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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Tue Feb 27 - 02:00 PM | Thu Feb 29 - 11:55 AM

Season in Review: 25 Thoughts on 25 Players on the Patriots Defense 

As we look back one last time on the 2023 defense, here are positional grades and film-related thoughts on 25 players on the Patriots defense in 2023. 

Patriots defensive lineman Christian Barmore (90).
Patriots defensive lineman Christian Barmore (90).

With potential large-scale changes happening in New England, it's fair to wonder what head coach Bill Belichick's future could mean for the Patriots defense.

Despite major injuries to Pro Bowl pass-rusher Matthew Judon and first-rounder Christian Gonzalez, the Patriots defense finished ninth in total DVOA, ranking third against the run and 15th in pass DVOA. Last week, we wrote an extensive breakdown of their defensive scheme here. The skinny version is that New England's defensive system isn't broken or outdated, meaning there aren't as many big-picture concerns about how they do things from this perspective.

The Pats are evolving with the times schematically and personnel-wise, fielding lighter personnel with a league-high rate in dime packages and buying into the simulated/creeper pressure craze. New England also has several coaches on head coach/defensive coordinator tracks: linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, defensive play-caller Steve Belichick, D-Line coach DeMarcus Covington, and cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino.

As for the personnel, the Patriots are well-built on defense, with their ability to stay competitive through significant injuries as evidence of their depth. However, three areas could improve: outside corner (Gonzalez), edge rusher (Judon), and free safety, where they need a long-term Devin McCourty replacement.

New England's pass DVOA was middle of the pack this season, mainly because they needed exotic pressure schemes to generate a pass rush. Without Judon, they ranked 24th in pressure rate overall (33.8%) and were 30th in pressure generated from a four-man rush (27.7%). The Pats were able to scheme pressure, with the second-highest rate of unblocked pressures (11%), but their differential between blitz pressure rate and four-man pressure rate was the seventh-highest in the NFL (18.1%). In short, they only consistently got home when blitzing.

Hopefully, a fully healthy season from Matthew Judon coupled with a year-two leap from second-rounder Keion White, retaining Josh Uche and/or Mack Wilson, or drafting another pass-rusher will see the Patriots defense improve in this area. In the meantime, they'll need to rely on the coaching staff dialing up pressure, as discussed in the post referenced above.

Here are positional grades and thoughts from weekly film reviews on 25 players on the Patriots defense in the 2023 season:

Patriots defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. (91).
Patriots defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. (91).

Defensive Line - Finale Season Grade: A

Positional Grade: Just a terrific season with Barmore breaking out as a top-ten IDL in the NFL, Godchaux and Guy being rock-solid in their roles, underrated Deatrich Wise adding 36 QB pressures, and Keion White coming on late in the year. The Pats were third in rush DVOA, where this group makes its money, and Barmore's emergence was the most positive development in 2023. DeMarcus Covington wins assistant coach of the year. Great job.

Christian Barmore - contract status: signed through the 2024 season, extension eligible

It's only fitting to start with the Patriots best overall player this past season. Barmore blossomed into a two-way star who finished the year ranked eighth among interior defensive linemen in Pro Football Focus grade (83.8), leading the team in sacks (8.5), quarterback pressures (49), and was tied for seventh among IDLs with 43 run stops. Barmore's upper-body development to dent pockets, press blocks, and shed with violent hands saw his effectiveness against the run match his skill as a pass rusher, where his lateral quickness and get-off torments opposing guards/centers. The 2021 second-rounder is a prime extension candidate as a building block in this defense. Pay the man.

Davon Godchaux - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

Contrary to popular belief, the league is trending back toward nose tackles being a highly sought-after commodity as defenses get lighter at the second level. Whether it's a Belichick system or the Fangio defenses, odd front-nose tackles are in demand to keep those athletic linebackers and hybrid safeties clean to fly to the ball. The Pats have a good one in Godchaux, who anchored the third-best run defense in the NFL with 23 run stops while consistently holding his ground. Godchaux plays with great pad level and upper-body power to absorb double teams and control single blocks. He had a good year doing the dirty work.

