A special from Erik Slater to WPRI.com

(WPRI) – The last of the Patriots training camp roster reported to Foxboro on Tuesday. Camp opens Wednesday with the first practice scheduled for 9:30 a.m.

We continue our camp preview, turning to the defense and breaking down a unit that ranked second in points allowed (17.8 PPG), fourth in yards allowed (310.8 YPG), and third in turnovers (30) last season.

While New England ranked towards the top of the league in total defense, they failed in slowing down a high-powered Buffalo Bills offense in their last two meetings. Buffalo put up a combined 902 yards with zero punts or turnovers in the pair of late-season wins.

The Miami Dolphins also made significant improvements on offense with the additions of star wideout Tyreek Hill and three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead, along with Cedrick Wilson, Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert and Sony Michel. 

Both offenses will pose issues for a Patriots defense that lost more than it gained at key positions this offseason. 

Cornerbacks 

Cornerback presents the top weakness on New England’s roster. Pro-bowler J.C. Jackson left to sign an $82.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Chargers, leaving a major hole in the Patriots secondary. 

In a league shifting further towards passing each year, a top cover corner is viewed as a necessity to compete with modern offenses. New England doesn’t have it, and therein lies the root of widespread skepticism surrounding the defense. The lackluster lineup of cornerbacks provides reason to believe New England will shift to a more zone-heavy scheme this season after ranking third in man coverage rate last year per Sports Info Solutions. 

Jalen Mills is the top option to secure one of the starting spots on the outside. Mills is going into the second year of a four-year, $24 million contract and started all 16 games last season. Terrance Mitchell and Malcolm Butler will battle on the other side. Mitchell started 29 games over two seasons for Cleveland and Houston, defending 23 passes and forcing six fumbles.  

Butler missed last season after announcing his retirement during training camp with Arizona. The Super Bowl XLIX hero was infamously benched in New England’s Super Bowl LII loss to Philadelphia, a move that garnered heavy criticism from the fanbase. The West Alabama product underwhelmed in 2020 for Tennessee. He will now play a critical role in a new-look Belichick defense. 

Six-year veteran Jonathan Jones is the top option at slot corner. Jones will start camp on the PUP list after a shoulder injury cut his season short last year. When available, the Auburn product has proven to be one of the best at his position, ranking fourth in the league in slot coverage grade over the 2019 and 2020 seasons per Pro Football Focus. Jones needs to be an impact player for a New England defense that spent 65% of last season in nickel packages (11th in the league). 

Marcus Jones and Jack Jones, New England’s third and fourth-round picks in this year’s draft, will also be in the mix. Marcus, a 5’8” slot corner, was among college football’s most versatile defensive backs last season. Jack turned heads in minicamp with his impressive ball skills and man coverage ability. 

Shaun Wade, Joejuan Williams, and Myles Bryant round as the position group as they look to push for a final roster spot. 

Safeties and Inside Linebackers 

These two positions are grouped as they will routinely work in unison this season. New England boasts one of the top safety groups in the league with proven talents in Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips. 

McCourty returns for his 13th season as New England’s starting free safety. The Rutgers product has only missed five games in 12 years. 

The strong safety position may be the most talented on the defense. Dugger and Phillips present versatile options that can be moved into the box to cover holes at linebacker. The duo tied for second on the team in tackles last season (92) while combining for eight TFLs and eight interceptions. 

At 6’2”, 220-pounds, Dugger is among the most physically imposing safeties in the league. Jabrill Peppers signed a one-year contract and fits a similar mold. With Ja’Wuan Bentley the only proven commodity at LB, Belichick could look to employ more dime packages with Dugger, Phillips, or Peppers in the box as a sixth defensive back in a hybrid linebacker role. 

According to Sharpe Football Analysis, New England played dime on 20.6% of their defensive snaps last season, which was the highest rate in the league. That number could be even higher this year given the lack of depth at linebacker.

Slot corner Jonathan Jones alluded to a more free-flowing defensive system in a March tweet: 

“Positionless football is the future,” Jones said in a tweet.

2021 sixth-round pick Joshua Bledsoe and undrafted rookie Brendan Schooler will also compete for roster spots at safety.

Bentley headlines an unproven linebacking core after veterans D’onta Hightower and Jamie Collins were let go. The four-year vet led the team with 109 tackles last season.  

