The Patriots are in the extremely rare position of needing to replace an all-time great quarterback, and it comes after the greatest stretch of success in pro football history. That is hard enough. How Bill Belichick handles the post–Tom Brady era will be his greatest challenge so far, though that got a little easier last month after the team added Cam Newton, a 31-year-old former MVP, for just $550,000 guaranteed. But even if Tom Brady returned to New England tomorrow with his TB12 fitted hat in hand, the Patriots’ biggest on-field problems this year might come on the other side of the ball.
New England’s defense was historically great for the first seven games of 2019, as the Patriots outscored their opponents by the largest margin of any team in a century. If you wiped away field goals and extra points and looked only at plays in which the Patriots defense was on the field, New England’s defense outscored opposing offenses 20-18 through seven weeks. But that stretch came against some awful quarterbacks, and once they faced stronger competition, the Patriots went from historically great defense to merely elite. This season, the defense was expected to carry the team without Brady—but it’s in a precarious position after losing five key defenders in March and two more this week when they opted to sit out this season as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country.
The names will be hard to replace: Linebacker Jamie Collins led the team in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks in 2019, but he signed with the Detroit Lions to play under former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Defensive back Duron Harmon, who played more than 60 percent of New England’s snaps last year, went to Detroit via trade, and run-stuffing defensive tackle Danny Shelton signed there in free agency. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who has been New England’s most versatile box player for years and led the team in quarterback hits in 2019, signed with the Dolphins, as did fellow Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts; they’ll play for Miami head coach Brian Flores, another former Patriots defensive coach. And this week, starting linebacker Dont’a Hightower (whose child was born in July) and starting safety Patrick Chung (who cited health concerns for his girlfriend, children, and father) were among the six New England players to opt out of the 2020 season.
Every year, we question whether the Patriots can replace “important player X.” Every year, they seem to. Last year the Patriots let defensive end Trey Flowers leave (he also signed with Patricia in Detroit), and the defense was better than it was with Flowers. In 2018, when left tackle Nate Solder left for the Giants, the Patriots replaced him by trading for 49ers right tackle Trent Brown. They moved him to the left side—radical by NFL standards—and he was as good as Solder if not better. In 2007, New England plucked Wes Welker from obscurity and made him the NFL’s best slot receiver. When he left in 2013, Julian Edelman emerged as Brady’s favorite target. Replacing key contributors doesn’t hurt Belichick’s system—it is the system.
That system is about to undergo a stress test. The Patriots lost more approximate value this offseason (a stat that combines playing time and performance level) than any defense has in the past 17 years, according to the 2020 Football Outsiders Almanac. That was before Hightower and Chung opted out. Combine those two with Collins, Van Noy, and Shelton, and the Patriots have lost almost half of their starters from the defense that allowed the fewest yards and points in the NFL last year. Belichick rarely has a problem when he needs one of his young players to contribute, but now he needs five of them to do so simultaneously. Not only will he have to figure it out, but he’ll have to do so with less practice time than ever after the NFL and NFLPA agreed to alter training camp rules during the pandemic. Last year, New England’s first padded practice was on July 27. This year, teams won’t be allowed to have a padded practice until August 17.
Hightower may be the biggest individual loss on defense. He won two college football national championships under Nick Saban at Alabama, got drafted by Belichick’s Patriots in the 2012 first round, and has started 99 games for New England in the past eight years. While he has been to only two Pro Bowls, Hightower has been an essential piece of each of the Pats’ last three Super Bowl wins: He was New England’s best defensive player when they embarrassed the Rams, he stripsacked Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter of their comeback against Atlanta, and he grabbed Marshawn Lynch’s ankle late in the fourth quarter against Seattle, stopping him short of the end zone one play before Malcolm Butler’s game-winning interception. Belichick has called him “Mr. February.” Last year he tied a career high with 13 quarterback hits and was one of the 15 highest-graded linebackers by Pro Football Focus (minimum 500 snaps). He was expected to be the lone holdover for a Patriots linebacker group that had Sam Darnold seeing ghosts last year. Without him, the group is a ghost town.
Hightower might be the biggest loss, but his potential replacement is also the most promising. Ja’Whaun Bentley was the starting linebacker for Purdue as a freshman, but slid in the 2018 draft until the Patriots snagged him in the fifth round. His leadership and demeanor impressed Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater enough to compare him to former Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo, who is now New England’s co-defensive coordinator. Bentley, who wears Mayo’s old no. 51, has flashed in his four starts across two years but tore his biceps during his rookie season. He may be the next mid-round Patriots pick to become a team pillar.
