Commentary

Patriots' roster reflects overhaul on D

Updated: September 1, 2012, 1:32 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There is plenty to read into the initial New England Patriots roster for the 2012 season, but here is one aspect that stands out: 13 new players on defense compared to just four on offense.

If there were any questions as to what area Bill Belichick targeted for improvement this season, those numbers are most telling. Fresh faces, better results?

To call it a complete defensive transformation would be too strong, but between the different base scheme featured in the preseason, coupled with the injection of new personnel, it reflects how Belichick is hoping a new approach leads to better results.

So while we can look at thin depth at quarterback (two), receiver (four) and along the offensive line (eight) and wonder if the Patriots have left themselves without enough injury protection, that question is trumped by what many view as the main issue that stopped them from closing out Super Bowl XLII and XLVI.

[+] EnlargeNew England Patriots defense
AP Photo/Michael DwyerThe Patriots are hoping an injection of new blood boosts their defensive performance.

Will the defense be any better? When a big stop is needed, do they have the playmakers to do it?

We know parts of the roster will change in the next 24 hours and beyond. It always does. But for now, Belichick kept 27 players on defense compared to 22 on offense.

Defense, defense, defense.

It's fun to talk about the surprises on the roster (who had first-year linebacker Mike Rivera and rookie free-agent defensive tackle Marcus Forston making it?), but the new-look D really starts with major changes at safety (3 new faces in free-agent signee Steve Gregory and rookies Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner) and two opening-day starters in first-round draft choices Chandler Jones (right end) and Dont'a Hightower (strongside linebacker).

They join old stalwarts like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo and safety Patrick Chung in a scheme that looks quite different from past Belichick-coached units. Gone is the trademark 3-4 defense with the big front -- two 5-technique ends and one nose tackle -- in favor of a lighter, more flexible four-man front that features two hybrid defensive ends/outside linebackers with two big tackles inside, and then three big linebackers behind them.

With the new scheme in mind, Belichick has loaded up along the defensive line (11 players). Linebacker might seem a bit light (six), but it's easy to forget that the defensive ends could factor into that mix at times. Also, in sub packages, safeties like Wilson and Ebner are essentially linebackers.

The Patriots went deep at cornerback (six), with newcomers Marquice Cole and Alfonzo Dennard filling things out. Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington still project as starters, so while "change" is the overall buzzword on defense, this is one area where the club is looking for improvement from returnees, specifically McCourty, who had a rocky 2011.

A few other thoughts on the overall roster:

Risky business at quarterback. When the Patriots selected Ryan Mallett in the third round of the 2011 draft, it gave them a third option at quarterback after going with just two in 2009 and 2010. At the time, Bill Belichick said: "I don't think you can have too much depth at that position. We've all seen what can happen there. We got by last year -- or really the last two years -- with basically just two guys. And you put your whole team at risk if you don't have a quarterback that can run it, so it's good to have depth at that position." The Patriots sacrificed the depth they had by releasing Brian Hoyer, who had served as the No. 2 signal-caller each of the previous three seasons. Time will tell if the risk backfires.

Undrafted but not unwanted. As has been the norm under Belichick, the Patriots released some draft picks (seventh-round WR Jeremy Ebert) and kept undrafted free agents (RB Brandon Bolden, DE Justin Francis, DT Marcus Forston). It wouldn't be surprising if Bolden is on the 46-man game-day roster, as he showed up on special teams throughout the preseason and ran hard.

Hernandez could easily be a receiver. While tight end Aaron Hernandez has improved as a blocker, he also could be viewed as a receiver. So while the numbers look light at wideout and thick at tight end, the hybrid Hernandez evens things off a bit.

Cutting to 52, not 53. In leaving an open roster spot, the Patriots could have designs on claiming a player from another club by Saturday's noon deadline. If the past is any indication, they will do so. If offensive lineman Brian Waters returns, the club might have a short-term exemption anyway, so no need to leave a spot open for that possibility.

Comeback years for Brace & Cunningham. The 2012 preseason was considered do-or-die time for 2009 second-round draft choice Ron Brace and 2010 second-rounder Jermaine Cunningham. Both answered the challenge and project as contributors on the 46-man game-day roster.

Ebner's rise unexpected. So much for the thought that sixth-round pick Nate Ebner would be a special-teams-only contributor. His unexpected emergence as a defender probably led to the release of James Ihedigbo. Ebner has shown a nose for the ball and projects on the 46-man game-day roster.

Projecting the practice squad. Teams can start forming a practice squad by noon Saturday, and here's an educated guess at who might be back (leaving one spot open for a quarterback): Offensive tackle Matt Kopa, tight end Alex Silvestro, receiver Kerry Taylor, linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, defensive back Malcolm Williams, fullback Eric Kettani, receiver Jeremy Ebert.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE