After years of devoting draft capital and enduring growing pains, it appears the New England Patriots defense is finally ready to turn a definitive corner. On paper, the unit may not be perfect, but it certainly does not have as many glaring weaknesses as some of the bottom-dwellers of years past.
But as the old adage goes, the games are not played on paper, so the Patriots still must put forth some tangible evidence to earn fans' trust. The fruits of New England's labor began to show after the Aqib Talib trade, as the Pats were 18th in total yardage allowed beginning with Talib's debut, up from 28th after the first 10 games.
Nonetheless, given all the well-documented turnover on offense, the defense might have to be a little more than just average to sustain the Patriots' lofty championship-or-bust expectations. The youth movement has injected the defense with sorely needed talent and athleticism, so the top-10 potential certainly exists.
The key now lies in the Patriots translating that potential to results.
While most of the major pieces are in place, it is often the depth and complementary parts that propel a defense to higher levels. At the moment, the Patriots are still looking for more players to step up to complement their core.
With that concern in mind, here are the three biggest questions the Patriots defense must answer in order to become a top unit.
What is Jamie Collins' role?
By now, most Patriots followers know that Jamie Collins' blend of quickness and athleticism bucks the typical trend of big, run-stuffing linebackers Bill Belichick has generally preferred. Belichick's decision to spend his first pick on a sub-package specialist represents a stark departure from his previous draft philosophy, one that saw him pass on the likes of Clay Matthews and LaMarr Woodley.
With a movable "Joker" piece now in tow, it will be interesting to see what Collins' main role will be, assuming the majority of his reps do come in sub-packages.
Initially, many Patriots fans salivated at the thought of Collins being an edge-rusher, whether from a 7-technique on the line or as an outside linebacker. In his senior season at Southern Miss., Collins was primarily a defensive end and the focus on getting to the quarterback netted him 10.5 sacks.
Watching that film, it's clear that his quick-twitch movement is hard to contain, even in a three-point stance. Though he probably won't be able to blow by most NFL tackles as easily, Collins' long arms do allow for quick swim moves that can knock slower offensive linemen off balance, and his closing speed is absolutely lethal.
But thus far in camp, Collins has mostly been a linebacker. That seems like a better fit for his game, as playing out of a two-point stance in space allows him to utilize his agility and pursuing ability against backs and tight ends.
Moreover, for someone with such a lean frame, it's hard to imagine him consistently anchoring against the run.
Patriots linebackers had significant trouble in coverage the past few seasons, which is where Collins will likely make his most immediate impact. In joint practices with the Buccaneers this week, the rookie often lined up at strong-side linebacker and covered tight ends. But even while adjusting to a coverage role, Collins' athleticism still impressed, according to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss:
We've touched on the athleticism of linebacker Jamie Collins, the Patriots' top draft pick, and we got a good look at a different element of his game on Wednesday -- power. In 7-on-7 passing drills in the red zone, Collins was called upon to cover tight end Tom Crabtree and his powerful jam knocked Crabtree off his route, effectively disrupting the timing of the play as the pass fell incomplete. The jam not only seemed to impact Crabtree, but also another receiver who was aligned on the left side who was forced to alter his route.
Collins may be the most important addition to the Patriots' third-down defense, one which has been abysmal in recent seasons. Opponents converted 39.2 percent of third downs against New England last season, placing the Patriots 21st in the league, per TeamRankings.com. Unfortunately, mediocrity still represented huge improvement from their 28th-ranked unit in 2011, one that hemorrhaged first downs 43.5 percent of the time.
Of course, improved coverage is only one part of the equation on third down. For that coverage to hold up, the Patriots must find an ancillary pass-rusher as well.
Who can provide an interior pass rush?
The Patriots appear in solid shape on the edge, with breakout candidate Chandler Jones and reliable veteran Rob Ninkovich bookending the defensive line, as well as Justin Francis, who emerged as a reliable part of the rotation by the end of 2012.
The problem is generating a rush from the inside. This isn't a new issue, as no Patriots defensive tackle has generated more than 3.5 sacks in a single season over the past three years. Considering two of New England's biggest AFC rivals employ pocket passers in Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub, someone who can move those quarterbacks off their spot could be a huge difference-maker.
One candidate could be 32-year-old Tommy Kelly, who is starting to look like a summer steal for the Patriots. Despite a disappointing 1.5-sack campaign in 2012, only four defensive tackles have more sacks than Kelly since 2010.
And at least thus far, it appears the veteran is rejuvenated in Foxboro.
Per Chris Price of WEEI, Kelly has looked like an upgrade over the likes of Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, Vince Wilfork's primary partners inside the past few years. His consistency in practice translated well last week against the Eagles, when he and Chandler Jones teamed up for a forced fumble.