Beyond Bentley, little is clear. Defensive end Chase Winovich was overshadowed at the University of Michigan by the highly recruited Rashan Gary, but Winovich may be the better pro player. Appearing in 16 games last season, Winovich had 5.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits—just the second time a Patriots rookie has hit those marks under Belichick (the other is Chandler Jones in 2012). This year, New England’s outside linebackers coach will be Steve Belichick, Bill’s son who was safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator last year. Winovich could replace Van Noy’s pass rushing, but it remains to be seen whether he can replace Van Noy’s versatility in run defense and pass coverage. If he can’t, another former Wolverine will try. New England drafted Michigan linebacker Josh Uche in the second round of this year’s draft, and Uche was accustomed to blitzing in Michigan’s scheme, which is similar to New England’s. But if Bentley and Uche can’t get it done, it is unclear who will. The other linebackers who could contribute include former Alabama standout rookie third-rounder Anfernee Jennings, sixth-round Wyoming rookie Cassh Maluia, undrafted free agent rookie De’Jon Harris, and 29-year-old free agent signing Brandon Copeland, but that group has some big cleats to fill. Patriots linebackers have always been crucial to Belichick’s defenses, from Tedy Bruschi to Willie McGinest to Mike Vrabel to Jerod Mayo to Rob Ninkovich to Junior Seau (and back to Lawrence Taylor, if we’re counting his time with the Giants). Hightower, Collins, and Van Noy were part of that lineage, and last year’s linebacking group was known as the Boogeymen. This year’s group is unlikely to keep anyone awake at night—except Patriots fans.
New England’s secondary was the best in the NFL last year and will need to be among the top again in 2020. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore returns at cornerback, as do J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, and Jason McCourty; McCourty’s twin brother, Devin, also returned on a two-year, $23 million contract to play safety. But Chung, the team’s other starting safety, opted out of the season this week. Chung signed a two-year extension in March that paid him a $3 million signing bonus, though his 2019 season was not his finest. Safeties Adrian Phillips, Cody Davis, and Terrence Brooks, and even cornerback Joejuan Williams could fill Chung’s role at safety, but may not have the same impact. Phillips was a Pro Bowler in 2018, but missed most of last season with a fractured forearm. Eventually, Chung’s safety spot could be replaced by rookie defensive back Kyle Dugger, a second-rounder out of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne (yes, it’s a real place). But Dugger will have just a few weeks of practice to go from D-II to NFL game speed, so he is unlikely to help much right away. The Pats secondary is still one of the league’s best, though it is no longer one of the league’s deepest.
For years, New England has made the unique decision to skimp on more expensive (and more talented) defensive linemen in favor of cheap, boring players with good technique. New England makes up for its talent weakness along the line with rare three-man rushes, exotic blitzes, and talented defensive backs. Rather than find great pass rushers who can sack the quarterback quickly, the Patriots want great defensive backs who force the quarterback to hold the ball so long that even mediocre defensive linemen can disrupt the pocket. Not coincidentally, the Patriots have the second most cap space devoted to the secondary and the fourth least devoted to their defensive line. But if their secondary doesn’t perform and their linebackers aren’t reliable, the entire unit could suffer.
The Patriots may have to lean on their offense more than fans expect, but several players on that side of the ball also opted out last week. Right tackle Marcus Cannon, who survived non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, will not play this year. Cannon was not stellar at tackle last year, but New England has little depth to replace him, and legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who produced many overachieving blockers, retired this offseason. And Cannon may not even be the most important blocker the Patriots have lost. Fullback James Develin was quietly a key piece of New England’s offense the past five years. (As Bill Belichick pointed out, “of the five seasons in which [Develin] appeared in every game, we won three championships.”) New England has used formations with one fullback and one tight end more than any other team over the past four years, according to Warren Sharp, but New England all but abandoned it last year once Develin went on injured reserve, and the Patriots offense was noticeably different. Develin retired this offseason, and the free agent New England signed to replace him, Danny Vitale, opted out of the season. New England will either have to roll with unproven fullback Jakob Johnson (who has 71 career offensive snaps), move one of its rookie tight ends to fullback, or change its preferred playing style.
Worrying about any of this feels ridiculous given New England’s past two decades. The Brady-Belichick Patriots collected 17 AFC East titles, reached 13 AFC championship games, and won six of their nine Super Bowl appearances. Belichick deserves the benefit of the doubt that none of these problems will jeopardize New England’s playoff hopes. But a team that usually wins games in dozens of small ways is now looking at dozens of small problems—just like last year, when they finished 12-4 after an 8-0 start against mostly soft competition and lost in the wild-card round for the first time since January 2010. The strength of the Patriots’ coaching staff is usually enough to patch over these problems, but the Patriots are thin on the sideline, too.
New England had 11 non-coordinator assistant coaches last year, the fewest of any team. A number of New England assistant coaches who left after their Super Bowl season in 2018 were not replaced, and the remaining Patriot coaches took on double duties: Last year Josh McDaniels was the offensive coordinator and the quarterback coach, and Joe Judge was the special teams coordinator and the wide receivers coach. (The Patriots receivers were a problem last year, but it’s worth considering that they didn’t even have a full-time wide receivers coach. Judge left after eight years on the Patriots staff to become the Giants head coach.) Last year Belichick was more involved in defensive play-calling duties than usual, as his son Steve and Mayo took over many duties after Flores left, and this year might require even more of Belichick’s attention to acclimate all the new players on that side.
However the Patriots’ coaching responsibilities are broken down, the staff has quite the to-do list this year: replace the biggest net talent loss a defense has seen in almost two decades, find a right tackle and fullback in the middle of training camp, and improve a wide receiver group that was among the league’s most disappointing in 2019 and a tight end group that looks like the league’s worst in 2020. Oh, and they also have to replace Tom Brady.