Why 'unicorns' and retention could make Patriots' defense even better in 2023

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Defensive retention: When Patriots quarterback Mac Jones walked off the field after the final day of mandatory minicamp practice, he turned to a visitor and said, “The defense really took it to us today.”

Jones had also referenced how challenging it is to face the defense on a daily basis, saying: “They throw the kitchen sink at you. [Playcaller] Steve [Belichick] is in there all night drawing something up that looks like something you’ve seen, but it’s something else.”

Jones’ remarks highlight one of the obvious themes of Patriots spring practices: The defense, which was one of the NFL’s better units in 2022, could be even better this season.

With so much media-based attention on Jones, new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and how the Patriots aim to turn around last year’s offensive struggles, sometimes overlooked is that head coach Bill Belichick brought back almost the entire defensive unit in 2023.

Consider this: The Patriots have just one defensive personnel departure from last year (safety Devin McCourty’s retirement), which is the fewest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Buffalo Bills, with three defensive departures, have the second fewest.

Those numbers can still change with roster cuts, injury attrition, potential fallout with contracts (e.g., defensive tackle Lawrence Guy didn't report to mandatory minicamp) and legal issues (e.g., cornerback Jack Jones was arrested Friday on weapons charges), but based on the present snapshot, the value of continuity was decisively on display during the Patriots' spring practices.

“OTAs, that’s where some guys really start to learn the defense, what the coaches are asking of you, the expectations, the standard. But we already know that,” safety Jabrill Peppers said.

“So we’re looking for ways to get ahead. How can we disguise? Awareness things. Things we might not have necessarily put our best foot forward last year, trying to take that next step.”

Peppers, whom Belichick gushed over last week by saying he’s a much different player in his second year with the team, added: “I’ve never been a part of something so fast like that.”

Count receiver DeVante Parker in that category too -- from the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.

“I never saw that until I got here [in 2022]. They are a little more advanced with everything they do,” he said.

The Patriots’ defense was the backbone of the last season's 8-9 campaign and might need to be again in 2023 when New England plays the league’s toughest schedule, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

Among the areas where the D ranked highly last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information:

  • Third in efficiency (64.9)

  • Third in sack rate (8%)

  • Tied for fifth in fewest first downs allowed per game (18.5)

  • Scored seven defensive TDs, the most in franchise history and tied for the most by any team in the past 10 seasons

  • One of just two teams with 30 takeaways and 50 sacks (joining the Cowboys)

Outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who led the team with 15.5 sacks last season, said the Patriots have many “unicorns” who can play a variety of roles and positions. He credited the coaching staff for putting versatile players in position to succeed, and said with good health, the unit should be able to better “match up against any offensive personnel.”

At the least, the defense is rolling into training camp on a high note.

“We’re really excited,” Peppers said. “Nothing we did last year matters, but we know what type of defense we can be if we execute.”

2. D-Hop’s decision: Receiver DeAndre Hopkins’ visit to New England ended without a deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the line for the two sides possibly coming together closer to or into the start of training camp.

As Jason McCourty said on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football”: “I spoke to some guys on the team, they feel really good about that visit. Obviously there’s nothing set in stone, I’m not saying he’s going to the Patriots, but I feel once he was there, in the building … [I think it showed] Hopkins having interest in wanting to play for Bill Belichick.”

Said Patriots linebacker Mack Wilson Sr.: “Great player. Obviously some of the best hands ever. I feel like he still has ball left. We’ll see what choice he makes -- hopefully it’s here.”

3. Hopkins’ market: Hopkins’ visits with the Titans and Patriots came just as most teams are finishing offseason programs and will shut things down for about a month. So if you’re Hopkins, and there isn’t a current Odell Beckham Jr.-type offer to consider (one year, $15 million with incentives up to $18 million), there isn’t much difference between signing now or a month from now. Thus, he might as well wait to see if anything happens between now and (possibly into) training camp that might move the market for him closer to a Beckham-type deal.

4. JuJu and Mac: Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s No. 7 jersey now hangs in the Patriots’ pro shop despite the newcomer not yet taking the field for practice. Smith-Schuster and the club have taken a cautious approach due to a lingering knee injury from last season, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t working hard behind the scenes.

“I feel like he’s really bought into the offense. He’s always studying,” Jones said. “He’s working through some things [but] we’re always talking about the offense, certain plays, things that he likes. I think that’s good, the conversations, that always helps just to see it the way he sees it.”

5. Folk’s tale: Veteran kicker Nick Folk expects the NFL’s new kickoff rule, which allows for a fair catch to be spotted at the 25-yard line, to change the way teams approach the play.

“I’d venture to say No. 1 on the hit list, there’s going to be more squib kicks,” Folk said. “Now, when you’re kicking this ball that is this oblong shape, you just don’t know. It’s a tough kick to perfect. You’re at the mercy of the football.”

Folk added that there are six phases of special teams (punting, punt return, kickoffs, kick return, field goals and field goal blocks) and the new rule essentially makes it 5.5 because it halves the impact of kickoffs.

“I don’t know if anyone will do anything in preseason to show what their plans are,” he said. “It will be interesting.”

6. Mapu’s intelligence: Peppers has been impressed with rookie Marte Mapu (third round, Sacramento State), who was a standout in spring practices by lining up at both linebacker and safety. “Smart, smart dude,” Peppers said. “You can tell he wants to understand not just his job, but the whole defense. When you understand that conceptually, it allows you to play faster.” The next step for Mapu: full medical clearance from a torn right pectoral muscle, which had him wearing a red noncontact jersey in the spring.

7. Montgomery’s gesture: Veteran running back/receiver Ty Montgomery visited the holy sites in Israel last year and said it awakened something within him spiritually to want to help others. So from June 6-16 this year, he sponsored 11 individuals who recently aged out of the foster care system. His plan is to do something similar in the coming years and hopes to schedule it after mandatory minicamp so he can join the trip.

8. Rothstein’s role: Mac Jones said last week that third-year Patriots assistant coach Evan Rothstein has been working with the quarterbacks, along with O’Brien. Rothstein, 35, had been Matt Patricia’s head coach assistant/research & analysis with the Lions, and came to New England with Patricia in 2021. “OB and Evan have done a good job coaching us,” Jones said. “It’s all about coming together as one.”

9. Lawing’s loss: Condolences to new Patriots tight end coach Will Lawing, whose father, Brad -- a longtime football assistant at South Carolina -- died Thursday at age 65. Brad Lawing was described as a “larger than life personality” who recruited and coached some of the Gamecocks’ biggest stars, a group including John Abraham and Jadeveon Clowney.

10. Did you know? Mapu, the Patriots’ third-round pick, is the nephew of the late Junior Seau.