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Can young defenders step up for Patriots? Success of unit depends on it

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The majority of attention surrounding the New England Patriots' offseason has centered around the free-agent departure of quarterback Tom Brady, which has overshadowed the question of whether coach Bill Belichick has adequately addressed the defense.

The Patriots took some big free-agent hits, with three of their best defenders -- linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins Sr., and nose tackle Danny Shelton -- landing with new teams. At the same time, the team's top three draft picks were all on defense, and a few second-year players are primed to contribute more.

So is this defense better, worse or the same as the unit that was the strength of the 2019 team? After answering a similar question about the offense on Tuesday, here's a position-by-position breakdown for the defense and special teams:

Defensive tackle

Additions: Beau Allen, Bill Murray, Courtney Wallace

Losses: Danny Shelton

Returners: Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Byron Cowart, Nick Thurman

Better, same or worse? Worse

Shelton was one of the unit's best players last season, finishing tied for third with 61 tackles (along with Guy) and adding three sacks while playing 48% of the defensive snaps. That earned him a two-year, $8 million contract from the Detroit Lions, and led the Patriots to sign Allen -- who most recently was a backup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- to take his place. It looks like a net loss on paper, but then again, at this point last year few would have projected Shelton to play as well as he did in 2019.

The development of Cowart, the 2019 fifth-round pick from Maryland, might ultimately hold the key after he was essentially given a redshirt season as a rookie.

Defensive end/outside linebacker

Additions: Anfernee Jennings, Brandon Copeland, Nick Coe

Losses: Kyle Van Noy

Returners: Deatrich Wise Jr., John Simon, Chase Winovich, Derek Rivers, Shilique Calhoun, Tashawn Bower

Better, same or worse? Same

Winovich played 29% of the defensive snaps last season, and the forecast at this spot is mostly tied to how he projects into a full-time role. He's been one of the small handful of rehabbing players who has been allowed to show up at Gillette Stadium each day this offseason. If he can fill the void left by Van Noy's departure -- which is significant (56 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles in 2019) -- that would mean he elevates from sub-package player to full-time option.

The 6-foot-2, 256-pound Jennings, a third-round pick from Alabama, was described this way by an NFL assistant: "Good fit for the Patriots -- tough, good hands, not afraid to mix it up. Good body type for them -- thick lower, but still moves decent." That sounds similar to Simon, who started 12 games last season.

Inside linebacker/sub linebacker

Additions: Josh Uche, Cassh Maluia, De'Jon Harris, Kyahva Tezino

Losses: Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts

Returners: Dont'a Hightower Ja'Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall

Better, same or worse? Worse

Collins was a great bargain last season, playing on a modest one-year deal and leading the team with 80 tackles and seven sacks, while adding three interceptions. It was a rare situation to be able to bring him back in 2019 on those financial terms.

Potentially, the Patriots' top two draft picks -- box safety Kyle Dugger (second round, No. 37) and Uche (second round, No. 60) -- could initially combine to fill Collins' role as a versatile chess piece playing both on and off the line of scrimmage. When the Patriots drafted Collins in the 2013 second round, his uncommon athleticism and testing numbers stood out, and Dugger and Uche fall in a similar category.

Keeping Hightower, 30, healthy, as a captain and signal-caller, takes on added importance given the transition to more youth at the position. He played 71% of the snaps last season, totaling 71 tackles (second on the team) and 5.5 sacks.

One other lingering question: Does Bentley (2018 fifth round, 27% of the defensive snaps last season) grow into an every-down option, or will he be a run-based player similar to Roberts (Dolphins)?

Cornerback

Additions: Lenzy Pipkins, D'Angelo Ross (IR), Myles Bryant

Losses: None

Returners: Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams

Better, same or worse? Better

When the NFL's 2019 Defensive Player of the Year (Gilmore) returns alongside everyone else -- and the projected development of Jackson (third year) and Williams (second year) are factored in -- that's a positive outlook. The ability to match up with a variety of passing attacks across the NFL is as challenging as ever, and the Patriots are well-stocked to do so.

Safety

Additions: Cody Davis, Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Malik Gant (IR)

Losses: Nate Ebner, Duron Harmon

Returners: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Terrence Brooks, Adarius Pickett

Better, same or worse? Better

McCourty and Chung both turn 33 in August, which is older in NFL years, but McCourty is like the Brady of this defense, playing a quarterback-type role and still playing at a high level late in his career. That should continue in 2020, which is a solid place to start.

The Patriots have layered the depth chart with youth after drafting Dugger and adding safety duties to Williams' offseason plan as a way to increase his value.

And then the free-agent signing of Phillips could almost be viewed as a two-for-one exchange: He projects to provide double value as a core special-teamer and sub-package defender, whereas the Patriots used two players -- Ebner (Giants) and Harmon (Lions) -- to fill those roles in 2019.

Specialists

Additions: Justin Rohrwasser (K), Brandon King (coverage/IR)

Losses: Stephen Gostkowski, Nick Folk

Returners: Jake Bailey (P), Joe Cardona (LS), Matthew Slater (coverage), Justin Bethel (coverage)

Better, same or worse? Same

The Patriots nailed their transition from Adam Vinatieri in 2006 by getting their top-rated kicker in the draft (Gostkowski, fourth round), and hope they have done the same this year as they landed their top choice (Rohrwasser, fifth round) after releasing Gostkowski. That's the big change, but not to be overlooked is how valuable King, who missed last season with a torn quad, was viewed by former special teams coach Joe Judge -- a core player who filled critical, often-overlooked roles on fourth down.