Yesterday, I tackled what an offense of Belichick’s best players since he arrived in Foxboro would look like. Today, I’m assembling the greatest possible Patriots defense since the turn of the century.
Despite having the greatest quarterback of all time, the defensive side of the ball is where Belichick truly shines. Even when there’s a lack of talent on defense, Belichick is usually still able to craft a passable unit. But when Belichick does have talent to work with, it almost always puts the Patriots over the top.
There’s a reason this list is comprised almost exclusively of players from the early 2000’s and those that have had their peak within the last four seasons. When the Patriots have a great defense, they’re usually winning championships.
Defensive Tackle: Vince Wilfork, Alan Branch
Outside of Brady, Vince Wilfok was the only other player on the 2004 championship team that was still around when they won their next title 10 years later.
In 11 years with the Patriots, Wilfork earned five Pro Bowl nods and was an All-Pro in 2012. If Wilfork’s career didn’t overlap with players like Haloti Ngata, Kevin Williams, and Justin Smith it’s likely Wilfork gets more recognition as one of the best defensive lineman of his generation. An Achilles injury in 2013 robbed the 350-pound defensive tackle of most of his remaining athleticism but his status as a Patriot great was already secured by then.
Signing with New England as a 30-year-old veteran in 2014, Alan Branch helped fill the sizable hole on the defensive line left by Wilfork’s departure. Branch had Pro Bowl-caliber seasons in 2015 and 2016, totaling 48 combined tackles. Age seemed to catch up with the 33-year-old Branch last season. His play declined and the Patriots released him this offseason.
Ted Washington also deserves an honorable mention here. Before Wilfork’s rookie season in 2004, Washington was a crucial part of a 2003 Patriots team that won a ring and finished fourth in the NFL in total defense. If Washington spent more than one year in New England he could have found himself on this list.
Defensive End: Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Ty Warren
The Patriots have built their franchise on finding players that are often overlooked and turning them into key pieces on championship teams. Richard Seymour was not such a player. From the moment he was drafted as the sixth overall pick in the 2001 draft, people expected great things from Richard Seymour. And he delivered.
Seymour spent eight seasons in New England, was a three-time first team All-Pro and was selected to five straight Pro Bowls. Seymour was incredibly consistent and actually had his best statistical season at age 29 which made it such a shock when the Patriots released him the following offseason.
Willie McGinnest was another defensive linchpin of the Patriots’ dynasty. Famous for being the first one in the gym, McGinnest set the tone both on and off the field. Despite only playing five seasons under Belichick, MCcGinnest’s 38.5 sacks are still the fourth most of any player under Belichick. His 16 career postseason sacks are also still the most in NFL history.
Chandler Jones was one of the two Patriots first round draft pick in 2012 draft and his talent was on display from the start. In his NFL game, Jones stripped Titan’s QB Jake Locker that fellow rookie Donta’ Hightower recovered for a touchdown. Jones reached double digit sack totals twice in his four years in New England. The Patriots traded Jones after the 2015 season and haven’t had a quality pass rush since.
A prototypical Belichick redemption project, Rob Ninkovich had stops in New Orleans and Dolphins before finding a home in New England. During his eight years in New England he had 46 sacks, 279 tackles and 14 forced fumbles. Pretty good numbers for a player that only saw the field eight times his first three seasons.
Ty Warren started in New England as a role player on the 2003 championship team but quickly developed into one of the more indispensible players on the roster. From 2004-2009, Warren started nearly every game for the Patriots and collected 20.5 sacks in his Patriot career.
Middle Linebacker: Tedy Bruschi, Jerod Mayo, Ted Johnson
When Tedy Bruschi retired in 2008, Belichick called him “the perfect player”. While Bruschi was never a star, he was the ideal player to lead the Patriots defense of the 2000’s. Bruschi started 117 games for the Patriots under Belichick and gave it his all for every down of those. His 11 interceptions and four pick-sixes under Belichick speak to how useful he was a run stopper and in pass coverage, His 675 career tackles are the second most in Patriots history.
Shortly below Bruschi on the Patriots’ all-time tackles list is Jerod Mayo. Mayo was a two-time pro bowler and was always near the top of the NFL’s tackle list during the prime of his career. Mayo does technically have a Super Bowl ring as a member of the 2014 squad but he was placed on injured reserve just six games into the season after an ACL tear. If not for his injuries Mayo could still be on the Patriots’ roster today.
Ted Johnson is one the more overlooked players from the Patriots’ dynasty. A part of all three championship teams and a member of the 1996 team that went to the Super Bowl, Johnson was crucial to the Patriots rise to prominence. Johnson’s 527 career tackles are the sixth most in Patriots’ history.
Outside Linebacker: Dont’a Hightower, Mike Vrabel
A main stay as a starter since his rookie season, Dont’a Hightower is a major reason why the Patriots have been in the Super Bowl three of the last four years. Hightower is also prone to clutch plays. His tackle of Marshawn Lynch just short of the goal line set up Butler’s game winning interception in Super Bowl XLIX and his strip of Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI helped spurn the Patriots’ epic comeback.
