Best of the 2010s: Who makes the Patriots' All-Decade defense?
Well this was harder than I thought. Not in terms of finding enough good players to put on the Patriots All-Decade Defensive team. There were plenty of those.
But evaluating who was the best Patriot at a position when I mixed in individual excellence, team excellence during his tenure and time served, well, that’s where it got sticky. Especially at cornerback.
Your results may vary, of course, and I’m happy to get the feedback if they do. Just remember. Holiday season.
If you want to swear, do it at Phil.
CB: Stephon Gilmore
On March 9, 2017 Patriots fans awoke to the news that — in the opening hours of free agency — Bill Belichick had backed the Brinks Truck up to Stephon Gilmore’s house and dumped out $65M on his front porch. Figuratively.
The real deal — which expires at the end of 2021 — had $31M guaranteed and $18M at signing. It was a departure from the Patriots' usual free agent M.O. It felt like a lot for a player who Patriots fans had seen burned by New England in the past. And — for the first few games of Gilmore’s tenure here — it was a move that was criticized.
Three seasons, two All-Pro selections, a Super Bowl-sealing interception and DPOY consideration that’s ongoing more than validates that Belichick knew exactly what he was doing.
CB: Malcolm Butler
It didn’t end well for the former Popeye’s Fried Chicken line cook/cashier out of Vicksburg, Mississippi, but for all the laments about the Super Bowl Butler didn’t play in after the 2017 season, the one that he did and his path to the field that day are part of Patriots lore the same way Adam Vinatieri in the Snow Bowl and Tom Brady in SB36 are.
Butler — an undrafted free agent who made the team in 2014 after a minicamp tryout — was a Pro Bowler in 2015 and a second-team All-Pro in 2016. He was a dogged man-to-man corner, an incredible competitor and played in three Super Bowls in four seasons. Well, two Super Bowls. Unless you want to count that punt he was on the field for against the Eagles. Darrelle Revis, a one-season All-Pro who won a Super Bowl here; Logan Ryan, a steady contributor through 2016; and Jason McCourty, an underrated two-season addition who had a key Super Bowl save, also warrant mention here.
CB: Aqib Talib
On Halloween 2012, the Patriots knocked on the door of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, opened up their pillowcase, said “Trick or treat!” and had a life-size Aqib Talib dropped in their sack. And WHAT A TREAT THAT WAS, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!!!! LOLOLOLOL! Acquiring Talib at the trade deadline was the Patriots saying, “Enough of getting pillaged on the back end. Scheme ain’t winning. We need raw talent.” Talib begot Darrelle Revis, begot Butler, begot Gilmore. Talib was the best corner the Patriots had had since Ty Law and Asante Samuel. His work over a season-and-a-half helped the Patriots moved away from the Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty-style players who were good but not great on the perimeter and toward players who were objectively great cover players. Regardless of off-field issues. Regardless of cost.
Talib helped turn the 2012 Patriots defense around and they were cruising toward their second straight Super Bowl appearance before Talib hurt his thigh in the first quarter of the AFCCG against the Ravens. The Patriots were outscored 28-10 after Talib left. Only twice in the preceding 10 games following Talib’s arrival had they allowed more than 20. The next year, Talib was the best corner in football until his groin was injured against the Saints. He rebounded and closed the year strong but was taken out on a pick play by Wes Welker in the AFCCG after the 2013 season. After that, he signed with Denver and — a day after that — along came Revis.
FS: Devin McCourty
One of the steadiest, most dependable, intelligent players the Patriots have had in any era. McCourty’s game awareness and leadership are so often cited that his physical skills — he’s obscenely fast with outstanding ball skills and a plus-tackler — get short shrift.
By the end of the 2019 regular season, McCourty will have started 155 regular-season games. He’s played in 22 playoff games and made 81 tackles as the Patriots have gone 16-6 with him playing deep. The Patriots are 121-33 in games he’s played. He’s got 771 tackles, 26 picks, 86 passes defensed and 11 forced fumbles on defense. Good selection.
SS: Patrick Chung
Since coming back to the Patriots in 2014, Chung’s played 90 games and made 475 tackles with four picks. Unlike the strong safeties who patrol and enforce, Chung’s job has been more nuanced than the more celebrated guys who play his position.