Deatrich Wise - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

Wise is an underrated player in this defense who was a team captain and has developed strength at the point of attack. Wise's length, power, and versatility to rush from multiple alignments are standout traits. The Pats defensive end ranked third on the team with 36 QB pressures while registering 24 stops. He's not Richard Seymour. But you also shouldn't sleep on Wise, a highly respected player to offensive linemen around the NFL.

Lawrence Guy - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

Guy only brings it in the run game nowadays, so he was a rotational player at 45.8% of the defensive snaps. However, the 33-year-old still eats blocks with the best of them as a two-gapping defensive end. Offensive lines struggled to move Guy without doubling him due to his sound technique, block recognition, and playing strength. You aren't going to get away with singling him in the run game at the point of attack too often. He's a role player that some might view as antiquated because he only generated six QB pressures, but Guy is still good at what he does within this defensive scheme.

Keion White - contract status: signed through the 2026 season

White has intriguing skills as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. His length and mass allow him to post up at the point of attack on the edge, while White's lateral quickness shines out of a three-point stance. He finished his rookie season with 20 quarterback pressures and 19 stops while batting down two passes. White also flashed down the stretch with impact reps against Pittsburgh, Denver, and Buffalo. There are reasons to be hopeful that he'll make a year-two leap, with his biggest areas of needed improvement being block recognition, gap discipline, and a more refined pass-rush toolbox. White has the physical tools to be a force if he can anticipate blocks and become a more nuanced pass rusher. My only concern is finding a permanent home for him, as he loses juice off the line playing up on his feet. Is he sturdy enough to play with his hand in the dirt, or can he develop better snap reaction as an OLB? His technique will improve with more seasoning, but he's a tweener.

Sam Roberts - contract status: signed through the 2026 season

Roberts only played 101 snaps as depth for their 3-4 base ends. He has an aggressive motor and the necessary power to press blocks in a two-gapping system. Roberts will probably make a career out of being a backup DE/priority practice squad player as long as the Patriots are running this kind of defense, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Jeremiah Pharms - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

We only saw Pharms play 90 snaps this season after earning a spot on the 53-man roster during the year. However, there's a little something there as a rotational interior pass rusher. Pharms logged three pressures, showing off some explosive lateral quickness rushing over the center in the Pats pass-rush fronts. His arm over/swim and two-hand swipe move are effective ways for him to use his quickness. Pharms will be good camp competition for Daniel Ekuale in a situational pass-rusher role.

Patriots Anfernee Jennings (33).
Patriots Anfernee Jennings (33).

Edge Defender - Final Season Grade: C+

Positional Grade: This group was compromised by a devastating season-ending injury to Matthew Judon. Jennings ranking sixth among all defensive players with 38 run stops certainly was a bright spot. But, ultimately, it's a passing league. The Patriots were 24th in pressure rate this season, and lacking edge pressure was a big reason why. It's not fair to expect them to replace a Pro Bowler, but the Pats need more pass rush from this group in 2024.

Anfernee Jennings - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

Jennings's breakout was a huge reason the Patriots were so stout against the run this season, ranking tied for second among all on-the-line defenders in run stops (38). The 2020 third-rounder has the necessary power, length, and block recognition to be a forceful edge-setter against the run. He was as stout as anyone in the NFL at posting up on blocks to set the edge, quickly processed pullers and the objective of schemes that left him unblocked, and made the most of opportunities to get vertical to make plays in the backfield. However, his game is currently one-dimensional. Among 94 qualified edge rushers, Jennings ranked 84th in pass-rush win rate at 6.5%, giving way to Josh Uche and Mack Wilson on third downs. We'd still prioritize bringing back Jennings as an early-down edge setter, but the money has to make sense until he proves he can be a two-way player.

