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Patriots Defense Looking for a "Leap"

With a handful of injured players returning, the Patriots defense has all the right pieces to return as one of the league's most dominant units.

Patriots defensive end Keion White (99).
Patriots defensive end Keion White (99).

FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots took to the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium for their first full-team OTA practice of spring, with rookies and veterans joining together to offer a first glimpse of nearly the entire 2024 squad.

While much of the attention continues to focus on the rookies on the offensive side of the ball, Monday's session was a reminder of some of the talent that will re-enter the fold on the defensive side of the ball. Despite Matthew Judon's absence, both Christian Gonzalez and Marcus Jones appeared to be full participants as the duo of defensive backs returned from their respective season-ending injuries that left the secondary depleted and searching for answers for much of 2023.

But it's not just those returning from injury who are offering excitement as both Christian Bamore and Kyle Dugger are now secured on four-year deals, making them building blocks of a new core around which the team will look to build around.

With returning star players complementing a balanced group of vets and younger players, the Patriots defense might be more loaded than anyone realizes here in late-May as their process hits a new level of intensity.

"The main thing is having everybody on the right page," said Marcus Jones, who saw plenty of action during the two-hour session both at cornerback and as a punt returner. "It starts with day one. There are always corrections. So we're gonna make sure to get up in the film room and do what we have to do to correct them and not make them happen again."

"Just trying to take things one day at a time even in the offseason," said Dugger. "You know, making sure to tighten up the fundamentals, staying in the playbook, things like that... kind of focusing on the little things that may get overlooked going into the offseason. We're really trying to emphasize those things."

Those fundamentals are key if the Patriots defense is to rebound in 2024. Despite their injury attrition they still finished ninth overall in DVOA, but some specific areas were trouble spots like points (15th) and turnover percentage (30th).

Extending Barmore was a big piece of that puzzle, as the disruptive defensive lineman has game-wrecking potential.

"Gotta take my game to another level and just be bigger than others," said Barmore with a sizable post-practice grin. "Be a baller and just keep dominating how I'm doing."

If vets like Barmore and Dugger will set a floor for the defense, it's the younger players who will set the ceiling. Christian Gonzalez was back where he spent all of August and September last year, as a starting outside cornerback, while looking just as smooth and athletic with a bit more bulk on his frame. And without Judon, Joshua Uche or Anfernee Jennings in attendance, it was an opportunity for second-year defender Keion White to get some extensive work in a variety of roles along the edge.

Gonzalez, White and Marte Mapu all saw plenty of reps and will be hoping for a significant second-year jump that could push the Patriots defense to new unexpected heights.

"There is no other point in their careers where they can make a massive jump like they can going from year one to year two," said head coach Jerod Mayo before practice. "Now you understand what we are trying to do from a scheduling standpoint, from what you've got to do to go out there and play. And so, we are looking for those guys to make a huge jump."

"I gotta get no snacks anymore for the vets so that's smooth but football-wise you just know more," joked White. "I feel like when you come in as a rookie it's 1000 parts moving on once. We were blessed to have Mayo be promoted to head coach so it's a lot of carryover from the last coaching staff. So the game slows down. You can see more, you can react to more, you can be a lot more of a dominant player."

"If I'm being honest, I don't really see a ceiling for the group," said Dugger of the defense. "As individuals, I think everybody definitely has room to grow. I know myself, I have a lot of room to grow. So I think we can have a tremendous leap year."

Deuce's Dime Package

Here are my 10 takeaways from the first full team OTA session of the spring.

1. Missing veterans included Matthew Judon, Anfernee Jennings, Cole Strange, Jahlani Tavai, Kendrick Bourne and Davon Godchaux. Strange, Tavai and Bourne were all spotted on the practice fields, working out without pads on. The absences highlighted the thin depth along the edge, with Keion White and Sione Takitaki seeing plenty of reps with other top defenders.

2. Veteran safety Jaylinn Hawkins, standing out in a well-worn #32 practice jersey seems like he'll get some opportunities to show what he can do on the back end. His size and speed have him more in a free safety mold, a role that the defense could possibly need to be filled despite a top trio in Dugger, Peppers and Mapu that all excel near the line of scrimmage.

3. Rhamondre Stevenson seems like he's not even returning from injury. He was heavily involved in most team drills, taking plenty of handoffs and catching plenty of passes and ran with no issues. It was a reminder of how much work Stevenson consistently got in practices last year and what an important part of the offense he was. He did not look limited at all.

4. Still, Antonio Gibson also had a chance to stand out and looks comfortable in the offense's rushing style. He's a natural catcher and has some burst. He should be a big part of the ground attack with Stevenson this year.

5. While Ja'Lynn Polk stood out a little more in the rookie OTA practice, I found myself with a newfound impression of Javon Baker's movement skills. He's got nimble feet and a horizontal agility that stands out. He also is a hard accelerator. Not sure what his top gear looks like in a game situation but seeing him run drills side-by-side with other receivers would say his feet stand out in this group.

6. Not a lot of action for Drake Maye and Joe Milton today. Jacoby Brissett took the starter's reps and got a lot of work, while Bailey Zappe was the first backup in. Maye, in limited reps, looked to have a degree of comfort knowing where to go with the ball. He's pretty smooth and doesn't look rattled or confused yet. There wasn't a lot of hesitation from him. Milton was pretty good too as I didn't catch any "wow" arm moments but saw enough from him to feel like both rookies had solid first days despite light workloads. Maye zipped a crosser to TJ Luther in an 11-on-11 period that was one of his best throws of the day. Important to remember here that this was the first day of a new stage and the lack of reps might've been more about showing the rookies how it all goes. Wouldn't be surprised to see more of both Maye and Milton next Wednesday when we get to see practice again.

7. Corners Marcos Wilson and Alex Austin got some looks with the top defense, while second-year corner Isaiah Bolden saw some time in the slot. Bolden had a promising summer last year before being lost for the season in Green Bay, but he was mostly, if not entirely, on the outside last year. His size in the slot is a unique look. Clearly, the defense realizes they have some questions at third corner and in the slot, two spots that should be very competitive this summer. We're seeing the early seeds of it already.

8. Similarly, there are a lot of offensive linemen getting looks, but the top group most often was (left to right), Okorafor, Sow, Andrews, Leverett, Onwenu. Leverette has 10 career starts and shouldn't be ruled out of the guard competition. Rookie Caedan Wallace continues to work on the left side but is working behind vet Vederian Lowe. This is another spot where I'd expect a lot of shuffling over the next month-plus.

9. With the departure of so many special teams aces this year, including Matthew Slater, Cody Davis and Chris Board, it appears that plenty of back-up linebackers and defensive backs will have a chance to make the roster by filling their roles. Takitaki, Christian Elliss and Joe Giles-Harris were all heavily in the special teams mix.

10. Raekwon McMillan has had tough injury luck in New England but he's another player lost in 2023 that appears ready to go for 2024. He'll add valuable athleticism and depth as an off-the-ball linebacker. Both he and Takitaki could fit more into the edge depth than we might realize.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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