FOXBORO — In what was a fairly eventful offseason when it came to off the field news, the Patriots will get back on the field Thursday morning for the first time as a complete group since Super Bowl LIII against the Rams.
Even though the first two training camp sessions are held without pads, the No. 1 player people look to when it comes to performance is the quarterback, Tom Brady. It will be no different Thursday and for the sessions that follow, but don’t be surprised if Brady doesn’t exactly look like the same player who led the Patriots to the Super Bowl just a few months back.
And it’s not because he will be without Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.
It’s because he will be going up against a defense that has a chance to be one of the best in football.
New England finished the regular season last year tied for sixth in the league, allowing an average of 20.3 points per game, but took it to another level in the postseason with its performances against the Chiefs in the AFC title game and the Rams in the Super Bowl.
Aside from the coaching turnover, the unit really didn’t lose much this offseason and with the talent coming back, it truly has the potential to lead the team to wins this season and not just complement Brady and the offense.
Up front, an argument could be made it’s even better than last year. Mike Pennel could be viewed as an upgrade over Malcom Brown, Jamie Collins certainly will help the linebackers group and sure, Trey Flowers is now gone, but Michael Bennett was brought in and the drop off shouldn’t be too steep.
Then in the secondary, there’s no doubt it has the potential to be one of the best in the entire league — which it was last year. At cornerback, Stephon Gilmore has begun to solidify himself as one of the best cornerbacks the game has to offer. J.C. Jackson showed the potential to be a successful starter in the league and be a great tandem with Gilmore. And then there are solid contributors in Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones along with young talent like Duke Dawson and Joejuan Williams.
On the backend with the safeties, it’s hard to find a better group in the league. Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon all know the Patriots system extremely well and each do different things, which is what makes them work so well together on the same team.
With all that being said, it is worth noting the coaching turnover that took place this offseason. There is no defensive coordinator, not even a de facto one like last year in Brian Flores, and the only coach returning is Steve Belichick. Fortunately, all of the new positional coaches have been in the system in some capacity before, and then everyone knows in the end it is Bill Belichick’s defense and he ultimately is going to run what he wants to run.
This has the potential to be the year of the defense.
With the loss of Gronkowski, Brady being a year older, and a lack of reliable pass catchers, it's fair to say the offense could take a step back in 2019. Fortunately, the defense is going in the other direction and has the potential to limit teams to less than two touchdowns most weeks and win games on its own.
While it is only training camp and no one is actually keeping score, if the defense can force Brady and the offense into some issues over the summer, it’s likely the sign of even better things to come once the games count.