Josh Uche - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

Multiple factors contributed to Uche's significant regression this season: injuries, role/technique, and not having Matthew Judon on the other side. After an 11.5-sack, 56 quarterback pressure season in 2022, Uche only had three sacks and 37 QB pressures in 2023. He dealt with a foot injury during the season that limited him and changed his approach to be more disciplined on the edge. Uche was in his bag last season with a wide berth of pass-rush moves from speed rushes, ghost rush/long ar sequencing, speed-to-power, inside counters, and more. To win over the coaches with a more disciplined approach this season, Uche relied mainly on speed-to-power to keep the quarterback in the pocket by denting the edge. In the coach's eyes, he was improving in that aspect, but it hurt his pressure numbers, as did the attention he got on third down without Judon. I feel for Uche. He put the team first by changing his approach, which likely cost him big-time in free agency.

Matthew Judon - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

Judon was well on his way to another Pro Bowl-caliber season with four sacks and 16 quarterback pressures in four games. His injury was a massive blow to this team, which fed off his energy and needed his ability to convert pressures into sacks. The latter point is why the Patriots went from tied for third in sacks in 2022 (54) to only 36 sacks in 2023 (27th). The only question now for Judon, along with a timetable for his return to play coming off a torn biceps, is his contract. The Patriots gave him the Stephon Gilmore special by advancing his 2024 salary to 2023, so he's only due $7.5 million in cash for 2024. Judon is not playing for that next season, meaning the Pats will be back at the negotiation table with him this offseason. The current regime could trade Judon as they did with Gilmore in 2021. If it were me, I'd give Judon a two-year extension with a raise in 2024 while spreading the cap hit out through 2025. They missed his sack production and the domino effect to free up others in the pass rush.

Patriots linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley (8).
Patriots linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley (8).

Off-Ball Linebacker - Final Season Grade: B+

Positional grade: It was a solid year for the inside linebackers, but a lack of splash plays hurt the overall grade. Bentley continues to be one of the best run-stuffing middle linebackers in the NFL, Tavai had a great year in the hybrid role, and they began using Mack Wilson correctly late in the season. You just wish there were more games where they made game-changing plays.

Ja'Whaun Bentley - contract status: signed through the 2025 season

Bentley has his limitations playing in space, but his downhill game is highly productive. He is excellent at compressing space by taking on blocks with sheer force in the run game. Bentley reads blocking schemes well and is a fourth defensive lineman in how he plugs gaps, finishing third on the team with 39 stops. Bentley also had a good year as an interior blitzer with four sacks and 22 QB pressures. That part of his game has evolved to where he can blitz in-line a la Dont'a Hightower. His development as a blitzer/green-dog fiend has allowed the Patriots to keep him out of high-stress coverage situations. Bentley will never be the rangy sideline-to-sideline linebacker fans clamor for, but he's really good.

Jahlani Tavai - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

Tavai finished a career year as PFF's fourth-ranked linebacker with an 86.5 grade. He made 35 stops, logged 13 quarterback pressures, had two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. He has taken a step forward as a hybrid ILB/OLB that the Patriots covet, excelling as an edge defender against the run and being one of their better spot-drop zone players at the second level. Tavai is very good at clogging passing lanes with his length and reading quarterbacks' eyes in zone drops. His instincts have taken the next step, allowing him to compensate for a lack of range. Tavai still has an old-school thumper body type, but he's an instinctive zone defender who can handle coverage roles in the middle of the field.

Mack Wilson - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

The Patriots coaching staff admitted they misused Wilson as an off-ball linebacker in his first season-and-a-half in New England. Although it's a situational role, Wilson emerged as an explosive edge rusher who used bursts of speed to corner the edge with five sacks and 15 quarterback pressures. He's also an effective zone-dropper off the end of the line and a useful spy/chase-down player for quarterbacks who like to leave the pocket. Wilson doesn't have an every-down role because he doesn't take on blocks like they want off the ball. Still, you wonder if his pass-rush production late in the year would continue with increased snaps on third down. Wilson could be a cheaper alternative to re-signing Uche.

Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones (31).
Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones (31).

Cornerback - Final Season Grade: C

Positional Grade: This was the toughest grade to determine because of all the bodies they went through. Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant stepped up in a year where the Pats needed reliable corners, Christian Gonzalez showed shutdown potential, and Alex Austin was a nice late-season find. Relative to expectations, the grade is a little harsh here. But the coverage was average for most of the season, and J.C. Jackson was a huge liability.

Myles Bryant - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

Bryant is one of their most versatile backend players with the ability to play nickel/star, free safety, and outside corner. His flexibility allowed the Patriots to be extremely multiple in their nickel and dime packages because he could rotate through different locations as they spun the dial. He's one of their most instinctive zone defenders at the first two levels and finished the year with an 84.3 grade against the run. Bryant is a good football player, but his limitations in man coverage make him an easy target. In some ways, he's miscast in a defense that plays man coverage at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. In man, Bryant allowed a 74.4% completion rate into his coverage, ranking 88th among 100 qualified CBs. Bryant is shaky in man coverage, nobody is trying to convince you otherwise, but he's really solid in other areas that help this team.

Jonathan Jones - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

Jones followed up a year where he was thrust into a CB1 role with another great season where he was thrust into a CB1 role. The Patriots wanted to pair him as the Z shadow with Christian Gonzalez on the boundary to form an elite duo, but obviously, injury luck had different ideas. Still, Jones allowed just a 48.3% completion rate into his man coverage while playing through a knee injury for the entire second half (25th among 100 CBs). He allowed one touchdown into his coverage and continued to be as competitive as possible in the run game. Jones has found another level in this stage of his career – he's a great player.

J.C. Jackson - contract status: signed through the 2026 season

Since the Patriots acquired Jackson via trade, the bad news is that they inherited the remaining three years on his Chargers contract at a $14.375 million cap hit for the 2024 season. The good news is none of it is guaranteed, so they can cut him without any dead cap. You can bet the mortgage that Jackson won't play for the Patriots at his current 2024 cap hit. Along with mental health issues that landed him on the NFI list to end the season, Jackson struggled with his focus and attention to detail in his return to New England. He was still moving well enough to be a top-three CB in a defense. However, he wasn't tracking the ball well and seemed lost within the Patriots coverage calls. It's fair to say Jackson's mind wasn't in a good place, and his confidence was lost after the Chargers fiasco. He could refocus himself in the offseason, but I'd be looking elsewhere for cornerback depth.

Shaun Wade - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

Wade has improved from unplayable in his first two seasons to at least serviceable on the boundary in year three. They still can't find the opportunities to get him reps in the slot, which is how he made the team in camp last summer. His losses now come more at the catch point rather than getting absolutely burned in man coverage, so that's progress. However, Wade is still a CB5 in my book.

Christian Gonzalez - contract status: under team control through the 2027 season

What could've been for Gonzalez without a torn labrum ending an incredible start to his rookie season? Possibly, a Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign. Gonzalez fit the suit to a tee, going toe-to-toe with Philly's WR duo, Tyreek Hill and Garrett Wilson before his year ended in Dallas. The Pats first-rounder's easy speed, length, and smooth transitions were on par with the elite corners around the league, and he was so much sharper mentally than anticipated as a younger rookie. It's a shame we didn't see it for a full season. Now, Gonzalez will have to stave off the injury-prone labels and continue on this track for more than three-plus games.

Alex Austin - contract status: exclusive right free agent

Austin's ERFA status means he cannot negotiate with another team and has to sign with the Patriots if they tender him. In other words, there's a good chance he'll be back in New England. Once he was appropriately prepped for a featured role, Austin's length, speed to carry vertical routes, and ball skills stood out. He was also mostly competitive in run and screen support, making him an intriguing player to watch in camp next summer. Austin could be the third rotational boundary corner they've been looking for over the last few seasons.