Still, even if Kelly recaptures his 2010-11 form, it's hard to expect the veteran to play extensive snaps. And the Patriots might want to lighten Wilfork's load, as the 30-year-old has played the most snaps of any defensive lineman the past two years, according to ESPN's Stats & Info. That possibility creates the need for at least one more lineman to step up and play extensive snaps.
Enter: Marcus Benard. The 28-year-old was actually a linebacker when he last played in Cleveland, racking up 7.5 sacks in 2010. However, two scary off-field incidents marred his career, as Benard first collapsed at a press conference, then nearly died in a motorcycle accident.
But after quietly signing a "reserve/future" contract during the Pats' playoff run last season, Benard has emerged as the Patriots' best option in the smaller "NASCAR" sub-package line. Against the Eagles, Benard had five tackles (including one for a loss) and a sack, often lining up in the 3-technique, though he shaded a bit more inside here:
On this play, the 256-pound Benard jumps off the line quickly, utilizing a quick swim move to penetrate the A-gap and collapse the pocket. Notice how the Eagles center has barely even reacted before Benard blows past him on the way to a sack:
The Patriots did not really have the right personnel to effectively play this kind of package last season. Although Benard may be a one-trick pony, that singular skill also happens to be one of the most valuable skills in the league. For that, Benard is a likely candidate to become a regular third-down presence.
Who will sub in for Alfonzo Dennard?
Though the strong safety competition may be the most publicized battle in the Patriots secondary, Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson provide contrasting styles that give the Pats multiple options. The right cornerback spot, however, might be on significantly shakier ground if Alfonzo Dennard draws a suspension.
While Dennard's absence would likely be temporary, it does highlight an underrated concern; namely, the lack of depth at outside corner. The Patriots suffered from this at the worst time possible last season, when Aqib Talib went down in the AFC Championship Game and left no reliable sub in his place.
This year, the Pats' options do not look significantly better. Veteran Kyle Arrington has experience playing outside, but the general consensus agrees his small frame and agility is much better suited in the slot.
To illustrate the point, take this play against the Chargers from 2011. Arrington is actually in the slot but is covering 6'5" Vincent Jackson, a prototypical outside receiver. Moreover, Jackson runs a deep dig route, challenging Arrington vertically:
Playing man coverage, Arrington tries to jam Jackson at the line, but his size disadvantage causes him to lose balance, allowing the Chargers receiver to easily shrug him off and gain inside position as he crosses the field:
At that point, he is completely out of position to make a play on the ball, and Jackson has an easy 28-yard reception:
As Grantland's Robert Mays recently elucidated, the slot corner is an entirely different animal unto itself. So if Arrington does not have the size to consistently play man against outside receivers, that leaves oft-injured Ras-I Dowling and Logan Ryan as the two most likely candidates.
At this point, Dowling is not even a lock to make the roster let alone take significant snaps. The third-year corner has not practiced since limping off the field two weeks ago, losing valuable reps and momentum from his successful showing at spring practices.
And it's not as if Dowling has shown flashes of brilliance for the rare times he is healthy. AdvancedNFLStats.com rated Dowling 152nd out of 177 corners in terms of win probability added (WPA+) last season, by far the worst of the New England corners. And according to Football Outsiders, Dowling has had nearly as many penalties as solo tackles in his career (four to seven), and just one pass defended.
At this point, Logan Ryan looks like the right corner for however long Dennard is out. When Dennard did not play against the Eagles, Ryan nearly played the entire game, per Ben Volin of The Boston Globe:
The rookie held up fairly well against Philadelphia, exhibiting his noted physicality and sound tackling. It may not be wise to play Ryan extensive snaps (imagine him defending Julio Jones the whole game in Week 4), but he seems capable of holding the fort. As Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston reveals, analytics actually rated Ryan as one of the elite college corners last year:
The usage and application of football analytics seem to be growing among teams, and Patriots 2013 third-round draft choice Logan Ryan represents one example of this. The Patriots obviously liked Ryan, the cornerback out of Rutgers, for a variety of reasons in picking him 83rd overall. One reason was ball skills, and when the club measured him against other cornerbacks in the draft, Ryan was rated to have the fourth-highest total of interceptions and pass breakups (behind first-round picks Dee Milliner and D.J. Hayden, and third-rounder Tyrann Mathieu).
That may not translate immediately to the NFL, but if Talib holds up on the other side, the Patriots can always shift safety help in Ryan's direction.
For a Patriots defense seeking to recapture its championship form, depth contributors like Ryan are essential to surviving the season's inevitable attrition. The Patriots possess more building blocks on defense than they have had in years, but that means nothing if success requires everyone to stay healthy.
Ultimately, "next man up" cannot be a hollow mantra in Foxboro this year.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com, and all photo stills courtesy NFL.com.