Analysis of the Patriots this offseason has focused mainly on what they don’t have and how/when they will get it.
Makes sense. When it’s time to shop and stock time, focus is on the things you need, not what you already have.
But while the offense is being retooled and redesigned, the Patriots defense – its strong suit in the 2018 playoffs – has the potential to be even better in 2019. And that’s even with the departure of Trey Flowers and three key defensive coaches – Brian Flores, Josh Boyer and Brendan Daly.
The key to the Patriots leveling up? It could be second-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. Why Bentley ahead of newly-acquired players like Michael Bennett, Jamie Collins or Mike Pennel or mainstays like Donta Hightower, Stephon Gilmore or Devin McCourty?
Because of the domino effect a healthy Bentley could have on the rest of the defense beginning with Dont’a Hightower.
The smarts and versatility Hightower brings in a uniquely fast and powerful package make him the player that the Patriots hoped they were getting when they signed Adalius Thomas more than a decade ago.
In 2016, Hightower’s value as an edge defender was tapped in the final five games of that championship season when he went from taking 22 percent of his snaps on the edge to 52. A play you may remember from his time there? His strip-sack of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl that made America sit up straight and say, “They really are going to do this, aren’t they?”
In 2017, Hightower was being readied for a bigger role on the edge (great insight on the move at that time from Pats Pulpit) but missed the first couple of games with a sprained knee. The Patriots defense was a confused shambles during his absence and – when he got back – he was back at inside linebacker. The improvement was drastic. But a torn pec in Week 5 cost Hightower the rest of the season and the New England defense was never as trustworthy after that.
Same thing last season. Hightower, who’d trained differently in the 2018 offseason and showed up more streamlined, was in for a bigger role on the edge. He began the season there and Bentley, a rookie from Purdue, was in the middle with the “green dot” as the lead communicator for the defense.
The Patriots opened 1-2, Bentley tore his pec, Hightower moved back to the middle, took over communication and things got better. Again. He capped the year with an MVP-worthy performance in the Super Bowl when he had a sack off the edge, another lined when he was lined up at defensive tackle and a pressure on Rams quarterback Jared Goff when he exploded through the Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein.
Kyle Van Noy’s eye-opening performance in 2018 came in part because he was able to play more freely with a PhD in linebacking next to him.
So, back to Bentley. He’s not going to approach Hightower’s level of institutional knowledge. But if he can get enough of it right, Hightower is then freed up to be in different spots. The likelihood of that happening? High. Bentley’s style is reminiscent of another No. 51, Jerod Mayo. With Mayo now coaching linebackers, Bentley becomes his pet project. Van Noy has another year of smarts and production under him and the return of Jamie Collins means the Patriots have two guys that can deal with the run, cover adequately and rush the passer while Bentley and Elandon Roberts take over as the guys relied on to deal with grinding running games.
Meanwhile, Hightower is continuing to train for speed. He’s now about 20 pounds lighter than the 270 pounds he carried when he was drafted so obviously, the intention is to have him spend less time in the middle. If Bentley can hold it down, a defense that closed last year holding the explosive Rams to just a field goal in Super Bowl 53 could be even better this year.
It’s smart to keep an eye on the Kyle Rudolph situation in Minnesota. It’s devolved in the few weeks since the draft since the cash-strapped Vikings and the 29-year-old tight end hit an impasse. Rudolph is due $7.625 in salary. Asked last week if he’d consider a pay cut, his answer was, “No way. I’m too young for that.” That is the correct response for a player who’s caught 204 passes for 18 touchdowns the past three seasons with Case Keenum, Kirk Cousins and Sam Bradford throwing to him.
If the Patriots were to trade for Rudolph, they have to create space. And this could create urgency to get Tom Brady’s contract restructure done so that his $27M cap hit comes down and there’s room to fit Rudolph.
Even though the Patriots whiffed on the tight end they went after hardest to replace Rob Gronkowski – Jared Cook – they’ve done a good job whipping bodies at the spot since with Matt LaCosse, Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and Benjamin Watson. Rudolph is a different level player, though, in terms of production and durability.
Would trading for him mean one of the other tight ends would be immediately cut loose? And would Rudolph’s addition mean a post-Thanksgiving return by Gronk would be less likely (though I’m not sure it’s likely right now)?
If the Patriots do make that move, it would be bad news for the AFC.
It has to be encouraging for the Patriots to see wide receiver Demaryius Thomas able to build some straight-line speed as he works back from his Achilles injury. But even if he’s trending upward now, the process of getting back to full speed is still just beginning.
Thomas will almost certainly start training camp on the PUP list and – even if he is able to compete by early September – he probably won’t be full speed and confident for another two months based on medical sources I’ve spoken with. So the decision will be whether activating a less-than 100 percent version of Thomas in September is necessary or whether the Patriots and Thomas will choose to wait. I’d bet on the latter.
The NFL is putting together some interesting lists for the league’s 100th anniversary and I’m one of the 50 voters enlisted to help choose the winners. Huge honor. The categories are Greatest Play; Greatest Teams; Greatest Games; Game Changers; and Greatest Characters. The process begins with Greatest Plays. We are charged with logging on to a website, reviewing 100 plays and choosing the top 50. We’re trying to establish how much I can legally share with you all while going through the process so stay tuned because I love input.
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