Marcus Jones - contract status: signed through the 2025 season

Jones's year ended just 44 snaps into his second season due to a torn labrum in Week 2 against the Dolphins. The hope is that Jones will develop into a better man coverage slot CB than Bryant so that the Patriots can mix and match with those two, depending on matchups. Jones has the speed and quickness to be more competitive in man-to-man, while he'll continue as the team's primary punt returner and a gadget player on offense. The Pats missed his return ability.

Patriots safety Jabrill Peppers (5).
Patriots safety Jabrill Peppers (5).

Safety - Final Season Grade: B

Positional Grade: Jabrill Peppers was outstanding, and Kyle Dugger is incredibly versatile. The duo gives the coaches a lot of flexibility. However, as good as this group was against the run and when given the opportunity to blitz, they missed a pure free safety, and Dugger gave up too many plays in coverage—a good, not great season for the safeties.

Kyle Dugger - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

The curious case of Kyle Dugger: one of the NFL's most versatile defenders, a downhill thumper in a safeties body, and a plus-player against the run and as a blitzer, but the limitations in coverage are a legit concern with his free-agent valuation. Dugger makes as many plays as he gives up in coverage, with poor discipline/awareness in his zone drops and inconsistent route anticipation as a tight end stopper. Dugger's highlight reel is as impressive as any safety over the last two seasons. He has ball-hawking moments on film and eye-popping collisions coming downhill at the line of scrimmage. However, he's a limited coverage player in a passing league. What do you do with him in free agency? That's a tough decision. I lean toward retaining a player you drafted and developed into an above-average starter, but the money has to be right.

Jabrill Peppers - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

Peppers had a terrific season as the runner-up for team DPOY (second to Barmore). The former first-round pick is an ideal box safety in today's NFL, finishing fifth among safeties in PFF grade (87.3), tied for sixth among all DBs in run stops (17), and logging two interceptions, five pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. Peppers is a throwback hitter who plays the game with a tone-setting presence and infectious energy. He plays the run better than any Pats safety I've studied on film in my time covering the team, with excellent play recognition, power to blow up blockers, and punishing hits on the ball. He's a heck of a football player, and when free to roam in coverage, Peppers is also more than adequate in that phase. Glad he's under contract.

Jalen Mills - contract status: unrestricted free agent in 2024

The Patriots might've promised Mills that they'd keep him at safety because they didn't even move him back to outside corner when they were desperate for bodies there. Mills is a good downhill defender playing in the box and had some moments against while guarding tight ends, mainly vs. Travis Kelce. But his ability to stick to dynamic route-runners and make open field tackles gives pause about him as a tight end stopper. Plus, the Pats already have a logjam in the box safety/hybrid role. I wouldn't be surprised to see the current regime bring Mills, a guy they trust, back on a cheap deal. But his playing time probably won't increase much after playing 40.3% of the defensive snaps in 2023.

Marte Mapu - contract status: signed through the 2026 season

A highlight to an otherwise forgettable second half of the season was Mapu's interception against the Chiefs, where he played in a short zone from a typical linebacker alignment. Despite my wishes, Mapu is viewed internally as a hybrid safety who can wear different hats. He'll cover tight ends, play middle-of-the-field zones, and get some opportunities in passing packages to play at the second level. I wish they'd put him next to Bentley as a pure weakside linebacker, but this will have to do. Mapu's reps covering tight ends were competitive, so maybe he's Dugger's successor or a better/younger version of Mills.

Adrian Phillips - contract status: signed through the 2024 season

The Patriots significantly pulled back on Phillips's defensive snaps this season to feature Peppers, Mills, and Mapu more, which was understandable. Phillips had the team's highest missed tackle rate (27.8%) and doesn't have the skills to cover in man. His play started to dip defensively toward the end of the 2022 season, and now he was moved to a core special teamer (70.1%), playing only 12.1% of the defensive snaps. Phillips was a pro about it.

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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