There was a time not too long ago -- within in the past year, certainly -- when you looked at this Patriots defense and saw not just a solid present, but an encouraging future.
There was young talent up and down the lineup, at all three levels. Most of it was drafted and developed by Bill Belichick. Yes, there were contracts due and decisions would have to be made. There would be some attrition. But the foundation was there for a good, homegrown defense for years to come.
Now? Now it feels like they pretty much have to start all over.
In the short term, the Pats will patch that side of the ball as best as possible and hope it's enough to complement Tom Brady en route to another Super Bowl title. That's a far cry from what we were expecting, which was a true, championship-caliber unit good enough to win games on its own. Still, it's possible they get away with it. We'll see.
The bigger question is what comes next.
Start with the secondary. Do the Pats even want Logan Ryan to stay as the second corner? Based on his play (down) and his expected free agent price tag, the answer is probably not. Ditto for safety Duron Harmon. Neither have been game-breakers this year, but they are starting players that have to be replaced. And the third corner? That's another huge need. Malcolm Butler won't go anywhere as a restricted free agent, but if he goes another year without a new contract will he remain as professional and productive as he's been to this point? I bet the Pats sign him, but it's a question mark for now.
It's worse at linebacker, where Dont'a Hightower feels like the only player worth investing in. That's going to be a huge number. Let's see if the Pats meet it. Meanwhile, who's replacing Jamie Collins' size and athleticism? The Pats have nothing close to that on their current roster. They'll go forward with Elandon Roberts, but what is he? Barkevious Mingo hasn't really shown anything on defense and he's up. Kyle Van Noy is under contract for next year at cheap dollars but, again, what is he? He ain't Collins. Shea McClellin is also under contract for next year, which isn't necessarily a good thing. He's just a guy.
The situation up front is probably most dire. Chris Long, 31, hasn't produced and is up. Rob Ninkovich hasn't been the same since the PED suspension and Jabaal Sheard has fallen out of favor and is up as well. It's hard to imagine his future is here. Malcom Brown, a first-round pick two years ago, isn't going anywhere. But he's also been a disappointment. So what's under contract that we feel good about? Vincent Valentine and Trey Flowers? The Pats are going to need a heck of a lot more than that. This is a position that feels like it's in line for a full rebuild.
The good news is the Pats have a ton of cap room next year and a full complement of draft picks.
They're going to need it.
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