No defense experienced a steeper drop-off in play from 2019 to 2020 than the New England Patriots. As Mike Sando detailed for The Athletic, the departure of Tom Brady and the subsequent cratering of the offense hurt them, as did the COVID-19 opt-outs of Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung. But plain and simple: Stephon Gilmore didn’t play like a DPOY, the defensive line took a step back across the board, and they had simply no linebacker depth to withstand the Hightower loss.
The Patriots aren’t often big spenders in free agency, so I looked for scheme fits, rotational options, and quality run defenders to fit the New England approach. They may not be sexy names (well, fine, the last one is), but they’ll more than do the job.
Shelby Harris, DT, Denver Broncos
The interior defensive line is a critical spot on the Patriots defense. Like most smart defensive minds, Belichick uses his down linemen to seal gaps in the running game and find extra numbers in the passing game—so he needs effective two-gappers who can still compromise the pocket on pass rushes.
However, the Patriots tend to spend light on the interior. They’ve been below average in defensive tackle spending in each of the last five seasons, and in the bottom five in two of those years. Coming into 2021, they’re projected to be in the basement again—but that’s without contracts for Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler, their two primary snap-getters on the interior last season.
Both Butler and Guy could command decent money on the open market—especially Butler, who had a particularly nice season in 2020. If the Patriots don’t want to spend big money on both, then Shelby Harris is a wicked good fit. I thought Harris would be in line for a significant payday when he hit free agency last year, but his market was weirdly quiet, and he went back to dominating for the Vic Fangio defense on a one-year, $3.1M deal.
He didn’t have the same sack numbers, but his pressure totals jumped even on a COVID-19 shortened season. His 16 passes defensed over the last two seasons are the most by any defensive lineman, as he has a particular talent for filling passing lanes that Belichick is sure to appreciate. If he is considered the same value as he was last year, this is a classic Patriots steal.
Reggie Ragland, LB, Detorit Lions
The Patriots like supersized linebackers. They start Hightower, who hits like a ton of bricks at 260 pounds from a stack linebacker alignment—but he opted out of the 2020 season, and it exposed how weak they were at the position. They drafted Anfernee Jennings in the third round out of Alabama to eventually fill that role, but Jennings was an EDGE at Alabama and struggled to immediately bounce to a new position in the league. Understandably so.
When you look through the upcoming linebacker free agent group, Ragland stands out as a Patriots target. He started for the Lions this last season for a Matt Patricia defense that cosplayed as the Patriots approach, and while he remains a liability in coverage, between the tackles, he’s still a hammer. That’s what New England is looking for.
Will Ragland get out of Detroit? I think so. They want to turn over the roster from the Patricia era, and new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn came from a New Orleans defense that utilized lighter linebackers with success. He won’t be desirable for a lot of teams because he’s really a two-down player, but for the Patriots, that’s just fine.
Jadeveon Clowney, EDGE, Tennessee Titans
Hear me out on this one.
The Patriots have a nice EDGE rusher in Chase Winovich. He was great as a rotational player in his rookie season and kept the efficacy up in Year 2 with an increased snap count. But Winovich remains a stand-up rusher who wins on the outside track. He can struggle to hold up against the run, which is atypical of Belichick EDGEs.
So Winovich and 2019 second-round pick Josh Uche fill the “rush LB” role. How about the hand-in-the-dirt, run-stopping defensive end? John Simon, Deatrich Wise, and Shilique Calhoun—1,523 snaps between the three of them—are all approaching free agency this season. The Patriots are likely to bring at least one (Wise) of the three back, and maybe two—but they need to add to the rotation.
Or, they can add a starter. The league has wisened up on Jadeveon Clowney as a unique player who doesn’t really generate much of a consistent pass rush, but he remains one of the best run defending EDGEs in the game. It isn’t a perfect fit—he’s better penetrating and slanting than truly two-gapping—but he’s an impact run defender off the edge who would benefit from playing in a Belichick defense that’s good at maximizing playmakers.