Super Bowl or Bust (Defensive Edition)…

A majority of the draft picks that the New England Patriots have made since the 2008 season have been defensive players.  The Patriots top pick in 2008 was stud linebacker Jerod Mayo, and he is accompanied in that draft class by Terrence Wheatley, Shawn Crable, and Jonathan Wilhite.  The team’s first selection in the 2009 draft was safety Patrick Chung, and he is accompanied in that class by Ron Brace, Darius Butler, Tyrone McKenzie, and Myron Pryor.  The 2010 draft selections followed suit as the Pats chose Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Spikes.  There certainly was some great offensive talent mixed in those three drafts for the Patriots (2009: Sebastian Vollmer, Brandon Tate, and Julian Edelman; 2010: Rob Gronkowski, Taylor Price, and Aaron Hernandez), but the majority of those draft picks, and more importantly most of the higher draft picks, were dedicated to defensive players.

One of the main focuses over the last few years for coach Belichick has obviously been to develop a younger, faster, and more athletic defense.  This is the year when all of that work needs to translate into one of the best defenses in the league.  The transition from the Seymour, Bruschi, Harrison defense is now complete, and it is time for the new set of stars (Wilfork, Mayo, Meriweather) to step up and make this defense their own.  Similarly to the offensive side of the ball, there are many questions surrounding the 2010 New England Patriots’ defense.  How those questions are answered throughout the course of the season may very well determine that amount of success that the Patriots have this upcoming season.

The defensive line had always been a spot of consistency for Bill Belichick’s defense.  Since drafting Vince Wilfork in 2004, the Wilfork, Warren, and Seymour combination always was consistent and performed their duties wonderfully.  The team has just undergone their first full off-season without Richard Seymour, and the right defensive end position is an area of concern.  Free agent signee Gerard Warren seems to be the front-runner to fill the void at right end.  But, don’t discount the skill set and experience that Mike Wright brings to the table.  Wright has been the fourth lineman, filling in at both the nose and two end spots, for the past four seasons, and dangling a starting position in front of him will certainly elevate his play.  Defensive line depth is certainly a strength for the Pats as backups consist of previously mentioned Wright, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, and 2010 seventh round draft picks Brandon Deaderick and Kade Weston.

The one position group that has me most excited for the 2010 season (and actually even more excited for the preseason games to see the young kids play) are the linebackers.  In my opinion, there is only one linebacker spot filled, and that is with Mayo in the middle.  I know that it is highly likely that Tully Banta-Cain will be starting come opening day, but with so much young talent and athleticism behind him it may be tough for him to keep that spot.  I really hope that Brandon Spikes begins the season as a starter alongside Mayo, but just the other day Belichick was talking about how different the Patriots’ defense is than the Gators’ defense, which may slow Spikes’ arrival into the starting lineup.  Once Spikes nails down the playbook and becomes comfortable in the defense (which is something that Adalius Thomas and Derrick Burgess were never able to do, so it is no easy feat) he fits perfectly into the Pats’ 3-4 defense and will be a certain upgrade to Gary Guyton.  Speaking of Guyton, he better get onto the practice field because Spikes and Tyrone McKenzie are gunning for his spot.  McKenzie apparently used his season on IR to his advantage as he was receiving praise from Belichick about his knowledge of the playbook.  There were high hopes for McKenzie (2009 3rd round pick) as a rookie, but his season was derailed by a torn ACL.  In 2010 McKenize hopes to push for a starting spot, and would also be an upgrade to the undersized Guyton.  As for the remaining outside linebacker spot, your guess is as good as mine.  Rookie Jermaine Cunningham has the natural ability to play the position immediately, but he is changing positions (from defensive end in college to outside linebacker in the NFL) along with trying to pick up one of the most difficult defensive systems in the league.  I expect Cunningham to contribute more towards the end of the season rather than at the beginning.  Remaining players consist of Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable, and Rob Ninkovich.  I don’t see any of those guys as viable starters in the league.  One area I would like to see the Pats explore is signing Aaron Schobel.  Schobel has been a pain in Matt Light’s side since arriving in Buffalo in 2001.  His rushing ability alone would make him a good addition to this Patriot defense.

