The 2021 New England Patriots defense was again outstanding, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Patriots finished second in the NFL in points against (17.8/g). Bill Belichick demands perfection from his defenses. It has shown over the years you have to go back to 2011 to find the last time the New England defense finished outside the top 10 in points against. Only once in the Bill Belichick era has the New England defense allowed more than 22 points per game. For reference, 17 NFL teams allowed that or worse in 2021. The New England defense is built around veteran players. They understand the game and play the “Patriot way.” The attention to detail and mistake-free style of football isn’t the most exciting, especially for fantasy football. It’s no secret Bill Belichick hates fantasy football, and that’s just as true on defense as it is on offense.
The New England Patriots finished 10-7 last season and were second in the AFC East Division. They finished top 10 in both points for and points against last season. The Patriots were bounced out of the playoffs in the Wild Card round by the Buffalo Bills. New England head coach Bill Belichick has put together very consistent defenses over the past years. He is now tasked with having an offense good enough to push the Patriots deep in the playoffs like they’ve grown accustomed to over the past two decades.
2021 IDP Review
New England’s defensive system is among the more intriguing ones in the NFL. The Patriots coaching staff looks at defense strategy as matchups, and they don’t really adhere to the philosophy of being traditional. The Patriots spent over 120+ snaps in four different fronts last year. This was one of the most of any team in the league last year. Their coaching philosophy doesn’t bode well for IDP managers expecting consistent fantasy production from those players.
The linebacker position has been a mess for New England from a fantasy perspective for years. They lined up with one linebacker on the field 34% of the time last season, one of the highest rates in the NFL. The Patriots’ matchup-style defense has seen them acquire bigger safeties and, as a result, played 6% of their defensive snaps last season with zero linebackers on the field.
As I pointed out above, the Patriots have moved to play more defensive backs over the years. This led to them playing over 500 snaps in ‘Big Nickel’ last season. As a defensive football fan, just watching what New England does is so innovative, but from a dynasty manager’s perspective, it’s a pain to try and project a player’s weekly output.
Matt Judon, EDGE
Matt Judon had a very effective first year with the New England Patriots after signing a four-year $56 million deal last off-season. It took no time for him to become the most impressive threat off the edge for coach Belichick’s dynamic scheme. He played far and away the most snaps of any player outside the offensive tackle. Judon led the team with 12.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. He led the team in both categories last season. He was the only Patriots player with double-digit sacks. Judon accounted for 34.72% of the team’s total sack production.
The New England sack specialist finished as the DL10 in dynasty nerds’ default IDP scoring last season. Judon had a career-high 42 pressures last season. He finished under ten fantasy points just twice before Week 15. Unfortunately, he averaged just 4.5 fantasy points per game during the fantasy playoffs. He was limited to just ten snaps in Week 17, largely due to a blowout win against Jacksonville. Few coaches hate fantasy football to the level that Bill Belichick does, so even the stud performers can fall victim to his wrath.
Christian Barmore, DL
The New England front does not offer much upside for dynasty managers. The former Alabama defensive tackle will be a damn good player for the Patriots. Barmore racked up 46 stops, 1.5 sacks, and 3 tackles for loss last season. Despite just starting two games and playing only 55% of the defensive snaps, he collected 18 pressures and 9 hurries. Christian Barmore was moved all over the interior defensive line last season. It would appear he’s on the right path to being a full-time player for the Patriots.
Christian Barmore only notched one double-digit fantasy week last season. The Alabama product is a young interior defensive lineman. He’s unlikely to be drafted unless your league requires defensive tackle as a starting position. The combination of him being stuck in the Patriots system and the position he plays is unlikely to return consistent fantasy success in the long term.
Josh Uche, EDGE
Josh Uche is entering his third year with New England. The former Michigan Wolverine had 14.5 sacks over the last two college seasons. He was drafted in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft by New England. He tied for third on the team in sacks (3) last season despite only playing 30% of snaps. Josh Uche has converted 18 pressures into 4 sacks over his first 21 games. He’s only started one game for the Patriots since being drafted but looks to make a big leap this season.
Josh Uche is a late dynasty startup pick at best. Unless he starts the season off hot, I would consider him a bye-week fill-in player. I think he has the best chance to compliment Matt Judon as an effective pass rusher. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean much to the Patriots’ defensive coaching staff, and relying on him from a fantasy perspective is not a good strategy.
Davon Godchaux, DL
Davon Godchaux fits the New England defense perfectly. He finished 9th in the NFL in tackles (65) from the defensive tackle position. Godchaux fits the mold of a much better player for real football than fantasy football. However, it’s only fair to point out he’s had at least 65 tackles in two of the last three seasons. He’s a tackle-heavy interior defensive lineman who can be of value in those DT-premium formats. The former Dolphins now turned Patriots defensive tackle is one of the better values in dynasty drafts if you decide to wait on the position, as most dynasty managers tend to do.
Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB
As I mentioned in the opening, the dip in production from the linebacker position in New England has been evident over the past few seasons. Ja’Whaun Bentley has the most upside of the New England linebackers. IDP managers should be viewing him as an LB4 for your dynasty teams. Bentley had a career-high 109 tackles and 3 forced fumbles last season while starting 16 games for the first time since being drafted.
The former Purdue Boilermaker did play a career-high in snaps last season and recorded a 68.2 overall PFF grade. Bentley was the LB49 last season, and given the system he plays in and his play style, his potential to ever be a three-down linebacker is minimal at best. While he’s playing for Bill Belichick, I’m not sure you can count on Bentley ever scoring many more fantasy points (177) than he did last season. Dynasty managers should view Bentley as a viable option on their bench.
Next Man Up
In the opening, I mentioned the Patriots’ usage of linebackers in their system and how it can be an afterthought, specifically on third downs. I didn’t want to spend too much time breaking down players who likely start the year on waiver wires in even deep dynasty leagues.
Raekwon McMillan is coming off a season-ending injury in his first season with the team but looks healthy and has contributed nicely in the preseason. Mack Wilson joins the team after a trade from the Cleveland Browns. He has all the tools, but injuries and inconsistent play have slowed his development. Lastly, Jahlani Tavai looks to be option four at the linebacker position. This is the biggest afterthought in the minds of an IDP manager. There’s not much here to get excited about. The way this defense has been trending over the years, this linebacker group is just one to stay away from unless it’s a last resort.
Kyle Dugger, DB
Kyle Dugger is one of the more exciting young defensive backs to watch. The Patriots seem to find these small school prospects and get them playing at a high level better than any other team in the NFL. The Lenoir-Rhyne product has been a pleasant surprise for dynasty managers. He’s a tackle-heavy safety who has produced in his first two years in a very competitive secondary. Dugger has averaged 78 tackles through his first two years, and his per-game tackle average is 5.4. He tallied four interceptions last season and collected 100 return yards from those. He finished fifth in the NFL in return yards last season.
The dynamic young safety finished with a positive PFF grade in pass rush (75.1), coverage (75.7), and overall (71.8) in 2021. The New England secondary is loaded with veteran talent. Still, the fact that Dugger played 77% of snaps in his second season proves that he’s the most valuable safety for dynasty managers heading into 2022 and beyond. Dugger tied for second on the team in tackles (92), and his future is bright heading into this season.
Adrian Phillips, DB
Adrian Phillips is entering his ninth NFL season and has found new life with New England over the past two seasons. Phillips finished tied for second on the team in tackles (92). He has remained productive despite being pushed by Kyle Dugger. New England found a way to get two of their best players on the field together in most situations last season. The veteran safety has at least 90 tackles in three of his previous four seasons. He led the Patriots in tackles in 2020.
Adrian Phillips isn’t going anywhere. He’s a big reason the Patriots are so successful when they use ‘Big Nickel’ and ‘Big Dime’ packages. He finished as the DB29 overall last season after finishing as the DB20 in 2020. IDP managers may feel like his time as a consistent fantasy producer is ending, but remember how long players like Malcolm Jenkins and Antoine Bethea were successful for fantasy scoring. I encourage managers not to focus on a player’s age nearly as much on the IDP side as they do on the offensive side.
Devin McCourty, DB
I’m not going to lie to the people. Devin McCourty is the poster child when we say a player is much better for real football than fantasy football. Devin McCourty is the true leader of the New England secondary. He continues to put his teammates in the best position to make a play. He has collected 10 interceptions over the last three seasons. However, his tackle numbers have suffered since the addition of Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger. He has not eclipsed 200 fantasy points since the 2010 season. The former Rutgers star has 31 career interceptions which are third most of any active player. Dynasty managers can still turn to the Patriots’ deep safety for fantasy production until his amount of impact plays drops off. His days of being an 80+ tackles-a-season player are long gone.
Jabrill Peppers, DB
This is the player I’m the most excited about. So naturally, I’ll be the most let down by him this season. The former swiss army knife of the Michigan Wolverines defense has averaged 5.5 tackles per game over his career. His skill set, combined with the defensive brain of Bill Belichick, could be amazing to watch. In 2020 Peppers had a breakout season finishing as the DB11 overall. Sadly, injuries and poor play forced him to only play in six games last season. In those six games, he did finish with double-digit fantasy points in four games.
Jabrill Peppers is listed on the depth chart as a free safety. This role would be nearly impossible for Devin McCourty to give up. I think the patriots love the versatility of the players they have in the secondary. We could see Peppers playing many different positions, especially on third downs. If the Patriots can use the combination of Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, and Jabrill Peppers as a “linebacker” in sub packages, I believe they will keep their weak group of linebackers on the sideline. New England loves to keep other teams guessing. This group of safeties they have this season is one of the best in the NFL. If used correctly could be good for both team’s success and individual statistical success.
On to the Conclusion
As long as Bill Belichick calls the shots, we will not see a drop in play from the Patriots defense. The team has built a successful defensive system that continues to challenge opposing offensive coordinators week in and week out. There’s zero doubt in anyone’s mind the Patriots will be competing for the AFC East title. They have been doing this for two decades. It remains to be seen if the defense can do enough to slow down Josh Allen. All dynasty fantasy football managers understand the struggles of having New England players on their roster. Let’s all pray to the fantasy gods that we get a much better level of consistent production from these players in 2022.