Alas, as we look back at the Patriots 2013 season, it pains me to know that when all was going well, New England's offense was under the microscope much more than the defense. With rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins learning the playbook and Rob Gronkowski still on injured reserve from forearm surgery, Tom Brady wasn't firing on all cylinders as he had in year's past. Throw in losing Aaron Hernandez and building rapport with Danny Amendola in there as well.
The point is, the defense was looking good through Week 4 after what was thought to be the team's best win at the time, a 30-23 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. Critics across the country didn't know what the Patriots would be after close wins at Buffalo and home vs. the New York Jets, as well as a beating of the bottom dwelling Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Though the perenially-hyped Atlanta proved to be fraudulent underachievers yet again, amassing a dismal 4-12 record, New England's defense held in check a high-flying offense led by 2008 third overall pick, Matt Ryan, and 2011 sixth overall pick, Julio Jones.
Sadly, the Patriots got news that Vince Wilfork tore his Achilles tendon against Atlanta and would be out for the rest of the season. New England fans might as well have set up camp for hibernation, because the despondency became overwhelming after that respected, hard earned Week 4 win.
Week 5-7?: Starting middle linebacker Brandon Spikes suffers a torn ligament in his knee that put him at much less than 100% all season. Did not play in playoffs.
Week 5 13-6 loss at Cincinnati Bengals: Starting defensive tackle Tommy Kelly injured reserve with right knee injury.
Week 6 30-27 win vs. New Orleans Saints: Starting (see the trend?) weak side linebacker and two time Pro Bowler Jerod Mayo injured reserve with torn pectoral muscle.
And that is just the defense... Danny Amendola (Kraft shoulda known): torn groin Week 1, Sebastian Vollmer: broken femur Week 8, Rob Gronkowski: torn ACL and MCL Week 14.
One couldn't help but get an ominous feeling about the season with the dark cloud over the Hernandez murder trial before the season even started. Luckily, New England won't have to deal with any distractions this year (we hope, Jesus Christ), and will start off on a clean slate for 2014.
The defensive line was toyed with all year. 2013 198th overall pick (Houston Texans), Chris Jones, had a solid year for a rookie, but needs to bulk up and work on his technique. Jones did show flashes, though, compiling 54 tackles and six sacks. The rookie out of Bowling Green State has a high motor and is just 23. Joe Vellano, undrafted out of University of Maryland, could be the odd man out this coming season. Vellano also made 54 tackles to go along with two sacks, but lost his job to Sealver Siliga down the stretch. Siliga is a raw, intriguing prospect, much like Jones. The undrafted 325 lber out of University of Utah was signed by the San Francisco 49ers after the Draft in 2011, but was eventually cut. Siliga had stints with the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks before landing on New England's practice squad on October 23rd, 2013. He was added to the active roster November 27th. In just five games, starting from his Week 13 debut at Houston, Siliga made 23 tackles and had one sack Week 15, 16, and 17. Siliga helped the Patriots sure up their run defense substantially in the playoffs, holding the Indianapolis Colts to just 63 yards on the ground and the Denver Broncos to 107, for a 3.8 average.
New England will never be as horrid defending the run as they were in 2013; they ranked 30th in the NFL allowing 134 yards/game, a stat that simply never reaches those lows with this team. The injuries were detrimental and the depth was inexperienced. Even still, Jones, Siliga and Vellano will provide nice depth for next year after being thrust into starting roles so abruptly. Somewhat of a blessing in disguise, at least depth-wise, for the Patriots.
New England also signed former USC standout, Armond Armstead, from the Canadian Football League over the 2013 offseason. The 6'5" 300 lb Armstead earned a myriad of high school accolades, including being named a Super Prep All-American, with 88 tackles and 11 sacks at Pleasant Grove High School in California. In 2010 with the Trojans, Armstead compiled 43 tackles and three sacks, despite constantly being double teamed. Armstead wasn't cleared to play in 2011 by team doctors due a heart problem that Armstead deemed minor. USC doctors gave Armstead painkillers, and Armstead later sued the doctor and a physician, claiming the injects of the drug called Toradol caused him to have a heart attack, and, in turn, affected his NFL Draft potentialities. Toradol does not list heart attacks as a side effect. Armstead redshirted that 2011 season, and went undrafted in 2012. He ended up playing for the Toronto Argonauts and was named a 2012 CFL All Star, with 43 tackles and six sacks. The Argonauts won the Grey Cup, the CFL version of the Super Bowl, that year. Armstead was originally projected as a first round pick going into 2011, so the Patriots signed him to a three year deal in the 2012 off season to give him a shot, especially coming off his impressive CFL stint that was injury-free. In late June, Armstead developed an undisclosed infection, though it likely stemmed from his heart attack treatment. Armstead was going to be counted on in 2013, but it is clear he can't be in 2014. That doesn't mean he can't reach his first round ceiling, but New England needs to stock up on some more mooses in the Draft.
Top Talent: Louis Nix, University of Notre Dame
6'3" 345 lbs
5.17 40 yard dash
2013: 27 tackles, two for loss. 2012: 52 tackles, 7.5 for loss, two sacks
Strengths: Elite size, athleticism, quickness, disruptive, total package
Weaknesses: Torn meniscus in early November, overweight...? Will he have same elite burst? Dedication, motor. All Draft gurus gawk at size and athleticism. Similar to Vernon Davis who is an atheltic freak, but has had off years and toughness issues (five catches for 54 yards in three 2013 playoff games). Vernon Gholston, the athetic "workout warrior" pass rusher from Ohio State was drafted sixth overall by the New York Jets in 2008, has had zero sacks in his three year NFL career. He hasn't played since 2010. Sometimes you can't trust these Draft guys who love imposing size and athleticism (especially the gurus that like prospects who can jump out of pools). Competition in the Independent Conference is a question with Nix as well.
I would stay away from him, but I do believe if the knee didn't get injured, my opinion would be much different. Nix has everything NFL scouts drool over.
Realistically at #29: Aaron Donald, University of Pittsburgh
6'1" 290 lbs
2013: 59 tackles, 28.5 for loss, four forced fumbles, 11 sacks
Strengths: Versatility, relentless burst, pass rushing
Weaknesses: Size, run stuffing
Absolutely love this kid. The Patriots went with the undersized, athletic Jamie Collins, and that worked out fine for them. Much is criticized about the team's secondary, but Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich didn't lay a finger on a quarterback after New England's Week 10 Bye. Collins had a beastly game against the Colts in the playoffs, and displayed, as he did all season, the flashes of his instinctive pass rushing ability (10 sacks in 2012 with Southern Mississippi). Donald could bulk up to 300+, and has incredible quickness at the point of attack. He is versatile enough to even play defensive end, and could turn into the heir to Rob Ninkovich at the end opposite Jones. It all depends on if the Patriots view him as a defensive end, or an interior defensive lineman. In any scheme, Donald could be a serious playmaker and X factor in the way Jamie Collins was this season. He will likely play interior D line, though.
Steven Gregory is not a starting strong safety. Period. To New England's credit, the team did attempt to squeeze some juice out of three time All Pro Adrian Wilson who was cut by the Arizona Cardinals, but the 34 year old suffered an Achilles injury during the preseason. Gregory was certainly the back up plan, but he is just 5'11" 200 lbs. Fans look at guys like Kam Chancellor of the Seahawks and Donte Whitner of the 49ers and drool over the game-changing ability they could bring to the Patriots secondary. Though Gregory was playing sound football until he broke his thumb Week 9 vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers, he is not a starter. I'd expect Gregory to hang around, though. He provides good depth on passing downs and almost never makes a glaring mistake, but he's simply not a game changer at 31 years old and never has been.
Rookie Duron Harmon showed flashes in Gregory's absence. The third round 91st overall pick out of Rutgers University made 31 tackles with two interceptions and four passes defended. Harmon displayed a good deal of physicality and instincts, making a career high 11 tackles vs. Denver Week 12. He hits hard and always is the second or third tackler on the ball carrier. The 6' 200 lber needs to bulk up in the offseason, but he is timely with his hits and plays bigger than he is. Though one interception was off a tip, Harmon has a nice nose for the ball as well. He could be the starting strong safety in 2014 if New England plans to keep chemistry going with former Scarlet Knights Devin McCourty and Logan Ryan starting in the secondary, but competition is needed and the Patriots could very well look to add a bigger, more athletic strong safety in the Draft.
Top talent: Calvin Pryor, University of Louisville
6'1" 210 lbs
2013: 75 tackles, three interceptions, four passes defended
Strengths: Total package, NFL ready
Weaknesses: Free or strong, competition
Realistically: Deone Bucannon, Washington State
6'1" 220 lbs
2013: 109 tackles, five interceptions, one pass defended
Strengths: Size, hitting, relentlessness
This kid will be a Pro Bowler, mark my words. Menacing size and delivers "bone-rattling" hits. He is all over the place on the field and has a knack for being around the ball in the air. Buchannon's pure coverage ability could use some work, as he tends to be flat footed at times, but he has the potential to be a game changer. I like the fact that he comes from Washington State, undoubtedly modeling his playing style after Kam Chancellor. Both Pryor and Buchannon can be had in the first round, but I like Buchannon in the second, unless the Patriots fall in love with him. Grab him before Seattle does, Bill.
Cornerback is a position that is suddenly pretty deep for New England. Logan Ryan was the best rookie cornerback in the NFL, 25 year old Alfonzo Dennard is competitive in man to man, and Aqib Talib, when healthy, is a top three cornerback in the league. Still, it is unknown at this point if Talib will be a Patriot for next season. Also, Kyle Arrington had his ups and downs and makes an incredible $4 million/year as a slot corner. He dealt with injuries in the playoffs, but had a terrible game vs. Denver in the AFC Championship. New England did rank 18th against the pass in 2013, a big improvement from being at the bottom in 2012. With the NFL clearly evolving into a passing league, a team can never have too many corners. The Seahawks have Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner (did not play in playoffs, six interceptions 23 passes defended in 2011... teams rarely threw to his side in 2012), Walter Thrumond, and Byron Maxwell, all very competitive defensive backs. Look for New England to potentially find Talib's understudy, as a (healthy!) shutdown cornerback is becoming so valued in the age of Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman.
Top talent: Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State University
6' 200 lbs
2013: 40 tackles, six interceptions (one for a touchdown), six passes defended
Strengths: Size, bump and run, physical, speed, big plays, leaping ability, return skills
Weaknesses: Technique, agility
Realistically: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State University
5'11" 190 lbs
2013: 59 tackles, four interceptions, ten passes defended
Strengths: Stout, man to man, physicality, competitiveness, technique
Weaknesses: Speed, size
Darqueze is the younger brother of Alfonzo and the more talented of the two. If the Patriots want to keep Duron Harmon as the future strong safety with Rutgers alumni McCourty and Ryan, they may also be intrigued by the idea of having Dennard's younger brother on the roster as well. Though it is a toss up on who is the better prospect, Gilbert or Dennard, New England could really like what they see out of the latter and trade up to grab their man. The brothers would feed off of each other and it could be a match made in heaven for the Patriots.