In part two of our “State of the Patriots,” we’ll be looking at the Patriots’ defensive needs, as well as some offseason targets that can help fill those needs. You can find part one covering the offense here. These are certainly not all of the defensive options on the table for the Patriots this offseason. We simply wanted to highlight the targets we felt fit best as the offseason begins. (NOTE: The salary cap numbers are based on Spotrac.)
Need: Very High
Veteran options: Dalvin Tomlinson, Shelby Harris
While I fully expect the Patriots to retain at least one of Lawrence Guy or Adam Butler, the Patriots still need more help on the interior. Dalvin Tomlinson may not be anything special as a pass rusher, but he excels against the run, an area the Patriots struggled mightily last season. Signing Tomlinson would likely cost $8-10 million a year.
A Shelby Harris signing in New England would very much remind me of the shrewd overlooked Lawrence Guy signing by New England in 2017. Harris has quietly put together some very good seasons since 2017. Harris may be one of the most underrated players in the league. He’s solid against the run, and he’s also a good interior pass rusher. New England would undoubtedly be upgrading their defensive front with the addition of Harris. It will be interesting to see what kind of market Harris commands in free agency.
Potential draft options: Christian Barmore Alabama (RD 1), Marvin Wilson Florida State (RD 4)
Christian Barmore is one of the more intriguing defensive linemen in the 2021 class. He’s widely regarded as the best interior defensive linemen in the draft, but he’s fairly inconsistent. Although, it should be noted he played two of his best games in the College Football Playoff against Notre Dame, and Ohio State. He was a force to be reckoned with in both of those games, and having a dominant force is something the Patriots’ defensive front was lacking in 2020. If the top offensive talent is off the board at 15, he could be a nice option.
The once highly touted, heavily recruited Marvin Wilson failed to make a big impact during his senior year at Flordia State. He did however show flashes of brilliant play in his junior season. Wilson has the potential to be a star if he’s ever able to put it all together. Possessing elite strength but lacking consistent performance, Wilson would be an exciting project for Bill Belichick to get his hands on in the middle rounds.
Veteran options: J.J. Watt, Melvin Ingram
The Texans recently released Watt, who despite having the lowest sack total of his career in 2020 is still a very productive player. While the cost of signing him isn’t yet clear, and Watt may be looking to join a contender, the Patriots should at the very least inquire about the star pass rusher.
Coming off of a down and injury-riddled season, Melvin Ingram is unlikely to command top dollar on the open market. At 31 years old Ingram is still an effective player. Plus, he’s a perfect fit for teams like the Patriots who don’t prioritize paying top dollar for a premium pass rusher. Ingram won’t command near as much as the top edge options in free agency.
Potential draft options: Gregory Rousseau Miami (RD 1), Joseph Ossai Texas (RD 1/2)
Consensus top pass rusher in the 2021 class Kwity Paye will likely be off the board at 15, but Gregory Rousseau would be a great consolation prize if the Patriots are looking to bolster their pass rush early in the draft. Despite opting out of the 2020 season, Rousseau’s draft stock is still high. He’ll likely go in that 15-20 range in which the Patriots sit at. Rousseau is 6’6″ 253 lbs with great athleticism. He put up huge passing rushing statistics in 2019. A play-maker on the edge is exactly what the Patriots need.
Joseph Ossai doesn’t have the hype Rousseau does, but he fits the prototype in what the Patriots look for at the postion. Ossai is a good athlete and has experience playing both off-ball linebacker and on the edge. We’ve seen plenty of examples of Patriots players, whether it be Kyle Van Noy or Rob Ninkovich, excel in that off-ball/edge hybrid role. To succeed in New England, he’ll need to prove he can consistently set the edge. We’ve seen fellow edge rusher Chase Winovich struggle with that through his first two seasons. Ossai will likely fall to the end of the first and could be an option if New England trades back from 15.
