The Patriots defense looks to be on the upswing if the Baltimore game is any indication. The young players seem to finally be getting into their grooves, and the future looks bright on the defensive side of the ball in Foxboro.
However, to be frank, before this week no one has had confidence in the Patriots defense. The Patriots are currently 30th in the NFL in total defense and last in the NFL at stopping opponents on third down, giving up conversions at a 49 percent rate. The numbers are not so pretty.
The defense looks better now, and the players will hopefully continue their upward trend. However, this got me to thinking how I would rate the Patriots players thus far? Who has been the most effective cog on the defensive side of the ball, and who needs to step up their game.
By using statistics available on Brian Burke's Advanced NFL Statistics website (a must click for any football stat buff), I took the mean of various win probability formulas (read: how a player can impact a game positively for his team, whether on the offensive or defensive side of the ball), averaged them, and made a list. I tweaked it just a bit due to my own subjective evaluations...and voila! Here are your top 11 Patriots defenders this season, with a little write-up dedicated to each.
11. CB Kyle Arrington
To be completely fair, Arrington probably did not expect to be starting the season either. However, the numbers are not pretty. He tries hard, but he is in the bottom quartile of cornerbacks in most, if not all, statistical categories. Heck, Darius Butler has slightly better metrics than him. I'm not saying that Butler has been better this season, but one thing that is clear is that Arrington is simply not that good. His win probability added is really low, and his estimated points added puts him just above the bottom quarter of the league for that statistic. He is not the worst possible option, but the team certainly could do better. He is better suited as a nickel corner, not a starter.
10. DE Mike Wright/Brandon Deaderick
I am including these two players together for a couple of reasons. One is that they are currently serving in a very complementary manner. Two is that Deaderick's projectable statistics, when extrapolated for five games, look extremely similar to Wright's. Both have been below the league average in most categories, but Deaderick has been stellar against the run while Wright has been solid against the pass. The biggest disappointment here is that Ron Brace is not meriting a spot on the list. He has been a disappointment thus far, but there is some hope. When he has been on the field, although he has been inconsistent, he has contributed to his team's EPA. Hopefully, when I decide to do this type of evaluation again, only one Patriot will be in this slot.
9. S Brandon Meriweather
When Brandon Meriweather got selected to the Pro Bowl last year, there were some skeptics who were not sure that he deserved it. This year, due to issues with the coaching staff and some other personal problems, he seems to be proving those doubters correct. Meriweather has not had the opportunity to be the playmaker he was in the past, and this is reflected in his statistics. Teams are throwing at him with great success, and he has been relatively abysmal in just about every aspect of the game. Meriweather definitely can improve, and his numbers should go up a bit. However, a Pro Bowl free safety should add more than 0.82 expected points per game. For comparison's sake, Meriweather averaged 2.56 EPA/G last year, which is pretty impressive. If he can increase that gap by just a bit, and just play as an average safety, he would improve the Patriots a lot.
8. ILB Brandon Spikes
Is this a little low for Spikes? Perhaps. However, at this point, there are simply a few other players who are outperforming him and making more plays for the team. Spikes has been a good run stopper (56.7% success rate) and has made timely plays all year. The impact, though, has not been there as it has been for other players. Spikes is certainly closer to being an average linebacker than a below average one, and his ceiling is still very high. He makes a lot of tackles and seems to be finding his stride as a coverage as well; he defensed his first pass against the Ravens this past week. Spikes also ranks third on the Patriots in tackle factor, a metric used to show the propensity of a linebacker to make tackles as opposed to others at his position. Spikes has the tackling concept down, and he can stop the run as well. Once he makes a few more impact plays, he should fly up the list.
7. DE Gerard Warren
Other than his two sack outburst against the New York Jets, Warren has not been a great boon to the Patriots defensive line either. He has done his job in the Patriots system for sure, as evidenced by his 87.5% success rate at the line of scrimmage. However, he has not provided a consistent push into the pocket, and has been run at with some success. Warren is below league average at defensive end production-wise, but in the NFL proper I have him ranked squarely in my top 30, regardless of scheme. He only drops overall due to the wide variance between great defensive ends and good defensive ends. Warren is good; however, I do think that if he can become just a little stouter against the run and create a bit more push, he could improve the defense a lot.
6. CB Devin McCourty
McCourty is the first player to be mentioned in this article that, from an objective standpoint, actually meets the league averages for his position. In fact, McCourty is, essentially, an average cornerback this season in every respect. McCourty's ceiling, in my mind, is unknown. It helps considerably that the player with whom he compares strongest is another AFC East cornerback who wears 24 for the Jets; through six games, their statistics are very similar. McCourty has been consistent in coverage, and he was a major reason why Anquan Boldin and Brandon Marshall each had decidedly below-average games against the Patriots. He can play man or play zone, he can match up on tight ends, and he can play press or off coverages. He is going to be a stud at the next level, and I cannot wait to see how he improves for the remainder of this season.
5. OLB Jermaine Cunningham
A bit high for Cunningham? Perhaps...but in two starts, he has already pumped his production up to OVER the league's average. I find that to be very impressive. Cunningham shows great burst off the edge but is also stout enough to keep his contain against the run and play on every down. He has already surpassed Tully Banta-Cain in every single statistical metric, and seems to have a stranglehold on the starting spot. His boxscore last game against the Ravens was the epitome of what an OLB in this system should do; four tackles, two assists, one sack and a pass defensed. He reminds me a lot of Willie McGinest, and I think he is yet another young player who should improve over time. The defense has looked better since he earned the starting nod, and hopefully his statistics will just keep rising.
4. OLB Rob Ninkovich
With all due respect to Cunningham..Ninkovich is one of the stories of the season thus far. Yes, through the first three games he did not look so great, but he has been very stellar for the last couple. Ninkovich is an interesting specimen, insofar that this year, quietly, he has been a top 15 outside linebacker. When you have an OLB capable of dropping into coverage and bringing pressure off the edge in equal doses, that player is special. Ninkovich may be a top 10 3-4 OLB at excelling in those two areas; not a top 10 guy overall, but he could eventually reach that level at the rate he is playing. He needs to improve against the run, but the man who wore number 50 before him was no great shakes against the run either. Ninkovich will continue to see playing time, and I think that, by the end of the season, OLB may not be such a big need for the Patriots anymore. They may still want to pick up an extra pass rusher, but Ninkovich and Cunningham provide a nice complementary combination that may cause Patriots fans to hearken back to early last decade, when McGinest and Vrabel patrolled the field in red, white and blue.
3. ILB Jerod Mayo
Mayo has been the best linebacker on the team thus far, and it is refreshing to see him improve so much from last year to this one. Although he did not look great against the Jets, he has been the team's leader every other week and looks healthy, quick, and refreshed. He still is not the playmaker one would want at the middle linebacker position. However, he leads the NFL in tackle factor at 2.24, which means that he is making 2.24 times a typical linebacker would make in the Patriots system. He simply stops big plays from happening, wherever he is on the field. He still is not completely polished as of yet, but he has an opportunity to grow with this young, athletic defense and, down the road, I still have faith that he can be special. His continued development will be key for this defense's success; here's hoping he can keep it up.
2. DT Vince Wilfork
Wilfork isn't number one? I know, this is a slight surprise, but I will get to why he is not number one in a paragraph. For now, it is time to focus on the monster in the middle, Mr. Wilfork. He is a beast, no doubt about it, and the statistics prove this point. He has an 88.9% success rate in blowing up plays, he has a stellar tackle factor at 1.30, and he scores well in every other category. Resigning Wilfork was the best move that the team made this offseason, other than possibly drafting Devin McCourty. His presence is immense, both literally and figuratively. He makes this team a relative force against the run, especially with burly linebackers like Mayo and Spikes running around and cleaning up messes. Wilfork makes this team good...but the final player on this list could make the Patriots special.
1. S Pat Chung
Pat Chung may be the best kept secret in football. He has been a top 6 safety in the league this year and, far and away, scored the best out of any Patriot player compared to the rest of the NFL. His EPA/G was 2.25 times as good as the average safety's, and his EPA was 2.32 times as strong. He has been a monster this year, in every single category. His tackle factor, at 1.93, is second among safeties behind Miami's Yeremiah Bell. He has two interceptions, one touchdown, one tackle for loss, and two blocked kicks. However, what is most amazing is that he is being misused by Belichick, and still is putting up great numbers. Chung would be best in the box, but he has had to serve as a de facto nickel cornerback considering the dearth of depth at the position. Despite this, he has been exemplary. I am more excited about Chung than any other current Patriot, and the numbers thus far certainly lend encouragement.
So...there you have it. From 11 to 1, the Patriots starting defense. Questions? Comments? I'd be happy to clarify anything.