The draft is over. Free agency is largely over, although there's always teams releasing guys and picking up other guys so we know the roster is not complete. But it's time to look at the 2018 defense. The 2017 defense was a mixed bag. Horrible, catastrophically bad the first four weeks, and then they got their act together and were actually pretty solid. Fools gold maybe, in part because of the talent level of the offenses they faced, but at the end of the day, they were playing very well. And then came the Super Bowl and they got absolutely blitzkrieged by Philly. I contend, and will always contend, that it was a combination of these factors: (1) The Patriots' D playing very poorly. (2) Philly's offense executing at a very high level. (3) The refs not calling any offensive holding penalties (for either team) which allowed the offensive lines to maul the defenses, and when that happens, points are going to be scored. (4) Not playing Malcolm Butler, which is still inexplicable to us as we haven't really gotten (nor should we expect to get) a real full explanation for it, but which created a cascade effect and really hampered the defense. So it's hard to say if what we saw in the Super Bowl is what the Patriots defense REALLY was, or if it was just, for various reasons, a singularly awful performance at the worst time imaginable. Which can happen. Good defenses sometimes play poorly in the biggest games. Just to name a few... - Buffalo's 6th ranked defense gave up 30 points to Dallas in SB 28. - San Diego's 9th ranked defense gave up 49 points to San Fran in SB 29. - New England's 6th ranked defense gave up 46 points to Chicago in SB 20. - Denver's 1st ranked defense gave up 55 points to San Fran in SB 24. - Philly's 4th ranked defense gave up 33 points and a record 613 yards to NE in SB 52. - Seattle's 1st ranked defense gave up 28 points to NE in SB 49. - Oakland's 6th ranked defense gave up 48 points to TB in SB 37. - Denver's 7th ranked defense gave up 42 points to Washington in SB 22. - Dallas' 3rd ranked defense gave up 35 points to Pittsburgh in SB 13. I mean, it happens. Sometimes very good defenses get shelled in the biggest moments. This isn't me arguing that the Patriots had a great defense last year. They didn't. But they weren't as good as they appeared during their great stretch, and they weren't as bad as they appeared in the Super Bowl. It is clear, however, that the defense needed improvement over last year. The offense should be elite, returning Edelman, adding OL help, and drafting Michel. The defense, however, needs work. So what has happened in the off-season? They lost CB Bademosi and CB Butler to free agency, and DT Branch was cut. That's it. Bademosi was mainly a special teams guy forced to play in the SB because of the decision to bench Butler. Butler was average at best in 2017, but had been much better than that in 2016. Branch was terrible as the year went on, to the point where he was a healthy scratch during the playoffs. This offseason, through free agency and trades, they added: - DE Adrian Clayborn - DT Danny Shelton - CB Jason McCourty Clayborn isn't as good a pass rusher as his 2017 stats would suggest, as he got 6 of his 9.5 sacks in one game against a backup LT. Still, you can't pretend that that game didn't happen. He certainly could be helpful in upgrading the pass rush. Shelton is a solid brick in the middle, and should be an improvement over Branch. McCourty is every bit the equal of 2017 Malcolm Butler, though I think he's a downgrade from 2016 Malcolm Butler. But then again, if the Patriots had 2016 Malcolm Butler in 2017, they probably win the Super Bowl. But they didn't, and it's the 2017 defense that needs improvement. So McCourty probably represents even a slight upgrade at the CB spot. In the draft they picked up: - LB Ja'Whaun Bentley - LB Christian Sam - CB Duke Dawson - CB Keion Crossen It's so hard to know what these guys can be. Bentley seems like an old-school run-stuffer who lacks speed, but then I see game tape and I hear the guys on TV talk about him and he just seems like a guy who really can play football. Sam is a better athlete so his game might translate better in the NFL. Dawson might be a CB who fails but also he has ability. Crossen seems like a special teams guy right out of the gate but is an off-the-charts athlete with phenomenal physical tools. So maybe he won't help the defense in 2018 but he could maybe in 2019 and beyond. I expect at least two of these guys to contribute on defense in a positive way. They are also getting back from injury: - LB Dont'a Hightower - DE Derek Rivers - DT Vincent Valentine - LB Harvey Langhi - CB Jonathan Jones - CB Cyrus Jones Hightower is, of course, one of the best overall defensive players on the team. A real leader, a thumper, and a guy who can blitz effectively. Valentine showed promise last year and he could be a key player in the middle. Rivers might be the key guy in this group, however. He was a pass rush stud in college but he missed all of 2017 with an injury. Essentially he got a redshirt season, under the tutelage of the New England Patriots. Adding him is like drafting him in the 2nd round this year. He has significant potential, though, with any rookie, it remains nothing but potential until it's realized. Langhi also has potential, and it will be interesting to see him suit up this year. Jonathan Jones improved considerably last year from his previous year, to the point where I thought (and others expressed it here in this forum) that his injury would be a sneaky significant injury for them. Turns out to be true. They REALLY could have used him in the Super Bowl. Him returning will be important. Cyrus Jones is a project so they not only need him back healthy, they also need him to improve. They are banking on improvement from: - DE Deatrich Wise - DT/DE Trey Flowers - CB Cyrus Jones - LB Marquis Flowers - DT Adam Butler I already mentioned Cyrus Jones. This is his do-or-die year, IMO. If he can live up to his physical ability, he'll be terrific. If not, he'll get cut. Trey Flowers is a guy with real ability who should take the next step this coming season. Wise has ability and finished with 5 sacks as his playing time increased as the season went on. Marquise Flowers is maybe the fastest linebacker on the team and played a lot during the Super Bowl, which didn't exactly go well. But he has physical tools to be good. Time for him to get to the next level. It was easy to watch the draft and be frustrated that they "didn't address the defense". But in reality, this entire offseason, they have addressed it. They made some key acquisitions by trade and in free agency. They drafted four defensive players. They are getting some key guys back from injury. And they have good reason to expect some of their young and talented defensive players to improve from 2017. One key thing to remember: They lost Matt Patricia. For some here, this is very good news. For others, this is depressing. BB will have a lot more hands-on work with the defense in 2018, and unless he's completely lost his fastball, this probably represents an improvement in coaching for the defense.