For the first time in a long time, the buzz surrounding the New England Patriots isn’t centered around Tom Brady and the offense. Not since the championship days of Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest has there been this much optimism in Foxboro as the team heads into a new season of football.
A Fresh Start
The 2013 Patriots season was marred by injuries, losing key defensive players Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Despite finishing 26th in third down defense, the Patriots were still able to hobble into the AFC Championship game, but gave up 400 passing yards and eventually lost to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
But that was then and this is now. And, as they say, every team at this point has a 0-0 record. Here’s why the new-look 2014 Patriots defense has them eyeing another Super Bowl title.
What can be said that hasn’t already been discussed and dissected about Darrelle Revis? The first-round draft pick in 2007 has made the Pro Bowl in five of his seven NFL seasons. He is a true shutdown corner in every sense of the word. He’s a tough and physical player, bouncing back from a torn ACL and winning the Sporting News’ Comeback Player of the Year award with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. Revis was widely considered the top free agent on the market after he was released by the Bucs. And, after losing CB Aqib Talib in free agency, the Patriots wasted no time upgrading the position by signing Revis.
Second Year Jump
Second-year linebacker Jamie Collins, the team’s top pick in the 2013 draft, looks to improve on his up and down rookie season. After remaining relatively quiet during the regular season, Collins had a breakout game in the playoffs against the Indianapolis Colts - totalling six tackles, a sack and an interception as the Patriots progressed. The 6 ft 3 in Collins out of Southern Mississippi has the raw athleticism and football instinct to develop in Coach Belichick’s defensive system.
The Patriots starting safeties include first-rounder Devin McCourty and third-rounder Duron Harmon, both out of Rutgers. McCourty made the Pro Bowl during his first year as a starting cornerback and again last year as the Patriots starting safety. Harmon looks to make a bigger impact this season after the team released veteran starter Steve Gregory. Second-rounder Tavon Wilson and the recently re-acquired Patrick Chung are both looking to make the team in the talent-filled position.
The Patriots selected defensive tackle Dominique Easley with the 29th overall pick in this year’s draft. Easley, out of Florida, comes as a high-risk/high-reward prospect for the Pats. When healthy, Easley was a disruptive force with tremendous speed on the college field. However, he suffered not one, but two separate ACL tears while at Gainesville. Even with his injury history, Easley was rated as the sixth-highest defensive tackle by SB Nation entering the draft.
32-year old team captain Vince Wilfork returns from an Achilles injury to once again anchor the defensive line. Wilfork has been a staple in the Patriots run-stopping defense and his absence last year showed as the team was exploited, ranking near the bottom against the run.
2008 tenth overall pick Jerod Mayo will also be returning from injury after tearing his pectoral. Mayo is a beast on the field, notching over 100 tackles in each of his first four seasons. Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and former Saints defensive end Will Smith round out the Patriots’ veteran presence on the field.
Super Bowl bound?
Could this be Belichick’s finest defensive unit since their last Super Bowl title in 2004? Patriots fans have waited a long time to regain that defensive swagger from a decade ago. Now, with a masterful free agency and a healthy defense returning to the field, it’s Phoenix or bust for this inspired team.