When I gave you my offensive skill player list for 2014, I mentioned that not all teams are chock full of elite players. On defense, Pro Football Focus lists exactly two elite players on our defense: CB Darrelle Revis and FS Devin McCourty. In fact, Devin McCourty was the sole Patriot to make their All-Pro list last year (Revis made it as a Buc). NFL.com places McCourty on the top shelf of the best five safeties in the league. With most of the defense on the disabled list last year, it was good to have stability at one position.
Unfortunately, one position does not a defense make. At the beginning of the year we got an idea of what a defense could actually bring to the Patriots. We hadn't seen one in so long. By season's end, the backups were stiffening up again until Talib went down yet again with a playoff ending injury. With the NFL beng a passing league, it's become kind of important to keep the other team from passing the ball. Almost to a man, my defensive list is going to focus on stopping the passing game. Not that the run isn't important, but if you can stop the pass, Sir Thomas of Brady can more than generate enough points to contend with a running attack.
Without further ado, I'm going to present my list of five defensive players that need to have outstanding years on the Patriots defense in 2014. For this list I'm primarily looking at every down players that will stay on the field regardless of down, distance, or a predilection for run or pass. Third down specialist may be important on third down, by if a team converts on first and second down all of the time, that guy is nothing but a glorified bench warmer.
1. Shutdown Corner: Darrelle Revis
What Ty Law and Aqib Talib have shown us is the ability to remove an opponent's top weapon is huge. Have you heard that NFL teams aren't swimming with elite play makers? Removing one player from offense with one player from defense is important. The guy with the most yards/catches/TDs is immediately gone from opponent's list of active players, and the QB and OC are forced to make do with lesser talent. Since you haven't sold the house by using multiple players to remove him (bracketing him with a safety, for instance), you still have plenty of players left in a 10 on 10 matchup. I'll apologize ahead of time for the Revis reel, because some of the damage he's done has been against us:
Behind Revis we have the big man Brandon Browner who is tough in press coverage, but will be missing for 4 games. We also have Alfonso Dennard who did a pretty good job as number 2 corner last year, but struggled against top targets. In addition, we have Instant Offense, Logan Ryan, who managed to snag a few balls last year. To balance out the Revis highlights, here's Logan Ryan and a little pick six against the Jets:
There that took some of the sting out didn't it?
2. Free Safety: Devin McCourty
A great free safety is a corner back's BFF. When a corner knows someone has his back, it allows him to be extra aggressive in pass protection. You can jam the guy at the line, bump him along the route, and generally make him wear you like a cheap coat. An ugly, heavy cheap coat that constricts all of your movements. The problem with that strategy is sometimes the guy finds a way to shed the coat. After all not every corner back is elite. When that happens, it's nice to have a little elite backup.
I mentioned that PFF has given McCourty plenty of accolades, but I failed to mention that was during his first full year at the job. I don't think we've seen McCourty's best. With our entire secondary as good or better than last year, he may have nothing to do back there but pick off some stray balls floating through the air. Also, there comes a time when a safety has to pick up a player one on one. When that happens, it's good to have a guy that is also excellent as a corner back:
Behind McCourty we have guys like Patrick Chung and Nate Ebner who are more than likely special teams bodies. We have the underwhelming Tavon Wilson, who has done alright covering TEs on occasion, but not much else. Even Browner may try his hand at safety. He's built for it. We also have the heir apparent to the other safety position (sometimes strong safety and sometimes FS2), Duron Harmon. Here's an example in the FS2 role:
Keeping the ball out of the receiver's hands is one thing. Making sure the quarterback never gets to throw that ball is another. Pass rush and coverage go hand in glove. It takes time to get to the quarterback even if no one bothers to block you. It takes less time to hit a wide open receiver. With the Patriots revamped secondary, receivers should be blanketed more than ever, and these next guys couldn't be happier.
3. Defensive End 1 & 2: Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich
Ok, I'm cheating a little throwing two guys in at one spot, but I feel it is justified by the total number of snaps these studs played last year. Ninkovich lead in pressures, Jones lead in sacks, and they were always on the field. After injuries decimated (literally decreased by a factor of ten - sounds about right) our defense, these guys are one of the few reasons teams didn't drop 50 points on us a game. They can use some fresher legs on occasions, but the biggest help they just got is in the secondary.
