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Patriots’ defensive leadership comes into focus this offseason

Related: Devin McCourty explains what made the Patriots’ playoff exit so frustrating

NFL: AUG 02 Patriots Training Camp Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Despite a disastrous postseason exit, the New England Patriots defense had a solid overall year in 2021. Not counting points given up on offense and special teams, the group ended the regular season as the top ranked scoring defense in the NFL and played a key role in New England returning to the playoffs in the first place.

Heading into the offseason, however, the Patriots face some big questions on this side of the ball. The performance against the Buffalo Bills in the wild card playoff round was obviously concerning, but the potential future issues go beyond that one game.

New England’s defensive leadership is also a big collective question mark.

For one, the two long-time leaders of the unit are both headed for unrestricted free agency. Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower have been part of the group since 2010 and 2012, respectively, and were foundational players during the Patriots’ second dynastic run that brought three Super Bowls to Foxborough.

Even in their 30s, McCourty and Hightower are still valuable players to the team’s defensive operation. During the 2021 season, the two veterans were on the field for 94.7 and 59.8 percent of New England’s defensive snaps, respectively. Their on-field contributions cannot be denied, but their leadership off the field is no less important: McCourty and Hightower were once again voted team captains.

Needless to say that one or both departing during the offseason would create some big holes for the team to fill, especially in the locker room. McCourty and Hightower have been tone-setters for the last decade, and replacing them — as well as former team captain and fellow free agent Ja’Whaun Bentley — would not be easy.

Sure, youngsters such as Christian Barmore or Kyle Dugger have shown considerable promise early in their careers. However, their leadership qualities, especially without the elder statesmen around, are little more than projection at this point time.

Older players such as Deatrich Wise Jr, Kyle Van Noy, Matthew Judon and Adrian Phillips are possible candidates to fill that void as well. They have yet to fully emerge from the shadows cast by McCourty and Hightower, however, and have not been in the system and locker room for as long as those two.

In case both McCourty and Hightower are retained — there is a realistic chance that both of them are back for at least another year — the Patriots might still face some turnover at the top of their defense. Inside linebackers coach and de facto co-defensive coordinator Jerod Mayo, after all, has taken interviews with both the Denver Broncos and the Las Vegas Raiders.

While Mayo is reportedly not among the finalists for the Broncos’ head coaching gig, there is still a chance the Raiders jump onto him (possibly in a package deal with director of player personnel Dave Ziegler). If Mayo leaves, the Patriots will have to reshuffle their defensive staff.

Not only has Mayo coached the inside linebackers ever since joining the staff in 2019, he also has a sizable role in the team’s in-week preparation. While not the unit’s play-caller — that responsibility belongs to Steve Belichick — Mayo plays an active role in getting the entire defense ready for the upcoming opponent and also helps craft the defensive game plans on a week-to-week basis.

Like the younger Belichick, Mayo is doing a lot of coordinator-related work without the actual title. Considering who is ahead of him in the pecking order, however, it seems unlikely he will be named defensive coordinator in New England anytime soon.

Mayo’s eventual departure therefore seems like a foregone conclusion, and it might happen as early as this year.

If he indeed leaves the team, Belichick would likely have to take on a more prominent role. Other defensive assistants — defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington, cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino, safeties coach Brian Belichick — might also see their responsibilities change as a result. Replacing Mayo’s experience as a former player, however, is impossible with the current staff in place.

Even if he stays put, the Patriots have to get ready for a future without Jerod Mayo on their staff. His ambitions go beyond his current role with the organization.

Regardless of what happens with him this offseason, the Patriots defense is headed into a new era. McCourty, Hightower and Mayo will possibly all be gone within the next two or three years either way, and a new generation of leaders will have to emerge both on the roster and the coaching staff — a process that might start in the coming weeks.