The Patriots defense will have a different look this season with Darrelle Revis manning the left cornerback spot. His coverage ability has transformed units in the past, particularly in New York, and he's expected to solidify the pass defense and perhaps even open up possibilities for the front seven to become more aggressive getting after the passer.
But if the defense is going to improve significantly from a year ago it's going to need significant contributions from more than just Revis. The question is, which other defender will be most important to the group's success?
Young linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower will assume more responsibility, especially Collins, and will need to showcase their athleticism. The pass rush will need to be more consistent and Chandler Jones is the most talented of the bunch so he's a candidate. Safety Devin McCourty should get some chances to make plays with Revis locking down one side of the field, as will whoever starts at corner on the right side.
There are lots of candidates to choose from as virtually any defensive starter would qualify. But the boys at PFW don't have the luxury of picking more than one so we'll take a stab at it.
Other than Darrelle Revis, which player's performance is most critical to the defense in 2014?
PFW's Andy Hart says ...
A year ago Collins was a competitive rookie and surprise breakout force in the playoffs against Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener and the Colts. Now, the second-year second-round pick is not only penciled in as a starter but he's going to be expected to be a versatile, athletic, three-down force on the defense.
That's even more important given that there isn't a lot of depth on the outside linebacker depth chart and there are really no players who could replicate Collins' potential skills. Collins needs to stay healthy, prove he can be a year-long starter and be a playmaker in the front seven. This from a guy who had 11 games with two or fewer tackles as a rookie.
The hope is that all players make a big Year 2 jump, but for Collins and the Patriots defense it is an expected necessity. There's little margin for error if the new-look New England defense is going to live up to the offseason hype. A good chunk of that hype falls on Collins' shoulders and is based mainly on a single-game performance against Indy. Collins has a lot to prove.
PFW's Paul Perillo says ...
In his second year with New England Chandler Jones notched 11 1/2 sacks. We take a look back at Jones' sacks during the 2013 season.
The Patriots were able to generate a good among of sacks last season and Jones led the team with 11.5 of them. The problem was, the pass rush was often inconsistent and it completely disappeared when it was needed most in the AFC Championship Game loss in Denver.
With Revis solidifying the back end Jones needs to develop into a dominant force up front. He will get his share of opportunities to rush the passer and he needs to become a more consistent presence in opposing quarterback's faces this season.
Jones is already a solid player but if the defense is to progress into one of the better units in the league it will need the defensive end to make similar progress and turn into one of the best pass rushers in football. He has the athleticism and drive to do it, and with Revis around he should get more time to find his way to the quarterback. If he doesn't do it more consistently the defense may not make the jump most expect.
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