Brandon Meriweather is a Pro Bowl safety that will be a staple in the Patriots’ defense for years to come (pending any Mankins-like contract issues).  Addressing the free safety spot is where it gets interesting.  James Sanders has the experience factor and certainly does what is asked of him, but he lacks big impact in the run game and rarely makes big-time plays.  Pat Chung has apparently made great improvements in the off-season and it primed for a big year.  Chung dedicated his off-season to hitting the weight room and studying film.  I expect that Chung will overtake Sanders for the starting free safety spot by at least mid-season, if not by the opening game.

Simlarly to Pat Chung, Darius Butler spent most of his off-season hitting the weights and watching tape.  Butler is one of the most physically gifted corners in the league.  At 5’11” 190lbs, Butler posted a 4.4 40-yard dash and a 43” vertical jump.  Those numbers alone make him the most athletic corner on the roster.  Combine that athleticism with ball-hawking instincts and you have a great corner in the making.  I expect 2010 to be Darius Butler’s breakout season and for him to be supplanted as the starter alongside Leigh Bodden for most, if not all, of the 2010 season.  Bodden is pretty solid and you know what you are getting from him.  The Patriots were sadly a victim of a poor cornerback market this off-season, considering Bodden was the second best corner available.  But, his experience complimented with Butler’s athleticism should be a decent 1-2 punch.  The third cornerback spot looks to be locked up for the moment by Jonathan Wilhite.  Wilhite’s play has been nothing short of inconsistent, but his talent level certainly makes him the best option to play the nickel.  2010 is a make or break season for Terrence Wheatley.  Expectations for Wheatley were high after being selected in the second round of the 2008 draft, but he has struggled to stay on the field and when he has played he has looked very sloppy.  Another bad season and Wheatley’s days in New England will most likely come to an end.  Rookie cornerbacks have notoriously struggled in Belichick’s system and I do not expect that to change with Devin McCourty.  The 2010 first round pick is an exceptional athlete, but any contributions outside of special teams will be an unexpected bonus.

As for the special teams, Gostkowski is one of the most consistent kickers in the game, and in my opinion signing him is priority number two, after signing Mankins.  The punting position seems to be rookie Zoltan Mesko’s job to lose.  Mesko has seemingly impressed so far in training camp and I fully expect him to win the job.  The return game has been a sore spot for the Patriots for a few seasons now.  Last year, the combination of Maroney, Slater, and Edelman taking back kicks never really got the job done.  I expect McCourty to return kickoffs this season (maybe with some help from Brandon Tate and Taylor Price) and hopefully use his exceptional speed to grab a few touchdowns.  Punts will most likely be returned by Kevin Faulk and maybe occasionally by Welker.  Although I hate seeing Welker back to return a punt as that is just one more play where there is a risk of injury.

As for the 2010 season as a whole, I expect nothing less than greatness from this group of New England Patriots.  Their mindset alone gives them an edge on most teams in the league.  When ESPN’s Adam Schefter stopped by Patriots’ training camp on Friday and asked Welker to sign the Patriots’ logo after explaining what Rex Ryan wrote on the Jets’ logo (“soon to be champs”), Welker simply signed his name and then wrote, “one game at a time.”  You have to love that attitude.  Getting back to business, I expect the defense of the Patriots this year to be better than most expect.  Any offense led by number 12 will be good, and hopefully Maroney can have a decent season to accompany one of the best passing attacks in the league.  An AFC East title should be expected, and I would love to see a Colts vs. Patriots matchup in the AFC Championship game.  I think you know what my prediction from there would be, but I’m not going to say it just for the odd chance that I jinx the season and the in week one Brady goes down with a torn ACL in the other knee…oh shit…

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