NFL 2012: Experience Is Overrated for the New England Patriots' Defense

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NFL 2012: Experience Is Overrated for the New England Patriots' Defense
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Chandler Jones (left) was impressive in the preseason games and will play a huge role for the defense.

Eleven years. Thank you for your services.

Seven years. Happy trails.

Eleven years. Nice working with ya.

Take a good look at the 2012 New England Patriots and what do you see? A lot less gray and even less chest hair. Now that the final roster is set, how young New England became is very surprising.

As young as the offense is, it’s the defense’s youth that’s really eye-opening. NT Vince Wilfork is the senior starter entering his ninth season. Next in line are LB Rob Ninkovich and S Steve Gregory entering their seventh seasons.

Methuselah would have been DB Will Allen, but he is on injured reserve.

The defense’s average age is down to 25 years old, as veterans are replaced by players with no experience or just a few years in the league.

Out goes DE Andre Carter, in comes Chandler Jones.

Out goes DE Mark Anderson, in comes Trevor Scott.

Out goes DT Gerard Warren, in come Justin Francis and Marcus Forston.

The offense is going through a few youthful changes as well as LT Nate Solder (second year) replaces Matt Light (11 years) and WR Julian Edelman (fourth) likely will get snaps intended for Deion Branch (11). But with QB Tom Brady the unquestioned leader of the offense, the inexperienced clearly have someone to follow.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Tavon Wilson's quick development helped make some veteran safeties expendable.
Defensive captains Wilfork and LB Jerod Mayo are capable and respected leaders, but the defense won’t lack leadership. LBs Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower were captains for Florida and Alabama, respectively. S Patrick Chung was a four-year starter at Oregon and earned his teammates’ respect.

And just because a player isn’t voted a team captain doesn’t mean he can’t be a leader on the team. In that regard, there won’t be a shortage of confident players willing to step up and take the lead.

The defense doesn’t want to hear about lack of experience. It’s not like having more experience helped the defense recently. In 2010 the defense ranked 25th overall and dead last in third-down percentage at 47 percent, according to NFL.com. In 2011 the defense dropped to 31st overall and 43 percent on third downs, fifth-worst in the league. It won’t take much to improve either category.

These players will make their share of mistakes. But they also have speed, athleticism and energy that the veterans they replaced lacked. There will be times the youngsters will make plays off raw ability that a veteran player might be unable to pull off.

This defense will depend on the contributions of DE Jermaine Cunningham, CB Marquice Cole and DTs Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace. Rookies like safeties Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner, CB Alfonso Dennard, DLs Francis and Forston have to be ready when their number is called.

One thing for sure: Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will have the defense prepared. The unit will take its lumps early, but learn from their mistakes and improve as the season progresses.

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Thanks to the easiest schedule in the league that begins at Tennessee and Arizona, the defense gets to sharpen its game against two non-playoff teams from last year before facing the daunting Baltimore Ravens.

If the D peaks by December, it will be in time for the stretch run that includes back-to-back prime-time games against Houston and San Francisco, quickly followed by the playoffs.

Experience will come during the course of the season. It won’t compare to the knowledge accumulated by some players no longer with the team, but lack of experience shouldn’t keep the defense from becoming great.

 

Questions? Comments? Send to randolphc82@comcast.net.

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