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Areas the Patriots Defense Can Build Upon in 2016

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The Denver Broncos proved in 2015 that in the playoffs an elite defense is a difference maker. What areas could the Patriots build up their defense in the future.

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos managed to pull off an unlikely Super Bowl title after going through the Pittsburgh and New England gauntlet to reach the Super Bowl, breathing life back into the cliché that Defense wins championships. They did on the strength of their terrific pass rush that gave the Patriots, Steelers, and Panthers offensive line fits, especially in the final two games of their run. In the Broncos case, they have two superstar edge rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Miller is the best player at his position and Ware still has it even a decade into his NFL career. Behind that pass rush included a secondary that features Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. locking down receivers on the boundary.

The Broncos spent a lot of capital to build up that defense with lucrative contracts to sign Ware, Talib, and TJ Ward in free agency while building up their defensive front with high draft picks. The Broncos drafted Miller 2nd overall in 2011, Derek Wolfe 35th overall in 2012, Sylvester Williams 26th overall in 2013, and Shane Ray in 2015. In addition to the draft, they were able to find an undrafted FA steal in Harris, who the team rewarded with a lucrative contract extension. For all the money and draft capital spent on the defense, it finally paid off for the franchise in Super Bowl 50. The Patriots probably aren't going to be able to draft a talent like Miller because the team would have to be really bad the previous year in order to do so. The Patriots have only had two Top 10 picks since 2001 and only one of them was their own selection.

The Patriots themselves also have a strong defense that they've built through the draft, using their high picks in their Front 7 with Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Malcom Brown, and Dominique Easley all being selected in the first two rounds over the last four drafts. In 2014, they spent plenty of cash for 1 season on the secondary with the acquisitions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, which got the team their 4th Super Bowl title. In 2015, the Patriots went younger at the secondary while still retaining their most important member in Devin McCourty, who was also a first round pick. The Patriots have a strong Front 7 going into the 2016, but perhaps they could use more depth in their Front 7, especially at the linebacker level.

The one issue that seemed to affect the Patriots defense was the lack of turnovers. I correctly predicted in the previous offseason that this team would be a Top 10 defense, so  They were top 10 in points allowed per drive (1.54) and scoring % (28.9), but were 20th in turnover % at 10.5. Part of the reason why I think the turnover rate was low is due to the amount of youth and inexperience at the CB position, which isn't going to be a problem for the team moving forward. For the 2016 season, I would definitely like to see the team still remain as stingy on the scoreboard but also be able to produce turnovers when opportunities arise. I believe that with another year of continuity with this defense that they can perform even better in 2016 than 2015.

In addition to those high picks, the Patriots have very good role players behind them with strong bargain-bin FA signings include Jabaal Sheard, Patrick Chung, and Alan Branch along with trades that included getting Akiem Hicks out of New Orleans to bolster the defense. If the Patriots are able to retain Hicks, they're defense should be better in 2016 than 2015 even with the same personnel. Players entering their second full season in their primary roles include Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, Malcolm Butler, Justin Coleman, and Jabaal Sheard. I expect a lot of improvement as they gain more comfort in the system and be able to do their job even better.

Butler proved that he wasn't a flash in the pan in 2015, proving that he can be an effective boundary CB at the NFL level on a consistent basis. Patrick Chung went from a 2nd round disappointment when forced to play out of position to one of the league's best box safeties in addition to being able to cover TEs very well in the passing game. Justin Coleman was an after-thought player that couldn't make the Vikings roster in camp and wound up proving that his play does back up the impressive athletic traits he possesses. Sheard turned out to be the player we were hoping he'd be and even more, as he became a consistent pass rushing threat in the second half of the season in addition to being able to defend the run from the edge well. All four of these guys figure to have large roles in the 2016 defense like they did in 2015.

While the Patriots don't have near as much star power as the Broncos have on defense, they do have a young nucleus to build the defense around for the next season. The Patriots secondary was very under the radar good in 2015, which people discounted because they jettisoned star power names in favor for players with mid-round or undrafted pedigrees. As was the case for the Broncos with Harris, the Patriots may have found future household names in Butler and Coleman for the future. From the examples that both franchises, the only way to build up a strong defense is to continually fortify it with high draft picks because defenses require better athletes and football players than offenses.

In the 2016 offseason, I expect the Patriots to make additions to that defense, especially at the CB and LB positions. The Patriots will likely draft whatever player they feel will give them the best value moving forward, whether that player is a tackle or a corner. Patriots probably don't move out of the 2nd round in the draft because there are no guarantees of getting a future starter after the 75th pick of the draft. In free agency, some LB and CB depth would be nice but perhaps the most important moves the team can make is retaining their own guys like Hicks.