Need: Moderate to High
Veteran options: Lavonte David, Matt Milano, Denzel Perryman
Assuming Dont’a Hightower returns, the need to add a linebacker is moderate but if he doesn’t, the need becomes high. If Hightower does return, pairing a well-established veteran like Lavonte David with another well-established veteran would be a lethal combination. David is still playing excellent football at age 31. He’s great against the run, and he is excellent in coverage, which is something Patriots linebackers have struggled with.
Matt Milano is another modern-day linebacker who excels in coverage. It’s so valuable to have a good coverage linebacker in today’s NFL. The Bills will almost certainly be looking to re-sign Milano, but the Patriots have the cap space to go get him if they choose.
If the Patriots still want a down-field thumping linebacker, Denzel Perryman should be their guy. He likely won’t cost much, as he’s not exactly a modern linebacker that can play a ton in coverage. Nevertheless, he’s an excellent run defender and the Patriots still value that.
Potential draft options: Jabril Cox LSU (RD 2), Baron Browning Ohio State (RD 3)
Luckily for the Patriots, the 2021 draft class looks to be ripe with linebackers. Due to the depth of this year’s class, the Patriots should wait until round two or three to draft a linebacker. That is unless Micah Parsons (barring reports of character concerns) inexplicably slides to them at 15. The Patriots could also consider trading back out of 15 and landing dynamic versatile Jeremiah Owusu in the late first if he falls that far. JOK would fit nicely as a dynamic cover linebacker with loads of versatility.
However, if neither of those options comes to fruition, Jabril Cox would be an ideal fit in New England. Cox is a modern-day linebacker and he thrived during the Senior Bowl week, which likely upped his stock to the second-round. He has great coverage skills, excelling in both man and zone. Drafting Cox would be a huge step in revamping the Patriots’ front seven.
Baron Browning is flying a bit under the radar in this deep linebacker class. He is an excellent tackler who has a knack for flying around and making big plays against the run. Browning is impressive physically, but unlike Cox, he’s not as impressive in coverage. If he’s still on the board when the Patriots pick in round three or four, he should be towards the top of their board.
Need: Low to Moderate
Veteran options: None
Despite the persistent trade rumors since last summer, the Patriots most likely course of action with Stephon Gilmore is to work out a contract extension that gives him a pay raise in 2021 while lowering his cap hit. The Patriots were adamant about getting a first-round pick for Gilmore in trade discussions, and after his season-ending injury, it’s unlikely any team will be willing to pay that price. JC Jackson should be a part of the Patriots’ long term plans at the position. A first or second-round tender will keep him around next season if they don’t sign a deal long term. Jonathan Jones rounds out the Patriots likely starting trio for 2021. Gilmore, Jackson, and Jones should be able to give the Patriots a top-notch secondary for at least one more year.
Potential draft option: Ifeatu Melifonwu Syracuse (RD 3)
The brother of former Patriots backup Obi Melifonwu, Ifeatu has freakish athletic ability and nice length. Like his brother, he’s probably not as polished as other corners in the class, but he oozes potential. I’m still unsure about selecting him in the second round, but if he falls to the third, Belichick should jump all over that.
Veteran option: None.
There is no pressing need at safety for the Patriots this offseason. Devin McCourty has expressed a desire to return and was still playing at a high level in 2020. Adrian Phillips had an excellent season showcasing his consistency and versatility, and Kyle Dugger looks like a potential star in the making. In addition to all that, Patrick Chung is set to return in 2021. Perhaps a one-year prove-it deal for a player like Malik Hooker would make some sense. McCourty is getting older and it wouldn’t hurt to get a look at possible eventual replacements. Even so, I still don’t expect New England to be looking to address safety via free agency.
Potential draft option: Tariq Thompson San Diego State (RD 5)
Tariq Thompson can make plays against the run and he offers positional versatility, experience as a slot guy, and a deep safety, in other words; he has all of the traits the Patriots desire from their defensive backs. While it’s not likely the Patriots invest significant draft capital into the safety position this year, Thompson would be a fitting choice if they decide to take a safety in the mid to late rounds.
As the offseason progresses we’ll take a deeper look at the position of needs.