Here is the first of two installments projecting the starting defense for the 2008 New England Patriots. We will project the current starters prior to the draft, and detail which positions need attention in April's draft. Base defense is up first and then we will look at third down defense, including the nickel, dime, and "Cali" packages.
The strongest part of the Patriots defense starts at the point of attack. Barring injury, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, and Richard Seymour will man the trenches for New England. None of the Patriots defensive linemen put up incredible numbers, but they allow the linebackers to fly around the field untouched by pesky guards and tackles. Vince Wilfork has really blossomed into a force and the Seymour/Warren combination is well above average. Unless we end up getting Sedrick Ellis or Glenn Dorsey in the mid-teens, don't expect us to address the defensive line depth until late in the draft, as Jarvis Green, Mike Wright, and Le Kevin Smith have proven to be excellent role-players.
The much-maligned portion of the defense, our linebackers are getting up in age. Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Adalius Thomas are all over 30, but each is still productive. We are projecting that Bruschi will start inside with the newly-acquired Victor Hobson. Hobson played outside for the Jets, but will fit better inside in the Patriots 3-4 and is good in short-zone coverage. This allows Vrabel and Thomas to display their rushing abilities off the edge. Pierre Woods, T.J. Slaughter, and Eric Alexander bring some depth to the linebacking corps, but none are ready to start. Expect the LB position to be addressed often during the draft, although perhaps not as high as many think. Good value seems to be available at this position in the 2nd-4th rounds.
With the loss of Randall Gay and Asante Samuel, the Patriots are searching for bodies. Prior to the draft, we expect the adequate but not spectacular Ellis Hobbs and Fernando Bryant to start at corner, with a chance of Brandon Meriweather switching in from safety. Rodney Harrison will once again be delivering punishment from the strong safety position, and expect James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather to battle for the free safety spot. If Meriweather moves to corner, expect Sanders to easily beat out the rest of the competition. Lewis Sanders, Jason Webster and Tank Williams bring experience, but they are not enough from preventing the Patriots from spending at least one first-day pick on a d-back, and more likely two picks in the first three rounds.