It's now late May, which means that we are only just weeks away from the start of NFL Training Camp and three months away from the start of preseason games. Football is almost here! Therefore, we must start glancing at how our beloved Patriots will line themselves up this season.
The most intriguing group of players in my mind that is worth glancing at is the Patriots front seven. This offseason, the Patriots have acquired many additional pieces through the draft and free agency.
In this years draft, the Patriots spent three of their first four selections on front-seven pieces, as they drafted DE Chandler Jones, LB Dont'a Hightower and DE/OLB Jake Bequette. They also signed former Cincinnati Bengals DE/DT Jonathan Fanene and former Raiders DE/OLB Trevor Scott to the crowd. With it, the Patriots now have an even more crowded group of front-seven defensive players. For Bill Belichick, it's just what the doctor ordered.
In case you haven't noticed, the Patriots run their defense a bit differently than others. They don't have a set group of players that they use on any given down. They thrive through the use of the sub packages. Belichick likes to bring out the talent of several different players by subbing them in and out like there's no tomorrow.
Last season, we saw the Patriots transition from running just strictly a 3-4 defense to running both that and a 4-3 scheme, with the use of sub packages in both defensive sets. With the few subtractions the Patriots endured this season with the loss of Mark Anderson, Andre Carter (maybe) and Gary Guyton, new defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will have to reshuffle his deck of formations with the several players they were able to add.
It's late May, but it's never too late to at least try and predict how Belichick and company will align the front-seven this season. There's a lot of ways he could go with it, but this is how I would stack things up based off the guys I projected would make the team:
Base 3-4 Defense (Front Seven)
NT- Vince Wilfork
DE- Jonathan Fanene
LOLB- Rob Ninkovich
ILB- Jerod Mayo
ILB- Brandon Spikes
ROLB- Dont'a Hightower
Sub-Packages Projections: Trevor Scott, Jake Bequette and Chandler Jones come in at OLB on pass rushing downs. Kyle Love and Gerard Warren are utilized as subs at either NT or DT. Assuming he's healthy and he comes back, Andre Carter could give Fanene a spell at the 3-4 DE position, a place he was used throughout his 2011 campaign.
Analysis: Starting with the three boys up front, I don't think a whole lot changes up here. Brandon Deaderick is continuing to develop in the defensive tackle role in the 3-4, and Wilfork is obviously one of the best nose tackles in the game. After much thought, I decided to go with Fanene over the rookie Jones. I'm just in love with Fanene's size here, and his potential to help the interior pass rush. With Shaun Ellis likely out the door, Fanene is a great candidate to come in and actually potentially upgrade this position.
Nink, Mayo and Spikes are all returning starters in this 3-4 set, with rookie Dont'a Hightower earning the final spot on the right side ahead of some deserving candidates. Here's why:
My reasoning for picking Hightower is defined in one word: Versatility. He's got the ability to not only get after the opposing quarterback, but he can also drop into coverage effectively. Other candidates such as Trevor Scott and Chandler Jones are more hybrid defensive ends/outside linebackers. Coverage isn't their specialty, rushing the passer is. In the Patriots sub packages, you'll most likely see Scott, maybe even Jones and Jake Bequette coming in on designed pass rushes for Hightower. But in a base, Hightower is a two-sided player, and the most effective option on the team.
Base 4-3 Defense (Front Seven)
LDE- Chandler Jones
DT- Vince Wilfork
DT- Kyle Love
RDE- Andre Carter (when healthy) (Jonathan Fanene when not)
WLB- Jerod Mayo
MLB- Brandon Spikes
SLB- Dont'a Hightower
Sub-Packaged Projections: Trevor Scott and Jake Bequette both get time at 4-3 in 2012. Gerard Warren and Brandon Deaderick will both most likely see action at the 4-3 defensive tackle in place of either Wilfork or Love. Rob Ninkovich will more than likely sub in at the outside linebacker spots with Dane Fletcher also coming in from time to time.
Analysis: With all of the talk that 2012 will be a developmental year for the Patriots first round pick, I believe that Chandler Jones will step in Week One and be a starter at DE in their 4-3 set. He's got all of the tools that Bill Belichick wants in a pass rushing end, and he's going to shine in 2012 in his rookie season.
Wilfork and Love again pair up to form one of the most underrated DT-combos in the league. And yes, I've got Andre Carter coming back to the Patriots in 2012, and he's my pick for starting RE once he gets back on his feet. He's a perfect fit for this team both from an assets perspective and a locker room one. He recorded 10 sacks through 14 games before going down with injury. I believe he'll be an excellent complement to Jones as the other DE, and he'll serve as a tremendous mentor to the young pass rusher. If Carter does not return, expect Jonathan Fanene to take on the role in the 4-3.
Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes are sure bets at the weak and middle linebacker spots, with Dont'a Hightower joining them as strongside linebacker. This is a position Hightower has experience with, as he spent half of his senior year at Alabama as an outside linebacker in the 4-3. Strongside linebacker was a spot the Patriots struggled to find an established starter at, and I believe Hightower gives them what they've been looking for a while now.