Raekwon McMillan was removed from the PUP list Monday and will compete with Mack Wilson for the starting job alongside Bentley. McMillan missed last season with a torn ACL and Wilson was acquired from Cleveland in a trade for Chase Winovic. Wilson started six games last season but struggled to recapture the production of his 2019 rookie campaign (82 tackles, four TFLs). 

Cameron McGrone is also a player to watch. The 2021 fifth-round pick missed his rookie season while rehabbing a knee injury. However, McGrone practiced for three weeks at the end of last season and impressed during that period. The Michigan product’s inexperience and raw athleticism make him as a wild card to challenge for a role in the position group. 

McMillon and Wilson’s development as pass rushers will be critical in determining the defense’s ceiling. Belichick is known for consistently manufacturing pressure by disguising three-man rushes using his linebackers. The Patriots rushed three at the highest rate in the league last season. 

The head coach frequently walks his linebackers down as pass-rushing threats, positioning five or six defenders on the line of scrimmage with only three or four rushing. With versatile linebacking cores in recent years, Belichick had countless combinations and stunts at his disposal. This put pressure on offensive lines to diagnose which of the defenders at the line would rush and which would drop into coverage. 

Pass-rushing versatility across the front seven is key here as offensive lines must respect each player as a rusher to effectively disguise which are coming. Linebackers like Kyle Van Noy, Hightower and Collins filled those roles in recent years. Whether Wilson and McMillan can provide the same impact remains to be seen. 

Outside of that, veterans Jahlani Tavai and Harvey Langi will push to make the roster as special team contributors. 

Outside Linebackers 

New England possesses a group of young, inexperienced edge rushers outside of six-year veteran Matthew Judon. The outside linebacker made the Pro Bowl for the third-straight season in 2021, recording a career-high 12.5 sacks in his first year as a Patriot. 

At 6’3”, 261-pounds, Judon’s combination of size, speed, and fluidity make him a seamless fit in New England’s 3-4 scheme. The Grand Valley State product possesses great flexibility in his rush to pair with above-average instincts while diagnosing plays on the edge. Belichick is banking on similar production with a team-high $16.5 million committed to Judon this year. 

Third-year OLB Josh Uche projects to start opposite Judon. The Michigan product struggled to stay on the field while battling injury last season. When on the field, Uche flashed the power and pass-rushing ability that caught Belichick’s eye in the second round of the 2020 draft but has yet to carve out a consistent role. Uche needs to stay on the field and generate pressure in sub packages on passing downs given the glaring weakness at cornerback. 

2021 third-round pick Ronnie Perkins will compete with Uche for the second starting spot after what was effectively a redshirt year last season. 2020 third-round pick Anfernee Jennings and undrafted rookie DeMarcus Mitchell are projected to compete for the final roster spot if the Patriots carry four outside linebackers. 

New England knows what they can expect from Judon, but the development of Uche and Perkins will determine whether New England’s pass rush can take a step forward after ranking 19th in sacks last season. 

Defensive Line 

The Patriots will field an experienced group on the defensive line. Veterans Deatrich Wise Jr. and Lawrence Guy return as defensive ends. Both have the strength to play inside in base packages and the athleticism to bump outside in four-down packages. Guy has started 67 games for New England over the last five seasons. 

Five-year vet Devon Godchaux pairs with second-year tackle Christian Barmore as Belichick’s interior options. Barmore has all the buzz heading into camp. His 48 quarterback pressures as a rookie were over 10 more than any other rookie interior defensive lineman in the last five seasons per Pro Football Focus. The Alabama product’s ascension as an interior rusher will be pivotal for a Patriots defense that ranked 23rd in pass rush win rate last season.

Henry Anderson missed last season with a torn pectoral but presents an experienced depth piece on the interior. Sam Roberts, a sixth-round pick out of Northwest Missouri State, will push for a roster spot. Daniel Ekuale, Carl Davis, Byron Cowart, LaBryan Ray and Bill Murray round out the competition at the position.

The Patriots enter 2022 with a flurry of questions surrounding the defense. Inexperience at inside linebacker and the lack of proven cover corners has many assuming the unit will take a significant step back this season.

Belichick’s adjustments to his new personnel will be the story to monitor. Will zone schemes increase dramatically? Will his league-high rate of dime packages be even higher to cover up deficiencies at linebacker?

These answers will begin to reveal themselves over the next month on three practice fields in Foxboro.