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Curran: Identifying building blocks for the Patriots' defense

NBC Sports

A week or so ago, we took a look at the sturdiest building blocks on the Patriots offense. It was kind of a bleak exercise

Flipping to the other side of the ball? Not so bad. Over there, succession plans have been laid, talented young players have been drafted or developed and there’s true reason for optimism.

Who are the main defensive building blocks for the Patriots? Let’s go back to front.

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J.C. Jackson, CB

Age: 25

Contract: Expired (RFA)

In a league where top-tier corners are making upwards of $15M annually, the Patriots have the extreme financial upper hand with Jackson who just had a nine-pick season (second best in the NFL) for the low, low rate of $750K. He’s a restricted free agent which means the Patriots can collar him with a tender offer. If they give him a first-round tender, it’s projected to be about $4.76M. if a team makes a big offer, the Patriots can either match that offer or take a first-rounder in return from the team that poaches Jackson. Truth be told, if I were a competing team with a late first-round pick and a need at corner, I’d make a run at him. The Patriots should be leery of that. Because, with Stephon Gilmore at the end of his Patriots tenure after 2021 (or before if he’s traded), they can’t let him fly the coop.

 

Kyle Dugger, S

Age: 25

Contract: Signed through 2023

The Patriots traded out of the first round last April and dropped down to take a D2 safety out of Lenoir-Rhyne. For a team with a track record of swinging and missing on second-round DBs with alarming consistency, going away from the Alabamas, Floridas, Stanfords where they’d plucked those busts from was apparently the right answer. Dugger is the real thing. At 6-2, 220, he plays with the power you’d hope a player with those dimensions would bring. He’s a hitter, a wrap-up tackler and plays with nastiness. We didn’t get to meet him up close but every indication is that he’s very much in the mold of a Devin McCourty in terms of maturity and leadership. He’s got some improvement to make as a cover guy but Dugger absolutely has Pro Bowl potential and is the kind of safety/linebacker hybrid the Patriots have needed rather than asking a willing but physically smaller player like Patrick Chung to fill that bill.

Josh Uche, Edge

Age: 23

Contract: Signed through 2023

It took a while for the second-rounder from Michigan to edge his way into the Patriots linebacker rotation. And even when he did, he didn’t quite put up eye-popping numbers – nine total tackles and a sack. But the 6-3, 230-pound Uche has upside as a hybrid defender who can rush, cover and stop the run. Almost a decade ago, the guy the Patriots were looking to for that duty was a lot different – Donta Hightower at 265. The game’s changed now, though. Dual-threat quarterbacks that extend plays are the norm. You don’t want rhinos chasing them. You want cheetahs. So that’s where Uche comes in. Hopefully.

Chase Winovich, Edge

Age: 26

Contract: Signed through 2022

Like Uche, Winovich is an edge player from Michigan. Unlike Uche, his forte is going forward and getting after the quarterback. The 2019 third-rounder was the Patriots best pass-rusher last year. Quite a comedown from when the likes of Donta Hightower, Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Kyle Van Noy were bringing the heat but the slithery 250-pound Winovich is undeniably productive. He had 5.5 sacks each of his first two years, had 12 quarterback hits in 2020 and came back from a puzzling stint in the doghouse that was predictably chalked up to Winovich just not being part of the Patriots packages that week. Same thing the team said about Malcolm Butler after the Super Bowl. I don’t know if he’s a nitwit, mildly quirky or just a player that somehow goes sideways up Bill Belichick’s tailpipe. But on a defense that needs producers, he’s done so.

 

Deatrich Wise, DE

Age: 27

Contract: Expired

We could have gone Adam Butler or Lawrence Guy or Adrian Phillips or Ja’Whaun Bentley. Instead, we go with a guy who – if the Patriots let him get away – is going to be a pass-rushing weapon. A fourth-round pick out of Arkansas in 2017, the 6-5, 274-pound Wise looked better than he ever had in 2020. More powerful and even a little more explosive. He’s got unreal length and has worked hard at the craft. If there were another pass-rushing threat aside from Winovich and Butler and Wise could get less attention, his pressure numbers could skyrocket. He had 19 quarterback hits as a rookie and five sacks. This past season, even though he had just 2.5 sacks and 11 QB hits, he had 49 tackles. We’ll see if the Patriots ante up for him or let him scoot.