The positive side of the 2013 NFL season and its 11 season-ending injuries are many young players who likely would normally have seen limited duty got a chance to play. The coaches now have a very clear picture of whom can play, and who are marginal, or have limited upside. The negative, as confirmed by post-season play against Denver, is the defense still has a way to go to gain elite status. The Pats are headed in the right direction and not far away at this point.
Despite a low draft position subsequent to a 2011 thirteen win season, and the 2012 twelve win season, the Patriots can look back at those drafts ('12 and '13) and see an overall effective result. Of the 14 draft picks from these two draft years, 12 were used on defense.
Significant young talent was added in the defensive backfield in the '12 and '13 drafts in cornerbacks Dennard, and Ryan, and safety Wilson. Ryan lead NFL in rookies in interceptions with 6 this year. How much strength was added may be debatable, however, after the championship game with Denver, where the cornerbacks played poorly after Aquib Talib was injured. However, these young players got the chance to play a lot this year and well enough to substantially contribute to a 12 win regular season in 2013. Their play contributed to the Patriots improving their pass defense from the bottom of the NFL to mid level this year.
The line backing core emerged as strength with Hightower, drafted in 2012, and Collins in 2013. Add in a healthy Mayo and Spikes, and this is a strong position going forward although Spikes is a force in the run stopping but a liability in pass defense.
The defensive line needs more help against the run and particularly, rushing the passer. Chandler Jones, a 2011 first round pick, is a mainstay defensive end. He led the team with 11.5 sacks and plays nearly every defensive snap. Chris Jones, a sixth round '13 draft pick signed and released by Houston, then Tampa Bay, and signed by the Pats in September, played well (six sacks) as a regular after Vince Wilfork was injured. With the healthy return of Wilfork and Tommy Kelly as starting defensive tackles, and Rob Ninkovitch (8 sacks in '12 and 91 tackles and 8 sacks in '13) at end, the starting line should be solid, but upgrades are necessary to climb among the NFL's elite.
Without Wilfork and Kelly, the Patriots were weak against the run, and the pass rush was inconsistent at best against good offensive lines. The hope is Armand Armstead, out all year with a non-football medical issue, will develop into an interior force. After not being drafted in 2012, he had an All-Star season with the Canadian Toronto Argonauts.
In my opinion, the Patriots are three defensive players away from elite status, even with resigning Talib and a successful return from injury of Wilfork. The addition of another pass rushing defensive end either as a starter or in regular rotation, a starting interior pass rusher, and a tall, shutdown corner. Free agency and the draft can solve these needs. The defensive depth, the bottom third of your roster as Bob Kraft recently put it, is in good shape and is better than emergency fill-ins. Most are ready for a turn in game day substitutions to give starters a rest. A look at offensive needs will follow next week.