The New England Patriots' defense will be much better in 2013 than it was in 2012.
From this writer's perspective, there is a case to be made that each defensive position will be improved next season.
Here's a look.
Evidenced by their acquisition of Jonathan Fanene last offseason and their trade for Albert Haynesworth in 2011, it's clear that the Patriots have been searching for Vince Wilfork's running mate—particularly one who can rush the passer.
Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick have been fine, but they are both proverbial run stuffers who don't offer much against the pass.
In today's pass-happy league, you need an interior pass rusher.
Bill Belichick continued his search by bringing in CFL standout Armond Armstead and former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommy Kelly.
Before medical issues derailed his path to the NFL, Armstead was viewed by many as a high draft pick, including Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who viewed him as a first- or second-round pick (per Andy Hart of Patriots.com).
Armstead penetrated the backfield regularly in the CFL with 11.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks (per CFL.ca), which is impressive considering he was by far the best defender and received the most offensive attention.
Next to Wilfork, the sky's the limit for this explosive, 6'5'', 300-pound monster of a man.
Another humongous man, Kelly (6'6'', 325 lbs), is a seasoned vet who has had a solid career getting after the passer from the middle of the defensive line.
Field Yates of ESPNBoston, a former NFL scout, summed up Kelly's skill set nicely in a recent piece, writing:
Kelly's combination of quickness and length make him an intriguing pass rusher...He's not a player that is a shell of himself at age 32. His physical skills have dipped (as would any 32-year old's), but he has productive football left in him...he can still generate pressure as a rusher, something that the Patriots lacked consistently from Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick last season.
Both big men, Armstead and Kelly, should be big upgrades over Love and Deaderick.
While the team hasn't brought in any new defensive ends (though a John Abraham signing may be on the horizon, per Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft.com), Chandler Jones' development could prove to be a huge boost in 2013.
Prior to a right ankle injury suffered in mid-November, Jones had six sacks through eight games, which had him on pace to grab 12 sacks on the season—which would have easily went down as one of the most impressive rookie seasons by a defensive end.
Jones ended up injuring his left ankle in New England's playoff win over the Houston Texans and played sparingly in the AFC Championship Game.
He was dearly missed as the Pats' pass rush was essentially non-existent.
Even if Jones doesn't take a sizable developmental leap in his second season and just performs at the same level he did as a rookie (and stays healthy), the Patriots will still have a pass-rushing terror off the edge in 2013.
Between two-time Pro Bowler Jerod Mayo, 2012 first-round pick Dont'a Hightower, and perhaps, the best run-stuffing linebacker in the NFL, Brandon Spikes, the Patriots have an impressive and youthful trio at linebacker.
However, outside of Mayo, they lack a good cover linebacker as well as someone who can consistently pressure the quarterback (though Hightower flashed at times when given the opportunity).
Given his explosive athleticism, New England's first draft selection this past April, second-round pick Jamie Collins, should be able to help in both areas.
Collins had 10 sacks as a senior at Southern Miss, and as a former safety, seemed to excel when asked to cover.
This already top-tier group should be even better in 2013.
The safety position got a midseason upgrade when Devin McCourty moved to free safety full time, where his range and ball skills were on full display.
Logic would suggest that McCourty will stay at safety and with a full training camp at the position, the thought here is that he should be even more effective in 2013.
The Patriots also reenforced their safety corps when they signed five-time Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson.
Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison thinks this was a great move for the Patriots (h/t Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk).
Adding him, the veteran leadership, the presence, the respect factor, he’s a guy that’s a terrific blitzer, and a physical presence...I think he can come in especially during nickel and dime situations, and come down [close to the line] and play that second linebacker position like I did. He’s physical enough to help out in the run game, but he can also cover tight ends...It’s a fantastic move. I think he’ll help the Patriots immediately.
Wilson should provide a big boost, but don't count out second-year safety Tavon Wilson. He flashed in his rookie season (four interceptions, six pass defenses) and should be right in the mix for the starting gig next to McCourty.
With starters Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard returning, one could argue that the cornerback position hasn't been upgraded.
However, it shouldn't be overlooked how much Talib's presence helped improve the secondary in the second half of last season.
With Talib manning the left cornerback spot, the Patriots' passing yards allowed and opponents' third-down percentage both decreased drastically.
While Talib wasn't solely responsible for the improvement (McCourty's move to safety and Dennard's emergence as a starter likely played a huge part as well), he certainly had a lot to do with it.
If Dennard improves on his impressive rookie campaign and Talib—who is now able to benefit from an offseason program and training camp—can build off last season, the Patriots will have a very promising duo at cornerback in 2013.
The Patriots defense has certainly struggled over the years as Belichick has tried to reconstruct a championship-caliber unit.
After making giant defensive strides in the second half of last season, the Patriots will have all their defensive starters returning in 2013, with some additional help from seasoned vets like Wilson and Kelly as well as promising youngsters like Collins.
Patriot Nation has been waiting for a good defense for years, and it looks like the wait might finally be over in 2013.
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