Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don't have to make, and fortunately for the Patriots part of their problems in 2013 will hopefully be solved by a few guys who were already in the fold heading into the 2014 campaign. That made things a little easier in free agency, as New England already had a few key players who will end up being welcomed re-additions to their football team on the defensive side of the football when we see them again just a little over two months from now.
Contrary to the annual reactions of many after free agency kicked off (and those groans are never late), this isn't a team that lacks much in the talent category. Much of New England's issues in 2013 stemmed from personnel losses thanks to injuries that absolutely decimated a group that started off with so much promise, and it started right smack in the middle of a defense that looked better than they had in years.
Early on, the duo of Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly was one of the most dominant up front we had seen in quite some time. The two clicked so well together, and the opportunity to play together was one Kelly had been looking for since he signed with the team back in May of last year.
"You get to the end of your career, you get the opportunity to play with a real good team like New England -- it came down to a couple teams -- but I guess after talking with Coach [Bill] Belichick and then just the opportunity to play with Vince," Kelly told Patriots Today at the time. "You wanna play with someone that can play. You know, you always watch people who play your position. I mean, he's a real good player. A hell of a player."
Their time together lasted just four games, and in that moment in Atlanta where Wilfork was carted off the field, Kelly saw the writing on the wall.
"I'm sure they're going to try to run the ball more," defensive tackle Tommy Kelly told the Boston Herald, while talking about what to expect with Wilfork being gone. "I mean, we're lighter up front now. Take Vince out, I mean, I'd try to run the ball more. That's being smart, but I think we're more than capable of handling the job."
Little could Kelly have guessed that just one week later he'd see his season washed away in the rain in Cincinnati after he injured his knee during New England's first loss of the year. Despite the initial thought he might return, he never made it back after the injury ultimately saw him end up on injured reserve weeks later. It was certainly one of the turning points in a season that started off so well, and it took away two terrific components from a defense that no longer looked as formidable as they did just weeks earlier.
The Patriots fought on, and Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and Sealver Siliga did the best they could to fill the void while those two were sidelined. The experience was certainly great for those three players, but the fact both Kelly and Wilfork will be back in 2014 is something that is tough to overlook. Fans haven't seen him in action yet so it's tough to say what type of player he'll be coming off of that injury, but one would have to believe Wilfork will still be a problem for opposing offensive players. Granted, the workload and snaps will likely be lowered for the veteran tackle, who played in 177 of 219 defensive snaps (80.8%) before tearing his Achilles. However, he and Kelly should be welcomed additions to a group that was a fairly solid tandem before they went down.
Lost not long after that was linebacker Jerod Mayo, whose injury overshadowed what was arguably one of the most exciting finishes of the season during the Patriots come-from-behind win over the New Orleans. Mayo left Gillette Stadium that night with his arm in a sling and his loss marked more changes in a defense that lost yet another veteran leader.
Fortunately Bill Belichick planned ahead for such a moment, with several players each spending time with the "green dot" on their helmets during last year's preseason. That designation goes to the player who calls the plays in the huddle and Mayo was the one who up until that week had handled those duties. From there Dont'a Hightower was forced into that role, with the second year linebacker having been one of the players who had experienced that responsibility in the preseason. It's unlikely that he could have imagined how important that experience would end up being, and it's the overall preparation for the unknown by Bill Belichick that helped the Patriots continue on.
They were forced to play their final ten games without Mayo, and he'll be another addition to New England's defense that should make the Patriots better than they were after he went down. But his absence could end up being a big reason why the team may find Hightower making bigger contributions this year, as the increased playing time, along with the experience in Mayo's role calling the plays, should make him even better this season.
Another player who benefited from the added playing time was linebacker Jamie Collins, who saw increased snaps down the stretch while Brandon Spikes was banged up. Now that Spikes is gone, it marks yet another one of the positives New England walked away with from last year's trying season.
Getting an All-Pro back like Mayo is an offseason move that any team would be excited to be able to make, and fortunately for New England they already have him in-house. The veteran has been New England's leading tackler, and his importance tends to get lost as he does a lot of the dirty work in the Patriots' defense. As a result, having him back on the field should hopefully free some other guys up around him and allow them to be more effective.
He's been working hard this offseason and Rob Ninkovich recently pointed out that Mayo has been pushing him in the weight room as the two continue getting ready for the upcoming year.
“He’s a pretty explosive guy,” Rob Ninkovich told the Boston Globe of Mayo, who he's been working out with this offseason. “So I try to keep up with that guy. He’s looking good right now. I’ve been training with him for a long time. It’s always good to somebody to push you and make you better than what you are.“
That's certainly promising news. With the draft now out of the way these are three key guys who will allow first round pick Dominique Easley to have some time to develop, and will hopefully play a part in helping some of the newer players get acclimated. But in the meantime these are also three players who will add to an already improved and battle-tested group when they get back on the field in the months ahead.