Wondering how far away the Patriots defense really is…

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has stocked his defense with talent (Associated Press)

An article in my old paper, the Boston Herald, got me thinking… I wonder if the New England Patriots are on their way to being a defensive team again. Or, at least, a balanced team.

No, seriously, I’m not crazy. So last year, the Patriots defense was bad. No shocker there. They finished 31st in yards allowed, a stat we monitored closely in 2011. But they also did other things that good defenses do — took the ball away (tied for third), made stops in the red zone, and didn’t allow a lot of points (17 per game in the playoffs).

Heading into 2012, I think they could be in the top half of the league.

I bring this up now because, as Jeff Howe writes in his article, there is talent on this unit. Suddenly. Add in this year’s two No. 1s in LB Dont’a Hightower and DE Chandler Jones, and that makes five homegrown first-rounders and six-second rounders in training camp. Now, granted, not all of them are stars and draft status doesn’t mean everything.

At this point, you’d still rather have undrafted Kyle Love on the field than second-rounder Ron Brace, even if Brace is showing improvement, thus far. And No. 33 overall pick in 2011 Ras-I Dowling has crazy skills, but you need to be sure he’s healthy. But it’s noteworthy that this group of players, in under-the-radar fashion, has the pedigree to be pretty stout.

Compare that to last year when the first defensive unit often included WRs Julian Edelman and Matt Slater, while the front-line had Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis and others at the end of their careers seeing time. Sure, they got it done when you needed to. But…

You never felt like the unit was headed in the right direction. It was all stop-gap stuff.

It was fill-in veteran after random off-the-street free agent (like Nate Jones) to make the unit functional. I always got the sense the point was only to slow things down, not stop teams, knowing Tom Brady’s offense would make things happen. Meanwhile the coaches used the last six or so games to tinker with their lineup and figure something out for the playoffs. It worked, as they did get enough out of their defense to put the ball in the offense’s hands with a chance to close out the Super Bowl.

Drafting two highly regarded, NFL-ready players in the first round means to me that Bill Belichick is ready to build. Along with promising defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, it looks like they have a group of players who will make up the core talent for years. I don’t think Patricia and Belichick got enough credit last year for making something out of a group that too often included untalented players slotted in one week, on the street the next week. Stats were bad, the job they did was impressive.

Imagine what they would do surrounded by talent, mixed with some continuity and the enthusiasm of youth… I get the sense things are changing for the Patriots defense. As in, they are in the process of building one. Scary.

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