Piecing things together: What are the Patriots’ biggest needs on defense?

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff photoPatriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepts Rams quarterback Jared Goff in Super Bowl LIII. Gilmore is coming off an All-Pro season and is one of the rocks of a solid Patriots cornerback group.

The 2018 season is over, and now the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots are well into their preparations for the upcoming season. With the NFL Scouting Combine wrapping up and the team’s official draft positions finalized, here is a look at where the Patriots’ roster currently stands and what positions will need to be addressed in the upcoming draft and free agency. Yesterday we covered the offense, and now we move on to the defense.

For players who are under contract, the year listed indicates the year in which they will become a free agent, so a player listed as 2020 is one who will become a free agent after this upcoming season. Players with an (F) after their name are players who have signed a futures contract, which in effect means they have been claimed for the upcoming season and will be on the initial 90-man roster for training camp.

Defensive ends

Under contract: Deatrich Wise (2021), Adrian Clayborn (2020), Derek Rivers (2021), Ufomba Kamalu (2020), Keionta Davis (2020), Trent Harris (F)

Free agents: Trey Flowers, John Simon

Position of need?: Yes

Trey Flowers is one of the Patriots’ most important players on defense, and whether or not he re-signs will play a significant role in the direction of this unit going forward. While Flowers will be expensive to bring back, he’s one of the most disruptive pass rushers in the league and the Patriots do not have anybody close to his caliber waiting in the wings. All five of the other returning defensive ends on last year’s roster were healthy scratches at one point or another, and all are better served as complementary pieces.

If Flowers re-signs, the Patriots will largely be in good shape going into 2019, though it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring back John Simon or draft another young pass rusher anyway. But if he goes? This position vaults to the top of the list of offseason needs.

Defensive tackles

Under contract: Lawrence Guy (2021), Adam Butler (2020), Frank Herron (F), David Parry (F)

Free agents: Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown

Position of need?: Yes

As it stands now, defensive tackle is probably the team’s biggest question-mark after wide receiver. Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler are both solid, but with Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton set to hit free agency, the Patriots would benefit from an infusion of young talent to solidify the defensive line. Numerous mock drafts have the Patriots addressing this position with the No. 32 overall pick, with some potential options including Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence, Ohio State’s Dre’Mont Jones or Mississippi State’s Jeffrey Simmons. Christian Wilkins, another stud defensive tackle out of Clemson, would also be a great option, assuming the Springfield native isn’t snapped up early in the first round.

Linebackers

Under contract: Dont’a Hightower (2021), Kyle Van Noy (2020), Elandon Roberts (2020), Ja’Whaun Bentley (2022), Christian Sam (2022), Calvin Munson (F)

Free agents: None

Position of need?: Yes

Next season’s linebacking corps is in good shape. Starters Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are both set to return, and they’ll be joined by a healthy Ja’Whaun Bentley, who was looking like one of the team’s top rookies last year before injuries cut his season short. Long-term, however, the Patriots would behoove themselves to bring in some fresh talent to groom as potential successors to Hightower and Van Noy. Hightower is also known to be an injury risk, so investing in a linebacker with a third or fourth-round pick would be a smart play.

Cornerbacks

Under contract: Stephon Gilmore (2022), J.C. Jackson (2021), Keion Crossen (2022), Duke Dawson (2022)

Free agents: Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones (restricted), Eric Rowe

Position of need?: No

Long and short term, the Patriots are in great shape at cornerback. Stephon Gilmore is coming off an All-Pro season and J.C. Jackson had a tremendous rookie season as an undrafted free agent. Duke Dawson had a lost season, not appearing in a single game as a rookie, but was still a second-round pick and should have an opportunity to contribute as a slot corner going forward. Depth-wise, Jonathan Jones should come back and Jason McCourty would be a welcome return if the money is right, and Keion Crossen could be a factor too if he can improve his coverage skills.

Safeties

Under contract: Devin McCourty (2020), Patrick Chung (2021), Duron Harmon (2021), Obi Melifonwu (2020), A.J. Howard (F)

Free agents: None

Position of need?: Yes

The gang will be back for another go-around next year, but looking ahead the Patriots should begin preparing for life after Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, both of whom have now been in the league for a decade or more. Similar to linebacker, if the Patriots can find a player they like in the middle rounds, they should go for it. Better to get out in front now than risk having either player retire after next season without a successor in place.

Special teams

Under contract: Matthew Slater (2020), Nate Ebner (2020), Joe Cardona (2023), Brandon King (2020)

Free agents: Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Ramon Humber, Albert McClellan

Position of need: No

No need to get cute with this unit. The Patriots can and should bring back both Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen, and if the money is right then Albert McClellan would be worth re-signing too. The mid-season acquisition made a big impact on punt coverage and is exactly the type of player that Bill Belichick loves to keep on special teams.

Mac Cerullo covers the New England Patriots for the Daily News and CNHI Sports Boston. He can be reached by email at mcerullo@newburyportnews.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.

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