One could argue that the Patriots are between the phases of retooling and overhauling the defensive unit. Being the business that the NFL is, all teams lose players from both sides of the ball every year.
The Patriots defense needs Part II of the house cleaning and infusion of youth that started in 2008. As well as quarterback Matt Cassel played down the stretch, the defense would’ve been the Achilles heel had they made it to the playoffs.
In signing cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs—who might also see time at safety—they have some experience and depth beyond Ellis Hobbs and second-year players Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley. Based on the pure talent and success of the new imports, Hobbs could go from tops on the depth chart to nickel corner.
Safeties James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather are both back and the latter finally played up to his first-round draft status. There has been no official word on whether or not Rodney Harrison is coming back, but after missing significant time to injury over the past few years—as well as coming up dirty in an HGH probe—it looks like Harrison might be given spot duty at best should he return.
The secondary has been retooled nicely and safety could be a target on the first day of the draft.
A surprising move in the retooling of the defense was the trade of outside linebacker Mike Vrabel. He could play both inside and outside linebacker in the 3-4 base defense and while it appears that he lost a step, it also seems that he has more in the tank than Tedy Bruschi.
If the motive in trading Vrabel was to create cap space to enable the signing of other players, then the move seems a bit more logical. But on a Belichick defense, can you ever have enough good linebackers?
Given the complexity of the Patriots defense as it relates to linebackers—and Bill Belichick’s love of smart, versatile, physical linebackers—coupled with Vrabel’s fondness for playing in New England, you have to wonder if Vrabel would’ve been amenable to restructuring his deal to keep both sides happy.
His replacement looks like it will come from a very green group featuring Tully Banta-Cain, Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable, and Vince Redd. Woods has shown some ability and Banta-Cain was a Patriots prospect that spent his past two lackluster seasons in San Francisco.
The Patriots could make an aggressive draft day move to grab stud linebacking prospect Aaron Curry given their plethora of draft picks, but they might be turned off by paying an untested rookie over $30 million in guaranteed money.
One thing is clear: the linebacker group needs an overhaul, and not so much from a personnel perspective but from a scheming standpoint. An overhaul to the defensive line would go hand-in-hand since the switch needs to be from a 3-4 base to a 4-3 alignment.
Many teams are switching to the 3-4 base defense, as we've come to expect since the NFL is a copycat league.
This creates a larger market for the same, rare types of players: huge interior defensive tackles, 300-pound defensive ends that would normally line up as interior tackles in a 4-3 base defense, and big versatile outside linebackers that would line up as defensive ends in a 4-3.
The monumental challenge is finding these outside linebackers. The requirements are steep: a guy who is in the 6’4”, 255-pound range who can rush the passer, drop into coverage, and hold the edge on running plays.
With few college teams playing a 3-4 base defense, the challenge for pro squads is to convert 4-3 college defensive ends into 3-4 professional outside linebackers while saddling them with a ton of responsibility. That’s why the Patriots inclusion of Vrabel in the Matt Cassel-to-Kansas City trade seems all the more puzzling.
Given the challenges in finding pro-style 3-4 outside linebackers and the increasing trend towards this defensive front, it’s time for the Patriots to shift to a 4-3 base defense.
They have all of the pieces in place already: Adalius Thomas is the prototype strongside outside linebacker and second year linebacking phenom Jerod Mayo remains the middle linebacker.
The weakside backer position is up for grabs and can be filled by Tedy Bruschi, Gary Guyton, one of the in-house candidates for Vrabel's position, or a 2009 draftee. Guyton showed flashes in his rookie season last year and has a Cato June’like make-up, displaying the necessary speed to excel in the weakside linebacker role.
Here is where more of the overhaul comes in: the Patriots should trade defensive end Richard Seymour. With his high price tag and the Patriots' depth along the defensive line, they should seek a trade for him before April's draft.
With the growing trend towards adopting the 3-4 defense, there should be several takers. If Julius Peppers warrants a first round pick in a trade (rumored), the Patriots should be able to get a second or third for Seymour.
The beauty is that they still have Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren to man the interior tackle spots, while Jarvis Green and recently-resigned Mike Wright are viable options at defensive end.
When Bill Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000, he transformed the defense to a 3-4. At that time, only the Steelers and one or two other teams were using the 3-4 as their base defense.
Now it seems that half the teams in the league are embracing this style of defense. What we’ve learned from Bill is that he is able to adapt based on present challenges.
The challenge in this case is the lack of pro-ready players to plug into the 3-4 defense. Changing tactics will allow the Patriots to take advantage of their current personnel—especially at linebacker—and will also invite some fresh scheming ideas.
The offense should be good to go with Tom Brady returning from injury. What this team can't afford is another defensive breakdown like they suffered last season. As long as Bill is running the show, he'll do whatever it takes to prevent that and overhauling the defense—not just retooling—is the way to go.