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Unfiltered Mailbag: How will the new-look Patriots defense come together?

With Training Camp fast approaching, Patriots fans are focusing their questions on all the details of the team's potential new-look defense this season.

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Another Mailbag week and more questions by worried fans about the Defense, in particular the D-Line and Linebackers stopping the run. Truth is that the Pats, in losing Hightower this year, lose their defensive quarterback, which, by my math, makes that our two QB's leaving us over the past three seasons. The brass saw it coming and have responded with free agents and draft picks and have done a better than average job in doing so. Still, it goes without saying, that losing Brady and Hightower causes problems. Hightower was a freak, really. Both fast and strong, he not only ran the D, but, like a true Hall of Famer, made his biggest plays at Big-Papi-like moments. I will never forget how he single-handedly stopped Beast Mode at the three, or his sack of Matt Ryan. At improbable moments against impossible odds the greatest make historic plays. I think it best that Pat fans remember that Hightower rose through the ranks to greatness. Be patient, all. My question is this: who among the core of linebackers most reminds you of Hightower when he was a young Patriot learning his craft? -Peter Primiano

Certainly, Hightower will be missed for a variety of reasons, though I do think it's a bit weird we haven't heard anything from him this offseason, no mention of retirement nor any free agent visits, not to mention anything about him potentially coming back to New England. Simply put, there's no one like Dont'a Hightower on the roster, with his physicality, smarts and experience. If I had to pick someone it would probably be Anfernee Jennings just because he's the only member of the linebacker group that seems to have the size and potential to play a variable role like Hightower did, playing inside, off-the-ball on early downs, then shifting to the edge or becoming a pass rusher when needed. Hightower could do it all at a high level. Jennings flashed some of that potential in 2020 but a lost 2021 season leaves some obvious question marks with him as well. -Mike Dussault

With Josh in Vegas and No announced replacement. Who sits with Mac while the D is on the field? I believe it will be Joe Judge with Matt P working with the o-line and BB overseeing everyone in all three phases. -Rick Ball

We should get some clarity on this as the summer and preseason progress, earlier in the spring I felt pretty sure that it would be Joe Judge attached to Mac's hip during the games like McDaniels was, with Patricia perhaps up top in the booth relaying plays, but also providing a bird's eye view on everything that's going on, whether he has to consult with BB, make observations about the OL or formulate the offensive counter punches. OTAs muddied that a bit and at least opened the door as I see it for Patricia to be on the sidelines making the playcalls, perhaps in direct conjunction with Judge. As always, Belichick should continue to do what he's always done, oversee it all and help out where and when he's needed with any of the position groups on the roster. Boil it down and I think the size and scope of Patricia's role is the biggest question. -Mike Dussault

After reading your article reporting how Matt Judon is more than prepared and wanted to happily take up the duties of both team leader and teacher it really calmed my nerves about who we had on the roster that could take on such a sizeable task willingly. What's your view on this subject and based on what you have heard from players and coaches in New England and Baltimore about what we can expect from last season's team defensive MVP Matt Judon in the team leadership slash teacher departments? -Marc Saez

This young position group really needs to lean on Judon and Ja'Whaun Bentley for their leadership and experience at edge and off-the-ball linebacker respectively. Obviously, the last two years should've provided some of that already, with young players like Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Ronnie Perkins learning behind the scenes from such veterans as Hightower, Collins and Van Noy. But now, with those players gone, it's time to step up for everyone, from the young vets to the newbies, more will be required of everyone with what will largely be a new-look second level of the defense. -Mike Dussault

The second-best pass defender on any team is your edge rusher who can pressure the quarterback. Teams figured out how to stop Judon late last season. Is there anyone else that can step up and provide that pressure if a similar situation happens with Judon this year? -Kent Drake

It's really what I see as one of the key questions facing the 2022 Patriots this season and I'm surprised "pass rush" isn't one of the bigger storylines this offseason that people are concerned about. Usually it's close to the top. I feel good about a bounce-back from Judon in 2022 that more closely resembles his early 2021, and it will certainly help to have Christian Barmore drawing pass rush attention from the interior, but finding third and fourth pieces that can take the focus off Judon and Barmore will be a key thing to watch for during August. With teams making sure to block those two players, there should be plenty of one-on-one opportunities elsewhere and the Pariots defense must exploit those matchups. While we can also talk about the run defense and how well the big uglies can hold up along the line, I still think today's game is won or lost in the passing game and if the Patriots front can't effectively disrupt the variety of quarterbacks they're due to face, it won't really matter how good they are at stopping the run. ­-Mike Dussault

I don't see enough credit going to Bill as far as some of the defensive pieces. Perkins came out of college highly touted as did Uche, yes they haven't produced it on the field yet but I agree it's time to see what they have, same with McMillan. Why do you have trepidation about these guys? -James Blanchard

