Bill Belichick’s Patriots close out the offseason and a spring of work this week with a three-day mandatory mini-camp at Gillette Stadium.
It’s the last chance for players new and old to prepare for the grind of training camp that will come when they get down to business in late July.
It’s also the final opportunity before summer vacation for the collected media to get a gander at the talent that Belichick has put together following last season’s dismal, post-Tom Brady campaign.
That means this week will include endless reporting on the ongoing quarterback competition.
There will be lots of talk of Cam Newton’s health, throwing motion and contagious leadership.
Much will be written regarding No. 15 overall pick Mac Jones, his two buckets and just how he’s taking hold of Josh McDaniels’ offensive system.
There will even be video of Jarrett Stidham making a run at trying to remain relevant on the QB depth chart in Foxborough.
Heck, for better or worse we might even hear that veteran journeyman backup Brian Hoyer is the best passer on the field, as was the case during last week’s OTA workout.
But the fixation and fascination with the quarterback position in New England may be a bit misplaced. Though the draw of the sexy storyline is understandable given the long-term importance of the job, it may be keeping many from noticing what is likely to be a more critical aspect of the Patriots roster – the retooled, reloaded defense.
Regardless of who wins the quarterback job, it’s reasonable to think the best the Patriots will do at the quarterback position in 2021 is average play. That, of course, would be a major step up from the level a year ago when Newton was simply abysmal as a passer, throwing just eight touchdowns and some of the uglier passers one could ever witness on an NFL field.
But if whichever passer passers takes the field this fall in Foxborough does put forth even an average level of play at the position, New England will have a chance to win a decent number of football games.
Why? Hopeful optimism?
No, reality. Because the defense that everyone is sleeping on these days while pontificating endlessly on the passer and supposed upgrades to the weapons in the passing game -- a defense with young talent, high-priced additions and returning mainstays -- has a chance to be really, really good.
While the New England offense has more questions than answers at this point, the defense is a bona fide bunch bringing versatility and easy-to-imagine upside.
Forget a year ago when the unit was undermanned up front.
Got pushed around by opposing run games and couldn’t rush a passer if the season depended on it.
That’s a distant, dismal memory.
No longer does Lawrence Guy have to do it all on the line. Nope, he’s got veterans like Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson to help out and a stud athletic talent in second-round pick Christian Barmore to watch evolve.
Oh, and that linebacker group that was so thin that Ja’Whuan Bentley was thrust into a leadership and playing role that he just wasn’t ready for while undersized safeties had to do their best to man up in the mix? Not anymore.
Now, Dont’a Hightower is back from his COVID opt-out to lead and make plays. Kyle Van Noy returns from his revenge tour cameo on the Dolphins defense to where he’s at his best – working for Belichick. Oh, and Josh Uche looks like he has the potential to be an impact role player at the very least working alongside the likes of Chase Winovich, Terez Hall and Anfernee Jennings.
We probably should also mention the biggest offseason addition on defense – big-money, versatile edge presence Matt Judon. Pro Bowl front-seven talent doesn’t grow on trees, but it can be bought in free agency.
Of course the NFL is a passing league, so nothing is more important than the back end of the defense.
Assuming the sides can find a common ground on his compensation, Stephon Gilmore is set to lead a secondary that remains well-stocked with proven talent. The former Defensive Player of the Year, J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones might be as good a trio of proven corners as there is in the league.
Devin McCourty tops the safety depth chart that should see second-year stud Kyle Dugger make a huge Year Two Jump. Adrian Phillips impressed in his first season in two a year ago, while ex-Eagle Jalen Mills joins the mix as one of the most versatile defensive backs in the NFL, capable of playing any spot necessary in the back end.
Are the Patriots going to throw the ball all over the field and put up a ton of points in 2021? Nope, probably not, regardless of whether Newton or Jones is the one leading the offense.
But opponents are unlikely to be able to move the ball with efficient regularity, either.
Because while it’s admittedly early, on paper the Patriots have the makings of the kind of defense that Belichick has loved and loved to win games with over the years. A deep, versatile unit with the ability to throw almost anything necessary at opposing offenses. Lots of bodies with lots of varied skills bringing Belichick lots of options in his weekly game plans.
Cam vs. Mac will continue to get most of the attention this week in mini-camp in New England and likely well into the regular season. But the story of the 2021 Patriots will just as likely be written by a defense that has the chance to be among the best in the game this fall, a defense that could give the team a chance to win most times it takes the field.
And that, more than anything going on over on the offensive side of the field or with the quarterback competition, should be something for Patriot Nation to get excited about.