New look in New England

Tom Brady's return gets top billing, but the Pats will unveil a revamped defense Thursday

AP Photo

Legacy is a complicated term. The word itself is loaded with varying degrees of context, personal bias and statistical certainty. The historical significance of one person, one organization or one concept depends on how many people care to take up the cause and on which side of the rallying point they fall.

For 14 consecutive years, the New England Patriots have remained above .500. For 13 of those 14 years, they won at least 10 games and in nine of those 13 seasons, they won 12 or more. In four of those nine 12-win campaigns, the Patriots won the Super Bowl, reaching the ultimate game in two others. During that time frame, 28 different New England players were voted into the Pro Bowl, 15 were voted first-team All-Pros and New England won the AFC East 12 times.

For some, all 14 years – and the Patriots’ legacy – are marked by a suspicion or proof of cheating, an asterisk next to each win, Super Bowl and postseason award. It is the easiest rallying point in a modern culture obsessed with bringing ethics and morality into a league that has operated in a gray area since its inception on Aug. 20, 1920, in Canton, Ohio.

While the Patriots’ proclivity to explore and exploit that gray area is the easiest through-line to identify, their ability to remain highly successful in an ever-changing NFL landscape is remarkable. Under coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots have consistently shifted identities on both sides of the ball in an effort to remain ahead of the league, while making the best use of the individual pieces available to them.

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A year ago, that meant signing cornerback Darrelle Revis for pennies on the dollar. This spring, it meant letting Revis walk, changing the focus of the defense entirely and replacing three of the Patriots’ top four corners with journeyman veterans and a 25-year-old undrafted Super Bowl hero.

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When Revis departed for the New York Jets in the offseason, Belichick and the Patriots unleashed a collective shrug, refusing to invest resources at a position for which the marketplace demanded either significant dollars or draft capital. Belichick also jettisoned cornerback Brandon Browner, along with top backup Kyle Arrington and depth corner Alfonzo Dennard – after the foursome accounted for 2,447 defensive snaps last season.

In their place, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler will start opposite late-addition Tarell Brown, who will move inside for Bradley Fletcher in the nickel package. Former third-round pick Logan Ryan will also see time in sub-packages.

Butler faces the steepest climb of the four. The man who sealed a title on Feb. 1 by jumping in front of Ricardo Lockette, Butler will start the season at left cornerback, Revis’ former position. The undrafted product of West Alabama showed flashes of being a solid man-cover corner in his rookie season. In just 220 snaps, Butler racked up six pass deflections, good for third on the team and just one behind Browner, who played 511 more snaps. Butler’s ball skills have earned him the nickname “strap” from teammates, an ode to his ability to shut down receivers in practice.

The rest of the group is as unspectacular as they appear, but that’s by design. Rather than heavily invest in Revis or his replacement, the Patriots opted to pay safety Devin McCourty a handsome fee. Already one of the league’s best free safeties, McCourty will be given even more responsibility this season. Butler has credited his backfield-mate with helping him learn the ins and outs of New England’s coverage schemes, and with new starters at all three starting cornerback spots, McCourty will serve as a crucial voice in the film room and on the field.

But the most important thing McCourty offers is the one Belichick covets the most – flexibility. A second-team All-Pro at cornerback and safety, McCourty can play in nearly any situation, allowing Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to mix and match coverages and personnel, a staple of New England’s defenses but not something that always played to Browner and Revis’ strengths. With far less talent in the defensive backfield this season, New England will have to be creative. The Patriots have also toyed with three- and four-safety looks in the offseason, a nod to the team’s impressive depth at the position.

Regardless of the alignment or the personnel, New England’s secondary will only be asked to provide a piece of the puzzle this season. The real stars of the show are up front.

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For three years, Belichick has methodically gone about rebuilding New England’s front seven.

It started in 2012 with the drafting of defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower. It continued with the additions of linebacker Jamie Collins in 2013, defensive tackle Dominque Easley in 2014 and linemen Jabaal Sheard, Malcolm Brown, Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom in 2015. In addition to veteran tackles Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga and holdovers Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich, they form one of the scariest defensive fronts in the NFL.

It’s no coincidence that the defensive makeover began the year after the Patriots’ offense was again foiled by the New York Giants’ plethora of pass-rushers. Belichick witnessed first-hand the advantage a deep and diverse set of rushers can provide, something New England’s defenses have lacked consistently for nearly a decade.

The free-agent addition of Sheard looked prescient in the preseason, as has the first-round selection of Easley, who appears fully healthy and capable of being a difference-maker inside on passing downs. The selections of Flowers and Grissom also give New England some needed depth on the edge, with Flowers looking like a potential impact player as a rookie.

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At the second level, Mayo’s return to health provides a strong force in the run, a must following the departure of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. In his last healthy season, 2012, Mayo led the Patriots in Pro Football Focus’ stops metric, a statistic that measures the amount of times an offensive play ends in failure. While losing Mayo for 10 games each of the past two seasons was far from a boon, his absence pushed Hightower into a greater role, particularly in 2014. Last season, the former Alabama star was one of five inside linebackers to finish in the top 11 in three of PFF’s signature metrics for linebackers – stop percentage, pass-rushing productivity and yards allowed per snap in coverage. His company was Bobby Wagner, Luke Keuchly, Mychal Kendricks and Daryl Smith.

As tantalizing as the rest of the talent up front is, none match the ceiling or impact of the 6-foot-4, 250-pound athletic freak who could finish the season as the best linebacker in the NFL.

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Jamie Collins runs like a deer, hits like a ram and hunts like a lion. He is at once the most talented yet most maddening player on New England’s defense. He is also the lynchpin to Belichick’s defensive revision.

There were stretches last season, particularly in the Patriots’ three-game run to their fourth Super Bowl crown, where Collins wasn’t just the best linebacker on the field. He was the best player. At times, Belichick and Co. felt comfortable enough in Collins’ skills to line up him out wide in coverage. Others, he drew the responsibility of marking a running back, tracking one on a wheel route out of the backfield and up the sideline, staying with the back step for step.

That Collins is able to run with wideouts and running backs at his size is a testament to his pure athleticism. That he is able to do so in addition to being stout against the run – he led the Patriots and was 8th among all inside linebackers in stops last season – while developing into one of New England’s best pass-rushers – 26 total pressures while rushing on just 14.9 percent of snaps in 2014 – makes him a unique specimen across the league, let alone on the Patriots.

For all the many ways the Patriots can and will attempt to replace Revis, Collins holds the key. Much like McCourty, he offers Belichick flexibility, but unlike the safety, Collins’ physical mixture provides the Patriots with the ultimate chess piece. In a league where the numbers advantage is a constant goal for which to strive, Collins is at once a rusher and a coverage backer, a run stuffer and an edge-setter. Offenses must account for him on every play and as they shift attention toward him, Jones, Hightower and the rest of the front seven will gain single coverage, allowing for easier paths to the quarterback and also alleviating pressure on the secondary.

The presence of Collins, along with the quality depth up front, are the primary reasons  Belichick was comfortable allowing Revis & Co. to depart in free agency with nary a Pro Bowler to replace them. The defense was never going to be built on a $100 million secondary. As great as Revis is, he can affect an offensive game plan only so much, but a defense filled to the brim with flexible, dynamic pieces can cause nightmares.