cameron Fleming?

(By the way, that’s not a joke about Brady. The guy keeps getting better every season.)

Jabaal Sheard, Logan Ryan and, obviously, Jamie Collins are among those who have take a step back.

Sheard and Ryan still have almost half a season to rebound. Both will need to play in order to do so, however. Sheard had his snaps scaled back in Week 10, and Ryan has been in and out of the No. 2 cornerback role. He gave up over 100 yards and a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks.

Flowers now has four sacks in his last two games as he’s given the Patriots some semblance of a pass rush. He’ll be exciting to watch for the rest of the season as he attempts to continue his tear.

@DougKyed In ur opinion, what’s the Pats best RB/WR/TE grouping? Do any stats point to 1 group? I prefer JW/JE/DA/RG/MB
— @ClintonOftedahl
There are actually stats for this.

Out of regular combinations, James White, Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski have been the most productive overall, averaging 10.13 yards per play. That grouping also has been the most productive in the passing game, averaging 11.41 yards per play.

LeGarrette Blount, Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Edelman and Gronkowski have been on the field for five running plays, and the Patriots are averaging 10.2 yards per play.

I think eventually Dion Lewis, Edelman, Hogan, Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett will be the strongest.

@DougKyed what’s been the most productive defensive personnel grouping his year?
— @HoughtonJustin
Among units that have been on the field for at least 10 plays together Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Elandon Roberts, Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty are best, allowing just 4 yards per play this season.

They’re also best against the pass, allowing just 1.67 yards per play, though they’re allowing 5.4 yards per carry.

Rob Ninkovich, Trey Flowers, Brown, Branch, Roberts, Hightower, Butler, Justin Coleman, Ryan, Chung and McCourty have been best against the run, allowing 2.2 yards per carry.

The most frequently used combination is Sheard, Long, Flowers, Shea McClellin, Jamie Collins, Butler, Coleman, Ryan, Harmon, Chung and McCourty, who also are the most common against the pass. They allowed 5.76 yards per pass and 9.33 yards per rush.

The most common against the run is Sheard, Long, Branch, Brown, Roberts, Hightower, Butler, Ryan, Harmon, Chung and McCourty.

@NESN @DougKyed Pats defense, panic time?
— @rankjas
No, not yet, but it’s getting there. If the Patriots can’t hold the San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets or Los Angeles Rams, then it’s time to truly panic.

The Seahawks’ offense is good, especially with a healthy Russell Wilson, and quality offenses produce against most defenses. That game also was the Patriots’ first without Collins. There will be growing pains.

@DougKyed do you think Eric Rowe will become the starting #2 corner from this week onward?
— @ctaylor43
I’m really not sure who will be the No. 2 cornerback, but I believe the Patriots must make a choice very, very soon and stick with it. The Patriots have been jerking around every cornerback not named Butler this season.

Rowe has the highest upside, due to his size, but he’s also shown a propensity for flags. Ryan was so solid last season that I can understand why the Patriots wouldn’t want to give up on him. If they let him play more aggressively, then he could begin to show more success.

It also wouldn’t be the worst idea to see what rookie Cyrus Jones can do on defense. He hasn’t been trustworthy on special teams, but he could still contribute at cornerback.

@DougKyed do you think the pats made the right call by keeping jones over Leblanc? #MailDoug
— @KoeglerMatt
I haven’t watched enough of Cre’Von LeBlanc to tell how he’s doing with the Chicago Bears, but Pro Football Focus gives him a 70.1 rating, which is somewhere between average and above average.

Jonathan Jones mostly has played on special teams, and he’s been pretty solid in the role.

Time will tell. I think LeBlanc could be a future starting cornerback, but he likely wouldn’t have contributed as much as Jones to the Patriots this season.

@DougKyed Will The Patriots persist with the complicated/multiple look D, or will they simplify it going forward? #mailDoug
— @MrQuindazzi
They could certainly scale it back a little bit. The Patriots typically try to keep quarterbacks on their toes by mixing man coverage with different zones. It hasn’t worked this season.

