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#PostPulpit Mailbag: Previewing New England’s new-look defense

Related: Matthew Judon sees a bright future in one of his teammates: ‘Uche is going to be great’

New England Patriots Training Camp Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

With two training camp practices now in the books, football is officially back in New England. After a chaotic offseason coming to an end — one that included shelling out money in free agency and selecting the potential future of the franchise in the draft — the Patriots now turn their focus to the football field.

While all eyes are already on the quarterback competition between veteran Cam Newton and rookie Mac Jones, there are plenty of other question marks across the roster — with All-Pro cornerback’s Stephon Gilmore’s availability also in the spotlight.

So as we head into a weekend full of football, let’s jump into this week’s questions:

@KeithHa93563853 I think people are underrating just how good this years defense is going to be. Assuming Gilmore plays. Do you see the possibility of this being one of the best New England defenses we have seen?

If people are underrating this unit, they shouldn't be. After an offseason full of additions, the Patriots defense appears to have the potential to be one of the best units in all of football. After a decimated front seven was bullied last year, they added plenty of size on their defensive line and some well needed talent to their linebacking core.

One of New England’s many issues not he defensive side last year was their inability to sack the quarterback. They had the sixth fewest sacks and blitzed the sixth least in the NFL, but led the league in hurries and hurry percentage, while being fifth in pressure percentage and sixth in quarterback knockdowns. With the return of Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, along with the additions of Matthew Judon to pair with Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, etc, the Patriots’ front seven will be extremely deep, versatile, and chaotic this season.

Where things could get dicey is the back end. The Patriots certainly have plenty of talent in their secondary, but the unit could be beatable if All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore is not present for regular season action. If Gilmore does miss time, New England would most likely pair third-year corner Joejuan Williams — who has impressed throughout two practices so far — or second-year corner Myles Bryant with J.C. Jackson on the outside.

It’s not an ideal situation and if the Patriots want to make the most out of this defense, Gilmore will need to be present.

@Trevor_Nading Do you expect Anfernee Jennings to have a role on defense?

Like many of the Patriots rookies last season, Jennings did not see much playing time on the defensive side of the ball — appearing in just 28.6 percent of possible snaps. Entering his second-season, Jennings does not appear to have a set role.

After primarily playing as an outside/edge linebacker in Alabama, Jennings moved all around the field in his rookie season for New England. He showed promise in the run game and his versatility is a plus, but Jennings definitely had his struggles in year one. With the influx of talent in the front seven, Jennings will most likely again have a minimal role on defense this season. Currently, he projects as a valuable rotational early-down linebacker for players like Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy.

Jennings, who has been absent from the Patriots’ first two training camp practices, will need a strong camp and preseason to earn more consistent snaps on the defensive side of the ball. He should continue to be an option in New England’s kick- and punt-return units, where he played nearly a fourth of the Patriots snaps last season.

@vaidyeah33 what role do you see sony michel having this upcoming season? it seems like damien harris will indeed be rb1, but if the patriots can’t find a suitor for michel via trade, will they be using michel in other situations (for example: screen passes or short yardage situations)?

After having his fifth-year option declined by the team this offseason, Michel showed up to training camp noticeably quicker. It’s also worth noting that this is the first time in Michel’s four-year career that he did not start the summer on the PUP list — so it’s a strong start for the 26-year-old already.

It would be surprising to see Michel’s role change drastically here in year five, though, after being traditionally used as an early-down and short-yardage back. With Damien Harris likely leading the depth chart, Michel will likely be used as a reliever for Harris like he was in Weeks 15 through 17 last season. It was an effective role for the former Bulldog, however, as he saw 36 carries for 219 yards (6.08 YPC).

Through two days of camp, Michel has been used in the passing game more than usual; he even hauled in a touchdown reception from Mac Jones in 11-on-11 drills on Thursday. Perhaps a quicker and healthier Michel could rekindle some of the pass catching success he had at Georgia, leaving opposing defenses with more options to worry about with him in the backfield.

With Harris leading the way, the addition of Rhamondre Stevenson (if healthy), and veteran James White still in the mix, Michel will have to be effective when his number is called, or he quickly could find himself out of the rotation.

@NHPatriots603 JJ Taylor...Is he the 2021 version of Danny Woodhead/Dion Lewis? Or just a flash in the pan?

JJ Taylor was impressive in limited action last season. Despite his size - 5-foot-6, 186 pounds — Taylor ran downhill with success, averaging 2.91 yards after contact per carry, according to Pro Football Focus.

“He’s not going to get bigger,” running back coach Ivan Fears said of Taylor during OTAs. “We know that. He’s not going to get taller. It’s just his style of play that’s gotta be the thing that changes. He’s going to be an excellent make-you-miss type of back. Excellent in the open field. He’s got great vision. His run instincts are outstanding. No doubt about it.”

Beyond his work in the run game, Taylor gives New England quality depth as a pass catcher beyond James White.

“His hands are good. He can catch the ball. He can run the routes. He’s got all that stuff,” said Fears.

From the size to his elusiveness, the comparison to Dion Lewis are easy to make. With his versatility to contribute in all three phases of the game, Taylor has a real chance to build off his strong spring and be a valuable piece for the Patriots in 2021.

“Little Dion, that’s what he is,” Fears said during training camp last summer. “Little Dion. Exciting, fun ... Have you seen him out there? Same quickness. Same suddenness. He’s a hell of a pass-catcher. Guy’s got great vision. There’s a [expletive] load of stuff that’s good about him.”

Let’s go quick:

@CheyenneSulli14 Are the Patriots done building this years team ?

The Patriots are never done building this year’s team, but I wouldn't expect any more major splashes. With roster cutdowns and practice squads eventually on the horizon, there will be plenty of roster movement this summer.

@JaSkinz When will the Patriots be in [pads] for practice

Bill Belichick told media on Thursday that Tuesday is the earliest the Patriots can practice in full pads. So, expect to seem them in pads then.

@AgniTeddy Who do you expect to start

My belief since Day 1 is that Cam Newton will be under center to start the season.

@kirb410 Chances Cam Newton is cut before the season starts?


@JimSnow86 JC Jackson or Stephen Gilmore? Are either, neither or both playing for the Pats after this season?

This is a tough question as both cornerbacks will be looking for a significant raise next season. My early prediction will be the team only brings back one of the two and I’ll guess Gilmore, as Jackson signs with the highest bidder in unrestricted free agency.

@defnotES2 When does Hightower get released?


@KevinON5535606 What is the meaning of life

I am still searching for that answer, Kevin.

@_fega_ When will Kyle Dugger join the 99 Club? 2023 or 2024?

2024 after Jake Bailey joins the elusive club in ‘23.

@PatsDynastyInfo Who is your favorite Patriot, and why is it @RealTroyBrown80?

There are so many it's tough to pick just a few. Besides the easy answer (Tom Brady) and based off the Patriot jerseys in my closet, Wes Welker and Devin McCourty.

Also, speaking of Troy Brown, it’s awesome to see him back working with the wide receivers this season.

@thechris104 More likely to make the Hall of Fame — Matthew Slater or Julian Edelman?

While Julian Edelman is an unanimous first ballot Patriot Hall of Famer, his case for Canton is not as thorough. In my opinion, Slater should be a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Canton currently is home to four kickers and one punter, but not one player who primarily played special teams. Electing Slater, or Steve Tasker, to be the first core special teamer in the Hall of Fame would be a strong place to start.

That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag. If you have questions you’d liked to be answered next week, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit! Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well!