Many of the key players that will make up the 2023 Patriots defense took the field in front of reporters for the first time for OTA practice on Wednesday, as the unit begins to lay the foundation for another season with most of their starters back in the fold, along with a promising crop of rookies that could be poised to chip in right away.
That continuity bodes well for New England this season after last year's squad finished 11th in points against, second in takeaways and tied for third in the NFL with 54 sacks. The advanced stats are equally friendly, with the defense ranking third in both overall defensive DVOA and EPA-per-play.
By most metrics this was an elite defense, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows in a few select areas where the team will be looking to improve this season, where the reinforcements could help. Despite their highest sack total under Bill Belichick, the defense came in 21st on third down, a significant drop from the fifth-ranked third-down defense of 2022. In seven games against 2022 playoff teams, the Pats went 1-6 while allowing a bloated 27.4 points per game against those teams, a full touchdown more than their season-long average.
There were other factors contributing to those point totals like the two kickoff return touchdowns in the season finale against the Bills, but the defense also had some missed opportunities throughout the year for close-out stops with second-half leads that they could not protect.
Get off the field one final time against the Vikings or Raiders and the Patriots might've punched a playoff ticket.
How does one of the best statistical defenses in the league take that next step to where they can get off the field more consistently on third down and close out games when they're there for the taking? The early process started, at least from a reporter's perspective, on Wednesday, with a lively opening practice to kick things off that featured some interesting new pieces for Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo to play with on the defensive side of the ball.
"I think it was a solid day, we] had a good break so it's always good to get back and get into the flow," said veteran [Ja'Whaun Bentley, a two-time captain now entering his sixth season.
Plenty of new faces worked their way around different roles within the defense. While first-round pick Christian Gonzalez wasn't spotted, second-rounder Keion White saw plenty of action on defense standing up, while third-rounder Marte Mapu saw some solid reps at linebacker despite wearing a red jersey as he continues to recover from an offseason shoulder injury. Mapu's length stands out, as does his quickness. Hopefully, he'll be out of the red jersey by August.
It seems possible that all of the first three picks could potentially help the defense get to a new level this season, as they cover all three levels, adding needed depth at a minimum.
So far, Bentley liked what he had seen from the rookies.
"Obviously it takes time, you get a whole bunch of new guys every year, so at this point, we're just kind of building the camaraderie," said Bentley. "We got great young guys, they do a good job of just soaking it all in, just taking it one day at a time. You're not gonna get it all in one day, so this is the time for that.
"Keion, the first thing that jumps out is his attention to detail, he's able to pick up things fast and around this time that's the main thing you want to see."
Bentley had similar praise for Mapu who took some early reps alongside him.
"Smart, instinctual, he's good with asking questions, especially if he doesn't know, some guys get bashful but he jumps right on them, and he's versatile too," said Bentley of the Sacramento State product.
The secondary holds more questions, with the retirement of Devin McCourty serving as the biggest question mark of them all on that side of the ball. McCourty was at Wednesday's practice but watching from the sidelines as a retiree as the team experimented with a number of players at his old spot on the back end of the defense.
They have a lot of experience to work with, as the top trio of safeties Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers all worked through multiple safety roles, while Jalen Mills also found himself rotating in for some late reps. Mills picked up an interception during the session, with an impressive catch off a deflection.
This illustrated the team's depth in the secondary, as even without Gonzalez or Marcus Jones at practice, there were still plenty of battle-tested players to go around, led by Jonathan Jones, fresh off signing a new two-year contract, and Myles Bryant. Second-year corner Jack Jones also chipped in with his own interception of Trace McSorley during the session, one of five on the day for the defense as they've once again picked up where they leave off just about every season, getting turnovers.
Wednesday was just the very beginning but the early returns offer intrigue, even as the defense can still expect the arrival of some of their best players like Matthew Judon, Christian Barmore and Davon Godchaux for the coming mandatory minicamp.
For Bentley, getting back on the field was nice but late May is still a long way from real football.
"I mean, it's always fun coming out here, lacing up the cleats one more time, but as far as it scratching the itch and anything like that, nowhere near, nowhere near."
Check out photos from Patriots OTAs on Tuesday, May 23 and Wednesday, May 31, 2023.