I don't know if trepidation is the right word, there's always some excitement when you think young, high-round picks are going to get a shot to show what they can do, but there is the fear of the unknown, because if one or two players don't emerge this season as key playmakers it could be really bad for the defense. That also extends beyond the linebackers and into the secondary. Overall, it's a new mix in the middle and on the wings of the defense, while the front and back ends are manned by vets. I'm excited to see how it all plays out in a couple weeks and how the coaching staff puts it all together. But no question, there's some significant uncertainty. -Mike Dussault

I am especially interested in our cornerbacks, and the veterans Jalen Mills and Malcolm Butler. Will Jalen Mills be the second corner as he was last year, and will he take a leap, or continue to be an average and serviceable second stringer? -Patrick Jones

I think Mills is a more solid piece than some give him credit for, but as mentioned above, cornerback is another very interesting position to watch in August. Terrance Mitchell is probably underrated in many eyes as well, he's been playing some really good football the last couple seasons and makes a lot of plays on the ball. Does Butler still have it after a year off? It's a huge question, but between that veteran trio I think there's at least a solid baseline to start with. Now, the question becomes can the rookie Joneses push for playing time? What does Shaun Wade have as he enters his second year? The fluidity of the defense makes things a bit tough to read, but the two starting outside cornerback spots should be a fairly wide open competition, with Mills having the inside track at one spot. -Mike Dussault

Bill has always been willing to go after high level talent, but almost always with the caveat that it's on relatively team friendly terms. Some examples, trading a 4th for Moss while forcing him to restructure his deal, trading a 1st for Cooks while still on his rookie deal, trading a 2nd for Corey Dillon on the back end of his contract. Even the Revis deal was the most team friendly deal Revis has ever agreed to play for. I have no doubt Bill still goes talent hunting on the right terms. But my fear is that the market for "tier 1" players has exploded and become too competitive to the point where team friendly deals are just not available in the same way. Bill might never pull the trigger if he feels the price is too high, especially for pass catchers, and we end up grinding out Mac's rookie contract with decent, high-floor but low-ceiling players like and squander Mac's rookie deal SB window. Do you think Bill will eventually target a top tier player? Or do you think we are doomed spending at the top of the mid tier market for guys like Agholar and Jonnu Smith? -Zach Lodge

I think a lot of it is also on Mac, because many of those team-friendly deals were possible because players knew less money would still mean more exposure and the chance to play for a championship. Belichick's mojo alone is definitely worth something, plenty of free agents over the last two seasons have mentioned the chance to play for the greatest coach of all time as a selling point even without Tom Brady in town, but a quality quarterback could put them over the top. If Mac makes strides this season, gets the Pats back into the playoffs despite plenty of doubters out there, I think free agent weapons will be even more attracted to the Patriots, and with some turnover likely at the receiver spot next offseason and some significant money to spend, the Pats could be in the mix for one of those top-tier weapons next season to take things to the next level. -Mike Dussault

Who do you think is a lock for the 53-man roster out of all of the rookies the Patriots have drafted and signed? I could see Thornton Strange and the Jones duo as locks but what about everyone else? -Alex Sims

It's hard not to see the first six picks, all made in the first four rounds, making the 53-man roster. This includes Strange, Thornton, both Joneses, Pierre Strong and Bailey Zappe. You can pretty easily find those roster spots from players who departed, like Karras and Mason, Gunner, J.C. Jackson and Jarrett Stidham. However, I also think Kevin Harris and the late-round offensive linemen, if they can get on the field, have significant potential as well. I am not sure Strong or Zappe would make it through to the practice squad, and I'd expect both to get a lot of reps in the preseason. Hence, if they play well, they'll only raise the potential of another team swooping in and grabbing them. -Mike Dussault

For me the defense will be what makes or breaks this team this season. While CB is probably the most obvious concern, I am curious about the D-Line. Hopefully, in training camp someone will step up at DT. If Pats could make a trade or sign someone to address DE or DT, which position needs to be addressed most and are there any players being talked about on the trade market that would be a potential fit? -Caleb Kittell

Trey Flowers gets plenty of attention and honestly I still think there's a spot for Dont'a Hightower even if it's more of an evolving role on the edge. Inside, the Pats have to be hoping that Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux are capable of carrying the load, especially against the run. Of course, Deatrich Wise will also be in the mix in that regard, as could Carl Davis as well. But after how the entire defense finished down the stretch last year, it's hard not have some concerns that what is largely the same group up front can right the ship and get back to a dominating level. Certainly, there's intrigue and potential with Barmore that helps. I was surprised only Sam Roberts was taken at the position and it came late on Day 3. Enabling the new linebackers to make plays will be a big key for the front. If this d-line can't keep them clean, it will be hard for the new faces at linebacker and cornerback to succeed. -Mike Dussault

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