Don’t look now but New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is returning to his championship roots. Once upon a time, led by one of the stingiest defenses in football, Belichick’s Patriots captured three Super Bowl titles in four years.
It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a decade since the club’s last championship during that special run, especially given its continued success. While the Patriots have remained a dominant regular-season team, winning at least 10 games every season and eight AFC East titles since, they haven’t possessed the same magic come playoff time.
Prioritizing offense over defense has arguably been a big reason why. Looking at New England’s roster entering 2014, though, it’s evident that’s no longer the case. In fact, the Patriots defense is arguably in better shape than their offense, future Hall of Fame quarterback and all.
The addition of dominant shutdown corner Darrelle Revis, who was Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 rated cornerback last season, to pair with free safety Devin McCourty, who was Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 rated safety in 2013, in the secondary, could equip the Patriots with their own version of the Seattle Seahawks‘ Legion of Boom. But given the hype New England’s secondary has generated, a linebacker corps with the tools to become the best in football has been overlooked.
After missing the final 10 games last season with a pectoral injury, tackling-machine Jarod Mayo will return to the lineup. In 2012, Mayo’s last full season, he was a force, grading as Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 overall 4-3 outside linebacker and amassing 147 tackles, 3.0 sacks, one interception and four forced fumbles. Needless to say, his loss last fall was a huge one for the Patriots, who stumbled to 30th in run defense.
A healthy, dominant Mayo isn’t the only reason for optimism along the linebacker unit, though. Outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower is another key piece to a potentially dominant defense’s puzzle.
A 97-tackle campaign was highlighted by a third-place finish in Pro Football Focus’ run defense rankings among 4-3 outside linebackers for Hightower. The +13.5 score Hightower accumulated was actually the third-highest mark among all qualifying linebackers, regardless of position or scheme, on the site.
Hightower did struggle in coverage a year ago, conceding 446 yards to assignments and a 93.5 quarterback rating to opposing passers. But all indications are he’ll become more of an early-down player this coming season. And when he’s on the field in New England’s nickel package, he’ll likely be rushing the passer more often than dropping back into coverage.
That’s because the emergence of second-year linebacker Jamie Collins should give the Patriots the versatile every-down presence they need to complement Mayo. The 2013 second-round pick played a mere 302 snaps as a rookie, but he showcased an awful lot of promise in a limited role.
And his potential began to manifest in production during the Patriots’ 43-22 drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts in January’s playoffs. In a game that should be remembered as his coming-out party, Collins tallied six tackles, one sack, one defensed pass and one interception while producing a +7.0 overall grade, according to Pro Football Focus.
Displaying the aptitude to rush the passer, drop back into coverage and defend the run, Collins is a legitimate breakout candidate in 2014. If he becomes the star he showed flashes of versus the Colts in the playoffs, the Patriots’ linebacker corps will be comprised of two Pro Bowl candidates and a stout run defender.
Of course, becoming the best linebacker group in the NFL will still be a tall order, even if everything falls into place. And if wasn’t for NaVarro Bowman‘s injury and Aldon Smith‘s likely suspension on the San Francisco 49ers, New England owning the best linebackers would probably be out of the question.
However, as is, the potential is there to not only field one of the best secondaries in football, but the best linebacker corps. Super Bowl ring No. 4 could, at last, be on its way.
Cody Strahm is an NFL Senior Writer at Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter.