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Second Look: 2024 Patriots Defense and Special Teams

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New England Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon (9) reacts after sacking New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) in the end zone for a safety during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

With the New England Patriots 4-13 season having come to an end, fans can now focus on what the next edition of the team will look like. Who will New England select in the 2024 NFL Draft? Which players will the Patriots target in free agency? But to determine what next season’s team needs, it is important to start with what they have.

There was a previous first look at the 2024 New England Patriots defense and special teams during the season. Now that the 2023 season is over, it’s time to take an updated look at this units, as was recently done with the offense.

This roster includes players under the team’s control for next season. Hopefully, this will make it easier to predict positions the Patriots should target to improve. Do not mistake this for a prediction or projection, it is simply where things stand as of right now. Special thanks to Miguel Benzan (@patscap) for helping with contract clarifications.

And with that, an updated look at the 2024 New England Patriots defense:

Defensive Line (10)

Christian Barmore, Daniel Ekuale, Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, Jeremiah Pharms, Sam Roberts, Keion White, Deatrich Wise, Will Bradley-King, Trysten Hill

A lot of players return to this group, which has been solid this season, specifically at defensive tackle. Barmore has proven to be a potential cornerstone of the defense moving forward and won the Andre Tippett Award as the Patriots Defensive Player of the Year. Godchaux was also very solid, especially against the run. Rookie Keion White showed glimpses of being a difference maker for the defense, but will need to improve his pass rush and consistency moving forward. New England will look for him to make a leap in year two.

Veterans Wise and Guy are both team leaders and great teammates. Wise struggled staying healthy this season, but played through shoulder issues. He was playing his best by the end of the season. Guy was stout against the run, and predictably steady.

Daniel Ekuale was injured in the third game of the season against the Jets, and missed the rest of the season. Like the rest of the remaining group, he will be fighting to keep his job in training camp, assuming he’s back healthy. Adding another defensive end could be part of the Patriots plans. Despite the overall strong play of the front seven, a stronger pass rush would be beneficial.

Linebackers (6)

Ja’Whaun Bentley, Matthew Judon, Jahlani Tavai, Christian Elliss, Raekwon McMillan, Joe Giles-Harris

There will need to be some additions to the 2024 Patriots linebacker group. That could come from outside of the organization, either via the NFL Draft or free agency. They could also bring back their own free agents. Josh Uche struggled to stay healthy and to match his breakout 2022 campaign (11.5 sacks). Anfernee Jennings is another UFA. He became a solid player for New England this season, winning the team’s Unsung Hero Award. Mack Wilson, Sr. is another free agent who the Patriots will look to bring back. He came on very strong in the second half of the season, contributes on special teams, and is a known fan of new head coach Jerod Mayo.

Getting Matthew Judon back will certainly improve the chances of everyone contributing more, as he attracts so much attention.

Jahlani Tavai was one of the bright spots of the 2023 season for the New England Patriots, winning the Tom Brady Award as team MVP. He was given additional responsibilities and thrived. Bentley is a team captain and reliable player. The focus will be on adding pass rushing help, both from the defensive ends and outside linebackers. Elliss, McMillan, and Giles-Harris are all relatively unknown commodities in terms of their potential contributions so far. Christian Elliss appeared in four games after coming over from Philadelphia, but played almost exclusively on special teams.

Other Patriots could be listed here, but are noted at other positions below: Marte Mapu and Chris Board.

Cornerbacks (8)

Christian Gonzalez, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones, Shaun Wade, Isaiah Bolden, Alex Austin, Azizi Hearn

Getting Christian Gonzalez back is the most important aspect for this unit. The rookie first-round pick was off to an impressive start before injury ended his season. Likewise, Marcus Jones (who could also be listed as a return specialist) coming back should provide a boost. Marcus Jones needs to prove himself capable of contributing on defense, but he will occupy a roster spot based on his return contributions regardless.

Veteran Jonathan Jones was solid once again. He’ll be in the mix for playing time again. He is also one of the high character people that New England would want to keep in the locker room. Shaun Wade showed improvement this season, and is a reliable depth corner. Alex Austin filled in at the end of the season, and did not look out of place. Bolden could find his best path to making the NFL roster as a special teams specialist in 2024. Hearn spent the season on the practice squad and was signed to a future contract.

J.C. Jackson‘s salary cap hit is scheduled to be $14.375 million in 2024. Even before his recent disciplinary issues, and mental health struggles, his play did not warrant Jackson coming back at that number. However, he will not make anywhere near that on the open market either. If he can get his mental health in good shape (most importantly) Jackson will likely be joining either the Patriots or Bill Belichick in 2024 on a ‘make good’ contract.

Myles Bryant is the notable absence from players with significant playing time in 2023. Although Bryant has often come under scrutiny from fans, he is a solid depth piece that would be welcomed back at the right price.

Safetys (4)

Jabrill Peppers, Marte Mapu, Adrian Phillips, Joshuah Beledsoe

Although Peppers returns, fellow starting safety Kyle Dugger is set to hit unrestricted free agency. If the New England Patriots do not retain his services, there will be a big hole for them to fill in the offseason. Dugger led the Patriots in tackles this season. He also led the team in defensive snaps.

Peppers had a very good this season and became a fan favorite quickly. Mapu is listed as a safety here. Although the rookie was listed as a linebacker on the Patriots official roster, he lined up for the majority of his snaps at safety. New England seemed to draft Mapu with a plan in mind, but that plan did not come to fruition in year one, as the rookie at times. He needs to prove he deserves more snaps, no matter where he plays. Phillips is another guy that could be listed as a core special teamer, but he does provide some safety depth. Bledsoe was promoted from the practice squad at the end of the season. He appeared in just three snaps in his lone game.

Along with Dugger, Jalen Mills is also an unrestricted free agent. Myles Bryant has played some safety as well, and is also a UFA. So whether it is through the draft, free agency, or bringing people back, this is a position that will certainly need to be addressed.

Special Teams (5)

Chad Ryland (PK), Bryce Baringer (P), Joe Cardona (LS), Brenden Schooler (ST), Chris Board (ST)

The rookie specialists, Ryland and Baringer came with high expectations this season. Chad Ryland struggled. He hit just 64% of his field goal attempts (16-of-25) . It is hard to see New England moving on from a fourth round pick after just one season, but perhaps this is one of the selections that will be blamed on Bill Belichick. Baringer has looked good. He is likely to be in New England for a while (though the same was recently thought about both Ryan Allen and Jake Bailey not long ago). Joe Cardona is likely set as the long snapper as long as he wants to stay. He overcome some early season struggles to return to his old form.

Brenden Schooler looks like he will take the torch as the next special teams star for the Patriots. Chris Board is also a core special teams player who had a solid season on a struggling unit.

Special teams legend Matthew Slater is not signed for next season and is likely headed for retirement. Certainly he’d be welcomed back if he chooses to return, but otherwise what a terrific career it was. Many New England Patritos fans would like to see Slater take over as special teams coach if he does retire. Stay tuned.

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