Biggest Questions for the Patriots’ Defense As the 2020 Season Nears

Due to the ongoing pandemic, the upcoming NFL season will be one of the most unique in league history. The biggest questions for any team– and the league itself– consists of the issues surrounding COVID-19. However, as of now, football season is right around the corner.

Each NFL season presents a new set of questions the Patriots must answer in order to find success. In this article, we’ll give you the five biggest questions surrounding the Patriots’ defense as we head towards the 2020 season. Part one covering the offense can be found here.

(NOTE: All stats came from Pro Football Reference.)

5.) Can the Patriots’ secondary repeat their great 2019 season?

The secondary only allowed 180.4 pass yards per game in the 2019 season. The group’s performance was truly incredible, which begs the question can they repeat that same excellence? Unlike other positions on the defense, the Patriots’ secondary will largely look the same in 2020. There will be some change at safety as Patrick Chung opted out of the 2020 season and Duron Harmon was traded to the Lions, but the Patriots have in-house replacements for both.

Rookie safety, Kyle Dugger, has enough speed and versatility to play the deep safety role that Harmon left behind, but we like him better in a Chung-type role. The Patriots only have two true free safeties on the roster; Devin McCourty and the second new signee, Cody Davis. Davis is more of a special teamer though, as he’s only seen limited defensive snaps.

The biggest X-factor at safety is Adrian Phillips. Phillips played all over the field with the Chargers. He has a lot of experience playing a hybrid linebacker/safety role. Even if Chung was playing this season, Phillips would have likely taken some snaps from him. If that isn’t enough safety depth for the Patriots, keep in mind they still have Terrence Brooks, who was once perceived as a bubble player before Chung opted out. Brooks was solid last year while playing in place of an injured Chung.

As far as the cornerbacks go, this group is locked and loaded for another dominating season. The Patriots are returning every corner from last year’s roster, including reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore.

It’s going to be tough for the secondary to repeat the same type of dominance in 2020, but this group certainly seems up to the task and they have all the pieces to do so.

4.) Is there enough depth on the interior defensive line?

All offseason long, we’ve talked about the need for another interior lineman. Up to this point, the Patriots have opted against addressing that need, but if they do there’s still a ton of options available in free agency.

Right now, as far as roster locks on the interior defensive line, the Patriots have Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy. Beau Allen, the expected Danny Shelton replacement, is a near lock. The Patriots usually try and keep between four to five interior defensive linemen. If the Patriots elect to keep four, Byron Cowart and Deatrich Wise Jr. will likely battle for that final spot. However, the roster battle opens up a bit if the Patriots elect to keep five interior players. An undrafted free agent, like Bill Murray or Nick Coe, could challenge Cowart and Wise for the final two spots.

The interior pass rush, with Butler leading the way, doesn’t worry us as much as the run defense. The Patriots were pretty good against the run in 2019, but against good running teams, such as the Ravens and Titans, they had struggles. Signing a veteran like Damon “Snacks” Harrison to sure up the position seems like an ideal scenario, but it’s possible the Patriots prefer to have Cowart step up and fill the void.

3.) How big of a jump can Ja’Whaun Bentley take?

The 2020 season is the year of Ja’Whaun Bentley. We’ve got an in-depth film breakdown coming on Bentley later in the week so, we’ll keep it brief.

Bentley only played 27% of the defensive snaps in 2019 with a loaded linebacker group. Because the Patriots lost every starting linebacker from a year ago, it’s safe to say that Bentley’s defensive snaps will skyrocket in 2020.

There’s reason to be hopeful Bentley can succeed in such a key role, as he’s shown good run stuff ability through two seasons and in limited snaps he’s been better than advertised in coverage.

If the Patriots hope to remain a top NFL defense, it’s imperative Bentley has a breakout season.

2.) What kind of roles will the rookie defenders have?

The Patriots’ defense got younger and faster by way of the 2020 NFL Draft. The biggest plus of this draft class is its versatility. For example, just look at Dugger; he has enough speed to play deep safety, and enough skills to stop the run as a box safety. On top of that, he was an excellent punt returner in college. Dugger is just what Bill Belichick needs– another chess piece in the secondary. 

With their next draft pick, the Patriots selected Josh Uche. Uche had 14.5 sacks in the last two seasons of his college career. He primarily played on the edge at Michigan, but his athleticism should allow him to play as an off-ball linebacker at the NFL level. Think of Uche as having a similar play-style to Dont’a Hightower in terms of splitting between off-ball linebacker and edge. It might sound nice and easy to say Uche can replace Hightower, but relying on a rookie after a shortened offseason to play Hightower’s role is a lot to ask. It’s more likely that Uche splits those duties with a couple of different players.

Anfernee Jennings isn’t quite as versatile as the Patriots’ first two defensive draft picks. He’s a pretty polished edge guy at this point. Could he play some off-ball linebacker? Sure, but it seems more likely he sticks at the edge spot, particularly as a run stopper. The last defensive player drafted by New England was linebacker, Cassh Maluia. He has good speed for a linebacker and he’s a very good tackler. Maluia is likely a special teamer in year one.

The fact is, sooner or later the Patriots as a whole needed to get younger, and while the opt-outs may have accelerated that timeline, it needed to happen. Barring any further major roster moves, Dugger, Uche, and Jennings all seem to have legitimate opportunities at sizable roles in year one. 

1.) Can the Patriots replace the production of Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Dont’a Hightower?

There’s no denying the Patriots lost a ton of production at the linebacker and edge spots this offseason. With that being said, the Patriots have an extensive track record of replacing key players. The major departures were Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins in free agency, and Hightower after he opted out of the upcoming season. That’s a ton of defensive production lost. 

Last season, Van Noy, Collins, and Hightower all played a mix of linebacker and edge. Van Noy and Collins played 80% of the defensive snaps, while Hightower played 71%. There’s no direct replacement for these kinds of players, it’ll likely be done with a larger group of guys.

On the edge, the Patriots will rely on underrated veteran John Simon to lead a group consisting of Chase Winovich, Jennings, and hybrid edge/linebacker guys in Uche and Brandon Copeland. It’s a very young group but there’s a lot of potential. In a perfect world, Winovich takes a big second-year leap and the edge spot is lead by Simon and Winovich with the rookies supplementing the position. 

At linebacker, the Patriots have Bentley, Copeland, Uche, and likely a choice between Maluia and De’Jon “Scoota” Harris. It’s a very thin group, but you have to consider several safeties like Phillips, Brooks, and Dugger all have the ability to play linebacker.

Will the Patriots repeat their 2019 level of dominance at linebacker and edge? Probably not, there’s some level of drop-off to be expected. With that being said, there’s a good mix of solid veterans and promising young talent to help fill the void. It won’t be a complete dumpster fire by any means. 

What are your questions for the Patriots’ defense as we head towards the NFL season? Let us know in the comments below!

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