He gets put up at the linebacker level as a 5-9, 205-pound run-stopper. He runs with tight ends who are seven inches and 50 pounds bigger than him. And he has done it all brilliantly. And he rips it up on special teams too.
The 2009 second-round pick petered out in his first stint with the Patriots from 2009 to 2012, but the guy who came back has been an incredible player with rare toughness.
LB: Dont'a Hightower
Since he was 17, Dont'a Hightower’s been under the coaching thumb of either Nick Saban or Bill Belichick. One of his closest friends is former teammate and current coach Jerod Mayo. Spend just a couple of minutes with him and you realize Hightower is engagingly intelligent about just about anything. Combine the gray matter with the people he’s been working for and with? You get a football genius.
Plus he hits like a mother-bleeping truck. As the game tries to legislate out the brute force that is in its DNA to make it more appetizing for all consumers, the presence of a player like Hightower who can get medieval when necessary makes him a link to the past. And he’s also going to figure historically in this game since his SB49 stop of Marshawn Lynch, his SB51 strip sack of Matt Ryan and his SB53 bullying of many Rams will live on far past the time when he’s all done.
LB: Jerod Mayo
A star-crossed career in which the tackling machine’s body just kinda gave out. Mayo opened the decade with an All-Pro season in 2010, recording 175 tackles and 114 solos (both led the league). He also had three fumble recoveries. He was a Pro Bowler again in 2012 with 147 tackles but after that, he kept getting hurt and finished the next three seasons on injured reserve before moving on to the relative safety of the Quick Slants set.
Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy were other options here, but in terms of sheer production and leadership, it was impossible to put anyone here over Mayo who produced on the field and had — and continues to have — an impact on the franchise.
DE: Rob Ninkovich
The biggest defensive play of Super Bowl 49, aside from the ones made by Malcolm Butler and Dont'a Hightower? Without question, it was the 8-yard sack by Ninkovich on third-and-7 with 12:10 left in the game and the Patriots down 10 points. To that point, the Seahawks had been maddeningly persistent about converting as Russell Wilson wandered and bought time. Earlier in the game, a run stuff on third down inside the 10 forced the Seahawks to settle for a field goal.
Quietly, Ninkovich was one of the most outstanding defensive ends in the NFL for the decade. Absolutely tireless. He played every game from 2010 through 2015 and 12 of 16 in his final season in 2016 which ended with a Super Bowl win. He had 469 tackles in the regular season, another 66 and six sacks in 17 postseason games.
DE: Trey Flowers
Chandler Jones or Trey Flowers … this was the closest call on the defense. I went with Flowers, who became a starter in 2016 after being drafted in the fourth round in 2015. In 46 regular-season games with the Patriots he made 164 tackles, 25 for loss and rolled up 21 sacks. He had another 5.5 sacks in his five postseason games. He was a fixture on a defense that won two Super Bowls.
As for Jones? In his four seasons with the Patriots, he played 55 regular seasons games and had 36 sacks and 222 tackles. He was better at getting quarterbacks on the ground when they tried to throw, certainly. But when the playoffs came? Not a big factor. In nine playoff games, he had 18 tackles and two sacks. Flowers had 39 tackles and 5.5 sacks. He also had eight tackles for loss.
DT: Lawrence Guy
Kind of surprising to find this guy here? Agreed. But he’s been a huge stabilizing force on the Patriots defensive line at the end of this decade.
He will — for the third straight year — play all 16 regular-season games and have about 60 tackles (he had 58 and 59 his first two seasons here). In six playoff games he’s made 15 more stops and added 1.5 sacks. Good and steady player on an ever-changing front.
DT: Vince Wilfork
Wilfork was a Pro Bowler in 2010-12 and an All Pro in 2012. He wasn’t just one of the best defensive linemen in the league, he was one of the league’s best players. Aside from the Achilles injury in 2013 which kept him to four games, he played all 16 games in every other year until he went to Houston in 2014.
He also had two picks, 13 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries to go with 8.5 sacks. Great player who should be a Patriots Hall of Famer without question and who deserves real consideration for Canton as well.