I've always liked to use the Mississippi rule when judging the pass rush. It's simple. Just start counting one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc. after the snap, and stop when either the ball is thrown or the QB comes crashing down. If a completion happens in the first three seconds, it's the fault of the coverage. Lawrence Taylor would have trouble getting to the QB in three seconds with a rocket up his tush. Assuming there's something in front of you other than green grass and a QB, it will take a little time.
Three to five seconds is shared responsibility: coverage breakdown or the pass rush is too slow. Anything past 5 seconds is the fault of the guys up front not getting any pressure. What we've done is give those guys a second more to play with. A near miss becomes a pressure. A pressure becomes a hit. A hit becomes a sack. In a game of inches and split seconds, time is a pass rusher's best friend. Chandler Jones:
...and his partner in crime, Rob Ninkovich:
4. Middle Linebacker: Jerod Mayo
Jerod Mayo is a tackling machine. The rub on him is he isn't a play maker. In 81 games, he's defended 18 passes, intercepted 3, forced 8 fumbles and amassed 9 sacks. It's not like he can't make plays, he just doesn't do it as often as you might expect from a star MLB. Part of that is he hasn't played that role all along. When he started in 2008, Tedy Bruschi covered the middle of the field more often in the 3-4. In injury riddled years, Mayo filled in where others couldn't.
He's played all four linebacker positions in the 3-4 and and all three in the 4-3. He has positional flexibility to cover whatever territory is left open. That is his strength and one of the things that makes him so valuable. He is the linebacker equivalent to the free safety. He cleans up whatever other guys miss. Just like with a great safety, it allows the guys in front of him to make plays and be aggressive knowing Mayo is limiting the damage. On occasion, they free him up to do a bit more:
When Mayo was injured last year, Dont'a Hightower took over in the middle and after a shaky start, did alright for himself and the Patriots:
5. Linebacker / Strong Safety / Defensive End: Jamie Collins
The nice thing about those Swiss Army type knives is they could do so many things: cut ropes, small trees, filet fish, clean your finger nails, remove cork screws from your champagne bottle. The problem is they do so many of those things poorly. When you have a guy that can play many different positions, it's nice. Injuries happen, positional flexibility allows you to change things up a bit, but there are limits. If you are average at a number of positions, then you are no better than filler quality and often a specialist can do your job better.
Now when you have a guy that is starter quality at a number of positions, the quarterback will be looking all over the field for him. Is he covering the tight end? Is he rushing from the edge? Is he dropping into a zone? Is he spying the QB run? Is he covering the flat? Has he even decided yet?
The playoff game against the Colts was sort of a coming out party for Jamie Collins. Earlier in the season he was stuck in a rotation behind Mayo, Hightower and Brandon Spikes with Dane Fletcher also in the discussion. An injury to Mayo and another to Spikes bought Collins his time in the spotlight and did he shine! Here's a look at his rookie year:
There really isn't a backup for what he brings. Jame Anderson might cover the linebacker part. If Wilson sticks for another year, he might cover the tight ends. It takes a team of specialists to do what Collins can do solo. It's like replacing the entire Mission Impossible crew with James Bond on steroids. That's why he earns a spot on this list. A great season from Collins will mean a great season for the Patriots. The reason he's so far down the list is it's an awful lot to expect from a sophomore. Just like Aaron Dobson though, there's no one else that can do quite what he can do.
One more for the road: X-Factor Dominique Easley
The reason Easley isn't on my short list is he's coming off of his second ACL tear and he might not make an impact this season ... or ever. The pressure he can bring from any place on the line is why he gets a special "runner up" designation. The flexibility Collins displays behind the line is what Easley brings to the line. The guys has an insane first step and non-stop motor:
He also comes with the Vince Wilfork seal of approval:
I'm lovin this pick !!
Speaking of Vince, he and fellow big man Tommy Kelly were also dinged up last year. While I hope for them both to have big years, it's a lot to ask right now.
So there you have it. My top 5 positions and players that need to step up big time in 2014. All of them have the potential, and few just had bad luck last year. If these guys have big seasons this year, the Pats will likely have a top 10 defense. If my X-Factor kicks in, you can move us to top 5.
Those are my guys. Who are yours?