New England Patriots

ESPN came out with a series of articles, each of them ranking the top 10 players at each position, excluding special teams. Of the entire New England Patriots team, Hunter Henry was the only player on any of these lists, ranked as the 10th-best tight end.

The people ranking the players is anonymous executives, coaches, scouts and players from around the NFL, showing how the rest of the league views the Patriots roster. Henry had solid success last season. He caught 50 passes for 603 yards and a team-leading nine touchdowns in a middling offense.

What makes Henry being the one player ranked in the top 10 in his position more alarming is the fact that no team has less cap space than New England, who’s also the fourth-oldest team in the league.

This doesn’t mean the Patriots have nothing going for them. Quarterback Mac Jones showed promise as a rookie, as did defensive tackle Christian Barmore and others scattered amongst the roster, like linebacker Matthew Judon, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, and safety Kyle Dugger. Bill Belichick can’t ever be ruled out, but there currently isn’t much pedigree currently on an older, expensive roster.

PHOTOS: Patriots hit the practice fields for 2022 minicamp in Foxboro

3 big questions for the Patriots’ defense during 2022 training camp

  • Nov 14, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23) and linebacker Josh Uche (55) react after making stop against the Cleveland Browns during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 14, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23) and linebacker Josh Uche (55) react after making stop against the Cleveland Browns during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Last week, we took a look three key questions facing the Patriots’ offense heading into training camp. This week it’s time to take a look at the defense.

    After significant player movement the last two seasons, the defensive side of the ball has a number of big picture questions that will be on the table in camp this year. We’ll get into the specific position battles at spots like linebacker and cornerback next week, so let’s start with the overarching questions facing the defense.

  • What’s all this about ‘Positionless’ defense?

    Oct 3, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty (32) celebrates with defensive back Jonathan Jones (31) and cornerback Myles Bryant (41) after breaking up a pass in the end zone during the second half of a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Oct 3, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty (32) celebrates with defensive back Jonathan Jones (31) and cornerback Myles Bryant (41) after breaking up a pass in the end zone during the second half of a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    “‘Positionless’ football is the future.” 

    That’s the tweet from Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones has garnered a lot of attention this offseason. Given some personnel moves the Patriots have made on defense in recent years, especially bringing in highly-versatile players in the back seven, new less-structured alignments seem to be a logical step?

    This concept is mainly focused on the safety position. Between Kyle DuggerAdrian Phillips, and now Jabrill Peppers, the Patriots have a handful of players who can play both traditional safety roles as well as take on hybrid linebacker assignments. They also have a couple of linebackers in Cameron McGrone and Mack Wilson who project to be able to handle expanded coverage responsibilities compared to those usually asked of linebackers in the Patriots system.

    With all of those moving parts, the Patriots in theory have the ability to heavily disguise their defensive intentions with personnel. Is ‘nickel’ still ‘nickel’ if one of the extra defensive backs is essentially a linebacker? Will an extra linebacker dropping into coverage make base personnel more favorable against the pass? Those sort of personnel questions will be on the table throughout the summer, especially once joint practices begin.


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  • Which still-sort-of-recent additions will make an impact?

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 12: Josh Uche #55 of the New England Patriots reacts against the Miami Dolphins during the second half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 12: Josh Uche #55 of the New England Patriots reacts against the Miami Dolphins during the second half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    The roster turnover on the defense should open up opportunities for some of the younger players the Patriots have drafted on that side of the ball that have been buried in recent years. Now that they’re not blocked on the depth chart, can these players start to hit their potential with regular playing time?

    Nowhere is this question more prevalent than at linebacker. With Kyle Van Noy (75 percent usage rate in 2021) now in Los Angeles and Jamie Collins (31 percent) still a free agent, the Patriots are looking for at least one new starting outside linebacker. Josh UcheRonnie Perkins, and Anfernee Jennings are all candidates for that after playing rotational roles or having full ‘redshirt’ years to begin their time in New England.

    This applies in the secondary as well. Three seasons into his time with the Patriots, Joejuan Williams hasn’t seen much usage on defense beyond being an occasional tight end stopper in 2020. While some might be ready to write him off as he enters a contract year, the boundary cornerback spot is wide open. If he has a strong camp, he could put himself in position for at least a rotational role.

    To expand on the idea of ‘not-so-recent additions,’ the same concept could apply to recent free agent signings as well as draft picks. In that case, Henry Anderson is a player to watch. Anderson didn’t build much momentum during camp last year – his first season in Foxborough after spending three in Indy and three with the Jets – then played in just four games before suffering a season-ending pectoral injury. Originally signed to help sure up the run defense, the 30-year-old could still have a contributing role up front if he comes back healthy.

  • Emerging leaders?

    Nov 14, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots middle linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley (8) tackles Cleveland Browns quarterback Case Keenum (5) during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 14, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots middle linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley (8) tackles Cleveland Browns quarterback Case Keenum (5) during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    So this topic is similar to the last one, but with the off-field and locker room element of the game instead of production. Some of the most prominent voices on the Patriots’ defense, such as Dont’a Hightower, Stephon Gilmore, Van Noy, and Collins moved on in the last year while others such as Devin McCourty and Lawrence Guy could be categorized as ‘year-to-year’ at this point. Which younger players could step up and fill the leadership void?

    Ja’Whaun Bentley is a name that instantly jumps out in this regard. During the 2020 season when Hightower opted out, Bentley was the most experienced member of the Patriots’ linebacker room and took on many of the responsibilities that come with that standing. Look for him to continue to grow into that role in 2022.

    In the secondary, Adrian Phillips seemed to click quickly after joining the team in 2020, and was rewarded with a contract extension last season. He fits the mold of a player that could be more of a team leader both this season and moving forward.

    Jabrill Peppers is in his first year with the Patriots, but does have captaincy experience from the Giants in 2020. He’s on a one-year deal and working his way back from a torn ACL, so this year is a feeling out process for him in a lot of ways. That being said, if he returns to form at just 26-years-old, he could become a building block kind of player moving forwards.