Youth Movement To Play Big Role For 2014 Patriots

Mar 05, 2014 4:48 PM EST

The Patriots released safety Steven Gregory to unleash Duron Harmon on the NFL – said no one ever. Gregory was likely a monetary release because his performance on the field was not worth $2.85 million more than Harmon's -- so they got rid of Gregory and saved themselves that lump sum.

Linebacker Brandon Spikes is also on his way out, it appears. His inability to abide by the Patriot way landed the uninjured linebacker on the injured reserve for the playoffs. This paved the way for back-up Jamie Collins -- but not just in the AFC Division Playoff game. His work against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts reinforced what many think is the inevitable departure of Spikes. If the Patriots did not want him in the playoffs, it is hard to imagine them wanting him next season.

Like it or not, Collins and Harmon are projected to start for New England next year.

These moves do not say that New England is implementing a youth movement – because they are not. Their core players are still Vince Wilork, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty, but injuries to two of these core players thrusted youngsters into important leadership roles last year, which has helped encouraged growth. So, in theory, Collins and Harnon got extra reps and are on an accelerated timeline.

Do you sense the hesitance?

Collins had a great game against the Colts, but was not blowing up the stat sheet during the rest of the season. The "touted" pass rusher totaled only two sacks in the regular season and playoffs combined. He proved effective in pass coverage -- which is somewhat expected since he played safety in college -- and had a pass deflection in five of his last six games. He even had a 10-tackle game in the Week 12 overtime victory against the Broncos. He is not a tackling machine like Spikes is, but he is a nice counter to the new era of versatile tight ends. When most teams fret over whether they will put their safety or linebacker on a tight end, such as the Green Bay Packers' Jermichael Finley, the Patriots have an easy game plan. It would not be as simple as sticking Collins on a dynamic tight end, because Aqib Talib (if he re-signs) can defend tight ends as well, and Head Coach Bill Belichick loves options.

But the facts show that Jamie Collins' game against the Colts was a fluke. Collins is an icing player at this point of his career. New England should use him when the cake is already made – he is just the icing on top of it. He can provide a sack, an interception or a deflection, but he needs a solid foundation around him to make up for any mistakes that he might make. Duron Harmon does not even have that icing factor. So far, he is barely an ingredient to the cake.

All cakes aside, the hesitance rests mostly in Harmon, who has proven far less thus far than Collins has. He only played 36.9% of defensive snaps so far. The worries lie with the Patriots' constant misreading of talented safeties such as Tavon Wilson, Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather. Who is to say that he will finally be the one that breaks the lineage of disappointing prospects? It is the reason to believe that safety is one of the Patriots' biggest needs.

The Patriots' defense, if healthy, could be absolutely unstoppable next year, but only if those three leaders are back at the helm. The emphasis will be on veterans and not on the younger players. The Patriots need stop a gap option to help Harmon ease into the hot water. The Patriots know what they have in both players. They barely used Harmon and they only used Collins on 66% of snaps because they had to. Expect the Patriots to get one or two inexpensive veterans this offseason that will provide a positional safety valve. If the youngsters prove that they are ready, that is great. If not, the veteran presence will prove to be a smart move. Last year, the growing pains on offense were hard to watch. Belichick should look to avoid a similar situation on defense this season.