The 2014 season still may be a ways off but with the Patriots wrapping up their first week of OTAs today, with another round set to begin on Monday, it finally feels like football is on the horizon. Hallelujah.
So with dreams of touchdowns and hoodies and muskets being fired into the Foxboro sky, let's take an early look at the Pats defense, which, as you may have heard, looks to be the best its been in years... on paper.
Naturally, it's far too soon to tell whether this sentiment could actually be true, what with the calendar not even having turned to June yet. But while the Pats' D looks to have oodles of talent, there are some rather large question marks.
Obviously, the signing of cornerback Darrelle Revis ruled the offseason headlines and represented one of the biggest, most stunning free agency moves in franchise history. The Pats' secondary has been fortified and then some, provided Revis remains healthy and fellow free agent corner Brandon Browner returns from his league mandated, four-game suspension ready to contribute. Even if second-year corner Logan Ryan winds up moving to safety, the team's stable of defensive backs appears very solid.
But can any of them play linebacker?
That wasn't meant to be a serious question, of course. But take a look at the Pats' depth chart at that position. It's pretty thin.
Basically, the linebacking corps consists of Jerod Mayo, who is coming off a season ending injury, Jamie Collins, who really came on late in the year and in the divisional round playoff win over the Colts, but is still very young and very raw, and Dont'a Hightower, who, to be kind, did a great deal of learning in 2013.
That's it. That's the list. You can include special teamers Josh Hull and Chris White if you'd like. And it stands to reason that Rob Ninkovich could see some time as a backer should the need arise. But moving him back would weaken a defensive line that's already going to be dependent on two veterans who are also coming back from injured reserve in Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.
The bottom line is that the Pats must look to bring in some veteran stability to reinforce the linebacker spot. If Mayo isn't ready to go at 100 percent coming off his torn pectoral muscle come training camp, or simply isn't the same every down tackling machine he was prior to the injury, the Pats could be in trouble. If Collins isn't ready to play 80-90 percent of the defensive snaps for a full season, the Pats could be in trouble. If Hightower proves prone to some of the lapses he suffered last season, to the point that he's deemed unfit to play as was the case in November's stirring "Sunday Night Football" comeback win over Denver, who will replace him? Dane Fletcher stepped in that night but he's gone to Tampa Bay as a free agent. And again, the Pats could be in trouble.
There's plenty of time for depth to be added. Sunday is June 1, a date which signals the unofficial onset of the second tier of free agency and there are experienced, veteran linebackers who can probably contribute still out there looking for a job.
The Pats would be well served to give a few of those guys a look this weekend. Because if this defense is going to be as good on the field as it looks on paper, it must get deeper.