American Football

Sunday Patriots Notes: It’s time to talk about New England’s defense


NFL: JUL 30 New England Patriots Training Camp
Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Notes and thoughts on the Patriots and the NFL.

We are currently heading into the slowest time on the NFL calendar. While there will be occasional access to organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, teams are operating mostly behind the scenes during the offseason workout program.

The New England Patriots are in the same mode right now, having entered the third and final phase of the offseason program last week. That does not mean the news cycle ever sleeps, and so, in order to clean out the notebook from the last few days, please enjoy this week’s edition of our Sunday Patriots Notes.

It’s time to talk about the Patriots defense. ESPN’s Mina Kimes took to social media this week to share a 23-word Tweet about the New England defense. Her argument was that the unit, despite finishing the 2022 season ranked first in Football Outsider’s weighted DVOA statistic, was not getting enough attention this offseason.

Considering that talking about the Patriots is very much our mission statement here at Pats Pulpit, let’s do just that: talk about New England’s defense, and where things stand heading toward the 2023 season.

First, though, a look back at 2022. As Mina mentioned in her Tweet, the Patriots fielded the highest-ranked defense in weighted DVOA last year. That statistic is skewed toward the end of the year, meaning that it is favorable for a club like New England which aims at playing its best football down the stretch even if it comes at the expense of early-season success.

The unit led by assistant coaches Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo scored a -13.9%, compared to the second-ranked San Francisco 49ers’ -13.4% and the third-ranked New York Jets’ -13.2%. DVOA is only one tool used to evaluate a defense’s success, but others also show that the unit had a solid overall performance last year: it ranked third in expected points added per play (-0.085) and points per drive (1.63), second in scoring percentage per drive (30.5), and seventh in points given up per game (18.4).

With that said, let’s turn our attention to what’s ahead. For starters, we need to point out that the Patriots managed to retain their entire defensive staff despite de facto co-defensive coordinator Jerod Mayo and defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington receiving interest from other teams.

In addition, the team also retained most of its on-field talent on that side of the ball. While it remains to be seen how long-time captain Devin McCourty will be replaced both in scheme and personnel, the Patriots re-signed all of their noteworthy free agents and also added some noteworthy pieces through the draft — including cornerback Christian Gonzalez, defensive lineman Keion White and linebacker/safety hybrid Marte Mapu with their first three selections.

Gonzalez is the big name out of the three, surprisingly dropping to No. 17 overall despite being possibly the best pure man cover corner in the draft. Selecting him addressed what was arguably the Patriots’ biggest need on defense, and only adds to the group’s potential.

Obviously, that does not mean there are no questions for the unit. The aforementioned McCourty retirement is a definitive uncertainty, as is the development of some would-be cornerstones such as sophomore defensive backs Jack Jones and Marcus Jones, or the depth at certain spots such as off-the-ball linebacker and on the edge.

Nonetheless, the Bill Belichick-led Patriots have shown they can make the most out of what they have available. And one could make a case that, top-to-bottom, what they have on defense this year is improved even when compared against last year’s solid unit.

So, yes, the New England defense should probably indeed be getting a lot more attention than it currently is.

New England is losing a member of its administrative staff. The offseason is the time for change, and this does not stop with any particular part of the organizational structure. The Patriots found this out recently, if an observation by league insider Neil Stratton is to be believed: New England associate director of football administration Bobby Brown has apparently left the team to join the Houston Texans, per an update on his LinkedIn account.

Brown was coming off his seventh season with the Patriots, and his third in his role as associate director of football administration. His responsibilities included managing football operations and coordinating travel logistics.

In Houston, Brown will reunite with his brother. Andrew Brown is the Texans’ director of football administration.

The Patriots’ rookie linemen should see a significant workload the next few weeks. New England raised quite a few eyebrows when they selected three interior offensive linemen in the NFL Draft earlier this month: Jake Andrews and Sidy Sow were picked in the fourth round, with Atonio Mafi joining them in the fifth.

Based on draft status, Andrews and Sow are locks to make the team, but Mafi will also be getting his fair share of opportunities — opportunities that will be more prominent than originally expected in Phase 3 of the offseason workout program. The Patriots, after all, will be without starting right guard Michael Onwenu, who underwent surgery on his ankle earlier this offseason.

With Onwenu out, the Patriots’ three rookies might just be getting some action with the starting offensive line during OTAs and minicamp.

DeAndre Hopkins has heard the Patriots rumors. Before his announced (but not yet officially processed) release from the Arizona Cardinals, veteran wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins appeared on the I AM ATHLETE podcast to talk about the rumors surrounding him throughout the offseason — rumors that also had to do with New England.

“Of course I’ve heard a lot of rumors of people calling,” he said, as transcribed by NESN’s Zack Cox. “I would definitely say the Patriots were one of the teams. Obviously, I would say the Bills were one of those teams that I heard. I didn’t have direct conversations, but seeing what’s on Twitter, what’s on Instagram, you’ve got to pay attention to some of those things.

“Really, those are the only two teams that I paid attention to that I was like, ‘All right, let me see if social media’s right.’”

The Patriots reportedly expressed some interest in Hopkins but due to the cost associated with acquiring him never seriously pursued making a move. The situation has now changed given his upcoming release, and New England staying involved would make sense — to a degree.

As for the soon-to-be 31-year-old, he explained what he would be looking for from his next landing spot.

“What I want is stable management upstairs. I think that’s something that I haven’t really had the past couple years of my career, coming from Houston and then being in Arizona. I’ve been through three or four GMs in my career, so stable management,” he said. A QB who loves the game, a QB who brings everybody on board with him and pushes not just himself but people around him. I don’t need a great QB. I’ve done it with subpar QBs. Just a QB who loves the game like I do.

“And a great defense. I think defense wins championships, so for me, I think that’s the key. You’ve got to have a great defense. You’ve got to have a great D-line.”

This description does fit plenty of teams — including the two mentioned by Hopkins by name.

The Jets were not surprised by New England’s first-round draft trade. Sitting at No. 14 overall in the 2023 NFL Draft, the Patriots decided to swing a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers to move back three spots and acquire a fourth-round pick in the process. This allowed the Steelers to pick the best offensive tackle available at that point, Georgia’s Broderick Jones, before another team would snatch him.

That other team sat waiting at No. 15: the New York Jets. Trading out of No. 14 did therefore not just allow New England to add more capital and still stay in contention for their top targets, it seemingly also gave the team a chance to mess with a division rival’s plans.

Turns out, though, that division rival was not actually caught too much by surprise. According to a behind-the-scenes video released by the Jets, general manager Joe Douglas saw the Patriots trading down with Pittsburgh as a definitive possibility.

The Jets ended up drafting Iowa State defensive lineman Will McDonald at No. 15, a player who they were apparently very high on to begin with. Two picks later, the Patriots brought in cornerback Christian Gonzalez.

As for that extra choice added through trading down, it eventually ended up with the Jets. New England used it as part of a package to move up the board in the fourth round and select kicker Chad Ryland.

Setting up the week ahead. The Patriots will return to the practice fields this week, to continue their organized team activities. While Tuesday’s session has been stripped as part of the NFL’s punishment for a recent rule violation stemming from meetings running longer than allowed, Wednesday’s will take place as planned. This will also be the first one open to the media, and include a press conference with head coach Bill Belichick.

Another session will be held Friday, June 2. That one will take place behind closed doors, however.

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