Dont'a Hightower

Can the Patriots again have the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense?

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Can the Patriots again have the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense?

Covering the NFL for almost 20 years allows you to make relationships with a bunch of people. So I thought I'd tap into some of those people as we gear up for New England Patriots training camp for a series of pieces about topics we've been kicking around.

The panel consists of one former Pats player still in the game, two scouts of AFC teams, one front-office member in the AFC, and one NFC scout. They all requested anonymity for obvious reasons (as the player said, "Hey, I might want to end up back there!") I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I had talking to these guys.

OTHER TOPICS


Today's topic: Was that No. 1 scoring defense a year ago repeatable?
 
Scout 1: Why the hell wouldn’t it be? From a talent perspective, they’re better. {Stephon] Gilmore is an upgrade over Logan Ryan. [Trey] Flowers this year, with another year of experience, is better than Flowers from last year. I’m a big believer in their three safeties [Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon]. With a secondary like that, even if it takes them time to find a consistent pass rusher, they’ll still be effective. I like the addition of David Harris too. He’s not the player he once was but to me, that’s a major league upgrade over the mismatch of bodies they used alongside [Dont'a] Hightower once Jamie Collins got sent away.
 
Scout 2:
Look, you can’t dismiss the numbers from last year. You just can’t. But I never thought they were ALL that. You have the best offense in the league. You have teams consistently chasing points. And you have an intelligent coaching staff that says, "Okay, take all the underneath stuff you want. Eventually, you’ll have to try and make a scoring play and that’s where our playmakers take over." The fact that group showed discipline is a feather in their cap, but I think they’ll miss Logan Ryan more than most do, and I think wear and tear are showing on Chung and a couple of other guys that will test their depth. They’ll be Top 10, maybe even Top 5 -- and that’ll be more than good enough -- but I don’t see a repeat. 
 
Scout 3: I’m not a fan of the Gilmore signing. I think his effort was inconsistent in Buffalo and his performance was too. Do you think [Bill] Belichick and [Matt] Patricia will tolerate that? Maybe they have no choice because of the contract and the need to make it look right, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t some hiccups there. Then you wonder how that plays with the guy across from him [Malcolm Butler]. He deserves to get paid. It didn’t impact Logan Ryan. He kept showing up, no matter how he was deployed. They aren’t a great pass rushing team to begin with and that was with [Rob] Ninkovich. I think to expect some of those journeyman types - [Kyle] Van Noy, [Shea] McClellin - to aid the rush is probably wishful thinking. Oh sure, they’ll scheme up some pressures and whatnot, and that defense will still be in the upper half of the league but I don’t see similar numbers. I just don’t.
 
Front office executive: I just looked at their schedule. This isn’t last year just based on that and that alone. [Drew] Brees. [Cam] Newton. [Jameis] Winston. [Matt] Ryan. [Philip] Rivers. [David] Carr. Some of the best receivers in football: Michael Thomas, [DeAndre] Hopkins, Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, Julio Jones, [Demaryius] Thomas and [Emmanuel] Sanders in Denver, [Amari] Cooper in Oakland. That’s a pretty good reason to go out and make the Gilmore signing. I know they pride themselves on not allowing the big plays but with that group, eliminating them entirely will be difficult. And if you make that your mission, then there are catch and run plays to be had underneath. That will put pressure on what I would consider an underwhelming group at DE/OLB. Never mind if something happens to Hightower. I trust Bill and the defensive coaches to make the necessary adjustments and even go out and do something before the trade deadline to address a shortcoming.
 

Giardi: Patriots have some players besides Brady they can't afford to lose

Giardi: Patriots have some players besides Brady they can't afford to lose

Covering the NFL for almost 20 years allows you to make relationships with a bunch of people. So I thought I'd tap into some of those people for a series of topics we've been kicking around.

OTHER TOPICS

The panel consists of one former Pats player still in the game, two scouts of AFC teams, one front-office member in the AFC, and one NFC scout. They all requested anonymity for obvious reasons (as the player said, "Hey, I might want to end up back there!"). I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I had talking to these guys.

Today's topic: Which player (besides Tom Brady) can the Patriots least afford to lose?

Scout 1: Before I answer, I think they can win with [Jimmy] Garoppolo [at quarterback if Brady were injured]. But to your question, it’s Julian Edelman. He’s the little engine that could, the player that makes that offense go. He turns good slot corners into slappys. Slappies. I don’t think he runs quite as well after the catch as he did, say, in 2014, but it’s not this dramatic drop off. His football instincts are as good as [Brady's]. Even if he’s not reading it the same way as Brady, his feel for where a defender is, trying to leverage him, puts him where he’s suppose to be. He’s also a money player. Him, [Danny] Amendola, [James] White. You saw it in the Super Bowl. That catch was ridiculous. The catch and run in the Seattle Super Bowl (when he nearly got beheaded) was ridiculous. I’ll take him on my side any day.

Scout 2: I think this one is a slam dunk. It’s [Dont’a] Hightower. And I think Bill [Belichick] knows it too. That’s why you pay him what they did despite all the talk about injuries and the fact that Hightower always seems to be dealing with something. He’s kind of a freak, right? A massive ‘backer with the ability to move from the middle to the edge with ease. His power at the point of attack makes sense when you look at his size, but it’s the translation of that power into speed and quickness that seems to give the offense such a hard time. I’ve seen him split 650 pounds of offensive linemen in a double, but then accelerate and haul a back down from a bad angle. That’s something.

Scout 3: Can I pick [Nate] Solder again? Ok, ok. I’ll say Trey Flowers. He and Hightower are the only two that can get to the passer consistently in that front seven, and that’s not something they usually let Hightower do. Flowers was on our radar prior to that draft [in 2015]. We weren’t quite sure what to do with him. Leave it to Bill and [Matt] Patricia to figure it out. He was a bitch the couple of times I watched him late in the year. Found my eyes being drawn to him. Watch his hands. So quick. He’s a keeper.

Current NFL exec: The moose at tight end (Rob Gronkowski). You can’t duplicate what he brings to the field on Sundays. You just can’t. One of the better blocking tight ends in the game and an impossible cover. Edelman may be Brady’s favorite target, but Gronkowski is the better target. (In what sense?) His size. Put it somewhere in the ballpark and he’s going to win. You can’t say that about Edelman, even though he’ll win more 50/50 balls than 99 percent of the players his size. I don’t mean that as a slight on Julian, but it’s pretty cut and dried for me

Former Patriot/current player: Gronk. It’s gotta be Gronk. I know what just happened last year (Pats winning a Super Bowl with Gronkowski on IR), but [Martellus Bennett] is [bleeping] good, too. Now it’s Dwayne Allen as the backup? Yeah, I’m not a big Allen guy. They certainly can’t ask him to do what Gronk does if anything happens. They could do some of that with Marty. Besides, Gronk is one of the toughest covers in the league. Crazy catch radius. Physicality. Yeah, give me Gronk.

Perry: 'Significant void' in Patriots pass rush with Rob Ninkovich retiring

Perry: 'Significant void' in Patriots pass rush with Rob Ninkovich retiring

Phil Perry and Ben Volin talk on Sports Sunday about how the New England Patriots will replace Rob Ninkovich's production now that he has announced his retirement.