Mike Vrabel’s 48 sacks as a Patriot are the most by any player under Belichick. He was also a threat on offense, famously catching a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXXIX against Philadelphia.
Cornerback: Ty Law, Darelle Revis, Asante Samuel, Malcolm Butler
Put Ty Law in the hall of fame already.
If you force the NFL to change the way the game is officiated, odds are you’re a pretty great player. And Ty Law was undoubtedly that. After intercepting Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts three times during the 2003 AFC Championship game, the NFL put renewed emphasis on making contact with a receiver past five yards from the line of scrimmage. Law has a five-time Pro Bowler in his career with four of those coming under Belichick..
When the Patriots lost Aqib Talib to Denver in 2014, they knew they had to make an impact move to keep the defense at a high level. So they signed one of the greatest cornerbacks of all-time. After a failed experiment in Tampa Bay, Darrelle Revis returned to form as one of the games’ elite corners and was crucial to the Patriots’ success in 2014.
It took some time for Revis to get accustomed to the Patriots, struggling in the first quarter of the season but Revis eventually transformed into the lockdown corner he once was. He finished the 2014 regular season 57.2 passer rating against him. During a year in which the Patriots faced Brandon Marshall, AJ Green, and Jordy Nelson, Revis turned the average wide receiver into Donte Moncrief.
Despite only playing one season in New England, Revis was the most talented corner Belichick has ever been able to work with and that’s enough to earn him the other starting corner spot opposite Law
Asante Samuel played longer in New England than Revis did but was never on the same level. He spent five seasons in New England and was an All-Pro in 2007, but he never had the reputation as a lockdown corner. Although he’s the leader in interceptions in the Belichick-era, Samuel played a guessing game. Often times, if it wasn’t an INT, it was a 30-yard gain for the opponent. His drop of the potential game clinching interception in Super Bowl XLII cost the Patriots their perfect 19-0 season.
Where Asante Samuel failed, Malcolm Butler launched himself into NFL history. His game-saving interception in the closing moments of Super Bowl XLIX made him a Patriots legend even if he never played another down again.
Luckily for the Patriots, Butler developed into a capable number one corner after Revis returned to New York. While never a world-beater, Butler was a solid starter for three seasons and a crucial part to two championships. Enough to make him one of the best Patriots corners of the last two decades and for his benching in Super Bowl LII to give me night terrors months later.
Free Safety: Devin McCourty, Eugene Wilson
An early position change likely salvaged Devin McCourty’s career. Despite being named to the 2010 Pro Bowl as a rookie, McCourty struggled to cover as a cornerback. Eventually, Belichick put him farther back in the defensive backfield, converting McCourty into a safety. The move did wonders. McCourty has become one of the better safeties in the league and has been named a Second-Team All Pro four times.
Now, I didn’t expect to have Eugene Wilson on this list. I don’t think Eugene Wilson would expect to see himself on this list. But here he is so let’s talk about it. Wilson was an immediate starter as a rookie, a solid contributor on four teams that made it to at least the AFC Championship and totaled nearly 200 tackles in his five years as a Patriot. While his numbers don’t leap off the page and he was never even remotely considered one of the best at his position, Wilson did enough to warrant his appearance on this list.
I don’t know who else could reasonably be put here. Brandon Meriweather? Steve Gregory? Tebucky Jones? It turns out Wilson is the second greatest free safety Belichick’s had.
Strong Safety: Rodney Harrison, Lawyer Milloy
When Rodney Harrison signed as a free agent in 2003, most thought his career was on the decline. Harrison immediately squashed those thoughts. He was named a team captain almost immediately and was a first team All Pro in his first season as Patriot. On the wrong side of 30, Harrison totaled 312 tackles during his time in Foxboro.
Despite most of his glory occurring prior to Belichick’s arrival, Lawyer Milloy was a key part of the 2001 team. In a five-year span, 1998-2002, Milloy made the Pro Bowl five times. Despite only playing three years under Belichick, Milloy was regarded as one of the best safeties in the game during those seasons.
Special Teams: Adam Vinatieri, Ryan Allen, Mathew Slater
Belichick loves to preach about the importance of all three phases of football, so the special teams also deserve some review.
Stephen Gostkowski is the kicker that’s spent the most time in New England under Belichick but this spot couldn’t go to anyone other than Vinatieri. The undrafted free agent and former NFL Europe transplant is bound for Canton. You can’t tell the story of the Patriots rise without mentioning Vinatieri. His kick through Blizzard-like conditions during the 2001 playoffs against the Raiders and the game-winning kick in Super Bowl XXXVI stick out but the still-active Vinatieri has too many clutch kicks to list.
Out of all the left-footed punters that have found their way on a Patriots’ roster, Ryan Allen has been the best. His five years in New England make him the longest tenured punter the Patriots have had since 2000 and his 24 punts placed inside 20 yards make him a very valuable asset on special teams.
Mathew Slater fills out the final spot on our roster. For a player with only eight career receptions, Slater has been an indispensable part of the Patriots since he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. After a punt, Slater is almost always the first player there. His ability as a gunner have earned him seven Pro Bowl nods.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.