Barring a catastrophic onslaught of injuries, the Patriots will field the deepest defense in the National Football League in 2016. The starting unit doesn't have a weakness, and the depth behind it ranges from capable to covetable. Not only has head coach Bill Belichick constructed one of the most versatile defenses in the league, but his symphonic medley of Pro Bowl-caliber studs, valuable role players, and quality backups plays as hard as they are coached--which is pretty hard.
Let's be clear: this is the NFL we are talking about. Not having a weakness doesn't mean a defense will give up negative yardage on a weekly basis or sack the QB on every play.
(Most) coaches are not idiots. They know how to exploit every coverage you throw at them, find and capitalize on individual players' flaws, and put their own players in positions to have success. As awe-inspiring as professional athletes are with their Herculean strength and blinding speed, they are also still human. Humans make mistakes. Players and teams have bad games. Even two-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt gets pancaked from time to time.
Furthermore, offensive players get paid, too. Sometimes a quarterback just makes an indefensible throw. Other times a receiver with vice grips for hands will bring down a long bomb despite air-tight coverage by the defender. The key is to execute your assignments consistently and to the best of your ability, make fewer mistakes than the opponent, and force offenses to play outside of their comfort zones. Sound familiar?
Belichick has been preaching these mantras for decades. What makes the 2016 Patriots defense unique is the hoodie has players who are intelligent, coachable, versatile, and capable of dominance at every position.
This group has a great mix of veterans and promising young talent.
Alan Branch is an underrated monster in the middle of the line. His massive build, brute strength, and balance make him a handful for interior linemen. Leave him single-blocked in the running game at your own peril.
Malcom Brown struggled out of the gate as a rookie last year, but by mid-season, offenses began taking notice of his rare blend of agility, power, technique, and high football IQ. Already one of the better defensive tackles in the league, Brown will be a stalwart on the line for years to come.
Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard, and Rob Ninkovich all came to Belichick's Island of Misfit Toys after flaming out with their original teams. Under Belichick and his coaching staff, these cast-offs have reinvigorated their careers and become forces on the edge. Even though Long is in the infancy of his tenure in New England, he seems to have regained the form he had prior to being hobbled by injury the past two seasons.
Trey Flowers, Vincent Valentine, and Anthony Johnson have yet to prove themselves at the NFL level, but all had outstanding preseasons and are projected to add depth and young talent to an already stacked unit.
Here lies two of Pro Football Focus' top-five rated 4-3 outside linebackers. However, calling these rising stars 4-3 outside linebackers is misleading. Pro Bowler Jamie Collins and perennial Pro Bowl snub Dont'a Hightower primarily play inside linebacker in New England's base 2-4 defense, but they line up all over the first and second levels of the defense.
Collins' otherworldly athleticism and instincts when blitzing or playing the run keep offensive coordinators awake at night when game-planning for the Patriots.
The thunder to Collins' lightning, Hightower is an under-appreciated key to the defense. A classic thumper between the tackles, "Boomtower" carries his heavy frame extremely well. His ability to cover backs out of the backfield or force quarterbacks to go to their second read when dropping as a hook defender are rare for someone his size. He is also a legitimate threat rushing off the edge or inside on passing downs.
Offseason acquisitions Shea McClellin and Barkevious Mingo bring more athleticism and versatility to the linebacking corp. Misused and plagued by sub-par coaching on their previous teams, these former first-round picks will have an opportunity to prove that they are worthy of their draft statuses, or at the very least show that they can be legitimate contributors to an NFL team.
Jonathan Freeny and Elandon Roberts will cut their teeth on special teams, but both can play middle linebacker in a pinch. While Freeny's poor instincts and discipline, as well as his lack of functional strength, make him a liability, you would be hard pressed to find a better fifth-string linebacker.
Roberts is undersized for a prototypical Belichick linebacker, but he has good instincts, tackles like he's from the 60s, and displayed unreal toughness in the final preseason game against the Giants. He is a developmental player who could become a quality run defender.
The "Hybrids" nickname may have been bestowed on the secondary when Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington were the starting corners, but the label is still fitting.
Free safety Devin McCourty and strong safety Patrick Chung can cover every offensive skill position and either hold their own or flat-out dominate. Like Hightower and Collins, these are two of the top players at their position in the NFL, and the team is extremely lucky to have such talented chess pieces.
Backup safety Duron Harmon's steady play as the primary nickel defensive back is going to earn him a pretty penny next offseason. He patrols the middle of the field so well that the Patriots can move McCourty all over the defense without much drop off.
Cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Justin Coleman, and Cyrus Jones typically shadow opponents' smaller, quick receivers. Butler is on a completely different level than the others after proving himself against the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. and Emmanuel Sanders. However, all three have the quickness, fluidity, ball skills, and recovery speed to challenge receivers.
Fellow corner Logan Ryan finally hit his stride last season and proved that he can contain the league's premier big-bodied receivers. Benefiting from consistent playing time and a ravenous hunger for film, he will be looking to repeat his eye-opening 2015 campaign.
Ryan will face stiff competition for a starting job from versatile newcomer Eric Rowe, who has all the talent in the world and rare size for a cornerback at 6'1", 210lbs, but was sinfully misused in Philadelphia. He can be used to cover big receivers, tight-ends, and even has collegiate experience playing free safety.
Oh, and every player I just mentioned is as tenacious and active against the run as they are proficient against the pass.
It is unlikely that Nate Ebner, Brandon King, Jordan Richards, or Jonathan Jones will get much playing time this season, barring injury. Frankly, these players can barely be considered backups. Ebner receives (very few) spot starts as a linebacker in obvious passing situations and on the goal line. Richards was projected to be Chung's main backup, but that could change thanks to Rowe. Jones has great speed and coverage ability, but he is the team's sixth corner, meaning he will rarely see the field on the first three downs. Luckily, the Patriots have enough depth in the secondary that these players can stick to doing what they do best, contributing to one of the league's top special teams units.
You're a ground-and-pound offense that wants to call power all day and control the game? Good luck getting past Branch and Brown, or avoiding Collins when he shoots into the backfield.
Oh, you're a pass-heavy team that wants to run plays at a breakneck pace and light up the scoreboard? Good luck completing passes against one of the league's best secondaries, or getting the ball out quickly enough to nullify an loaded stable of pass rushers.
This defense may not be turn every opposing offense into a glorified pee-wee team, but good luck finding an area of this defense to consistently take advantage of.