They could try to simplify, but the complex defense is part of their identity. They’re at their best with the multiple looks, but at this point, it seems some of the personnel in this defense can’t handle it.

@DougKyed with the latest trades and roster jumps (Flowers over Sheard) who are the Patriots biggest remaining FA priorities?
— @ziggyosk
This is really hard. There undoubtedly will be contrasting opinions on this list. Let’s go with:

1. Dont’a Hightower
2. Malcolm Butler
3. Martellus Bennett
4. Duron Harmon
5. Marcus Cannon
6. LeGarrette Blount
7. Chris Long
8. Alan Branch
9. Justin Coleman
10. James Develin
11. Sebastian Vollmer
12. Barkevious Mingo
13. Brandon King
14. Woodrow Hamilton
15. Brandon Bolden
16. Cameron Fleming
17. Michael Williams
18. Geneo Grissom
19. Greg Scruggs
20. Matt Lengel
TBD Logan Ryan
TBD Jabaal Sheard

It all depends on how much and how well Ryan and Sheard play for the rest of the season. They could be in the top five by seasons end, or they could be out of the top 10. Right now, they’d probably go 8 and 9 above Branch and Coleman.

It’s tough to make lists like these, because veterans like Blount, Long and Branch are important to the Patriots, but they might not be highly sought after on the open market.

Let’s go rapid fire.

@DougKyed Choice has to be kept for an entire season- Never Punt or have Josh McDaniels as the QB
— @ThunderBunsof

Never punt.

@DougKyed who wins this weekend, Jaguars or Lions? Cc: @EmersonLotzia
— @JeffWIIM
No one wins, Jeff. No one.

But also, the Lions. Sorry, Emerson.

Who’s the largest player you have interviewed? #MailDoug
— @JimGilhooly1957
Sebastian Vollmer. When he and Nate Solder walk across the locker room together, the rest of the humans around them look like ants.

@DougKyed idk if I’m late but this is a bit of a theoretical question but what is JG worth in the trade market
— @dawes_matt
A first-round pick or two.

@DougKyed could Mathew slater play safety
— @madxmanx666
Oh, no. We’re at the point where ideas from 2011 suddenly sound good again.

What are the chances Malcolm Mitchell plays cornerback by the end of the season, by the way? 10-1? 20-1?

@DougKyed Martellus Bennett. Great sound bite or the greatest sound bite?
— @RaulSports

@DougKyed what was the best holiday gift you’ve ever received in your life? #MailDoug
— @ELeBoeuf
The gift of family.

Just kidding. Probably a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Technodrome. I also really, really loved getting boxes of football cards. Being able to open 36 packs of cards was exhilirating for a 10-year-old Doug.

What’s your favorite NFL stadium to visit? #MailDoug
— @JimGilhooly1957
So far, Arrowhead Stadium. Lambeau Field was cool, too.

@NESN @DougKyed If you could choose a tv series to marathon forever on a desert island, what would it be?
— @rankjas
Ooh. Solid question. I have a weird list of all-time favorite shows, which includes “Friday Night Lights,” “The O.C.,” “Seinfeld,” “Breaking Bad,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “MTV’s The Challenge”.

I’ll go with “Friday Night Lights.”

I don’t care if you don’t like my list of favorite shows.

@DougKyed Do you think Brady would ever call out the defense and tell them they need to step up?
— @HoughtonJustin
Not a chance. Not his style.

@DougKyed If you could play one snap on D as a linebacker for the Pats, would you? #MailDoug
— @MrQuindazzi
Yeah, I’d do that. I just want a page on I’d definitely do my job. No freelancing.

@DougKyed odds that TB12 gets elected President in 2020 are 100:1. Do you put money on that? #MailDoug
— @Griffin_1980
That might actually be the worst line of all time. Anyone who puts money on that is an insane person.

Thumbnail photo via Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports Images

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