The Patriots had one of, if not the best, defenses in the NFL a season ago. It became very clear early on in the 2019 season that the defense was the strength of the team. Not only was the defense talented, but the Patriots were one of the deepest defenses in the league. Unfortunately, the free agency period put a dent in all that depth.
The Patriots lost Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Robeters, and Danny Shelton. On top of all that, the Patriots also traded away Duron Harmon. To keep their standing as one of the top defenses in the NFL, the Patriots will need several players to step up into more significant roles. In this article, we’ll show you three defenders poised for a breakout season in 2020.
(NOTE: All statistics come from Pro Football Reference.)
EDGE Chase Winovich
The key to a breakout season for Chase Winovich is his progression in the run game. Winovich saw a majority of his rookie snaps come as a pass rusher. He excelled in that area as well; Winovich had 5.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and 9 quarterback hurries in his rookie season. He was incredibly efficient as he only saw playing time in 29% of the defensive snaps.
After losing good pass rushers in Van Noy and Collins, it’s clear Winovich will see expanded pass-rush snaps in his second season, but why stop there? Winovich has an opportunity to earn an even bigger role on the Patriots’ defense but he needs to produce more than just pass-rushing, he needs to set the edge. Van Noy is a perfect example of what the Patriots are looking for at the edge spot. He was never one dimensional, Van Noy could play against the run and the pass. The Patriots could use that kind of jump from Winovich this season.
The proven run defenders on the edge consist of John Simon and a bunch of question marks. We expect rookie edge defender out of Alabama, Anfernee Jennings, to play a role on run defense, but with a shortened offseason, relying on rookies isn’t the best move. Brandon Copeland, who has experience in a hybrid linebacker/edge role, could also be another option help on run defense.
The Patriots have some options, but if Winovich can become a three-down player the Patriots are set at the edge spot for years to come.
2020 Projected Role
An 8 sack season with 40 combined tackles seems to be a realistic expectation for Winovich. Winovich will see a bump in snaps in the run game, but he’ll still primarily be used for his pass rush. The Patriots will use different combinations of players to replace the production of Van Noy. It will take some time before Winovich truly develops into a three-down player. With that being said, we see Winovich continuing to grow and dominate as a pass rusher.
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
Ja’Whaun Bentley is about to have a huge role in 2020. After several departures at linebacker in free agency, Bentley is now the unquestioned starter at off-ball linebacker alongside Dont’a Hightower.
Bentley, a fifth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, got off to a hot start in his rookie season. He ended up starting two of the first three games of the season. Unfortunately, Bentley’s fast start came to end in week three when a torn pectoral muscle cut his season short. Bentley finished the year on the injured reserve.
Last season, Bentley played as a reserve. The Patriots were loaded at linebacker with Van Noy, Collins, Hightower, Roberts, and Bentley. Bentley had 44 combined tackles while playing only 27% of the defensive snaps.
With three out of the five linebackers now on other teams and no major additions to the linebacker core, the Patriots are going to need to rely on Bentley. Bentley is a smart football player with a knack of delivering big hits to the opposition. Originally when drafted, Bentley was thought of as a traditional run-stuffing linebacker, but he’s shown great promise in coverage. His best trait remains his run defense, but with his ability to play in coverage, Bentley gives the Patriots a ton of versatility.
One of our favorite plays from Bentley came in Week 5 last season. Bentley sniffs out a screen pass and crushes Chris Thompson for a big loss.
2020 Projected Role
We have very high hopes for Bentley as he enters his third season. If he can stay healthy, we feel Bentley will play a ton of snaps and wrack up a ton of tackles. His coverage capabilities will keep him on the field. Don’t be shocked if Bentley is the leading tackler for the Patriots.
DT Adam Butler
Add Adam Butler to the list of undrafted treasures found by Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Underrated in each of his first three seasons, Butler has a chance to become a household name with a breakout season.
Butler plays a majority of his snaps on passing downs, but he increased his playing time in the run game last season. Butler played in 47% of the defensive snaps last season. He ended the year with 6 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, 8 tackles for loss, and 26 combined tackles. By every statistical measure, Butler had the best season of his career in 2019.
Butler has a chance to elevate his game even further this season. The Patriots lost Danny Shelton this offseason, and while they did replace him with a similar player in Beau Allen, we believe there’s a void Butler can fill along the defensive line. That void is a run-stopping lineman.
In 2019, the Patriots liked to use Shelton and Lawrence Guy on the interior in the run game. Sure, it’s possible Allen is a direct replacement for Shelton, but if Butler can earn some of those responsibilities in the run game, watch out. He’s already underrated; so what happens if he can be an every-down defensive lineman? With that being said, Butler doesn’t necessarily have to become a star in the run game to have a breakout season. His tools as an interior pass rusher are top-notch. If Butler can be a solid rotational piece in the run game while adding to his pass rush production, he’ll earn himself a serious pay-day in the 2021 offseason.
His ability to impact the game goes far beyond sacks, he’s a nuisance to quarterbacks. Butler plays great within the Patriots system. In a lot of his pass-rushing snaps, Butler is used to free up others to make the sack.
Here he is with a great spin move, causing Aaron Rodgers to leave the pocket and throw it away on third down. We see plays like this a lot when watching Butler.
2020 Projected Role
Butler has increased his production in each season of his career and this season will be no different. Another season around 6 sacks is likely, but as we mentioned before, Butler will do more than the sack numbers show. We still don’t see Butler playing a majority of the run snaps in 2020, but he’ll be in the rotation. We expect Butler to once again play around 50% of the defensive snaps. Whether it’s with the Patriots or another team, Butler will get himself a nice contract come next offseason.
Let us know in the comments below who you see having a breakout year on the defensive side of the ball!