Curran: Patriots' desperate need for speed has to be addressed

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Speed kills. Figuratively. And if you ain’t got enough of it, you die slowly, helplessly and with an absolute knowledge as to why you’re dying. Not fast enough. Couldn’t keep up.

The New England Patriots are a slow football team. It’s been that way for a while. For years, they covered it up with a combo of singular high-end talent -- Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Stephon Gilmore, Dont’a Hightower, for instance -- and big-brained schemes on both sides of the ball.

But the end of the 2021 season and the humiliating way they were whisked from the playoffs showed those days are very much over. Over the next three days, the Patriots have nine draft picks. If they don’t satisfy their need for speed -- especially on defense -- they won’t just be looking up at the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East, they’ll be looking up at the Miami Dolphins too.

If you’re wondering what the Patriots will do between now and Saturday, just follow the logic. Every team’s goal entering a season is to try and win their division. Now consider the way they closed 2021: They lost four of their last five. They allowed 140 points in the losses. Three of the four losses were to divisional rivals (Buffalo twice and Miami in Week 18). The other loss was to an AFC peer, Indianapolis.

The Bills and Dolphins were a combined 19-for-34 on third down in those ultra-critical, gotta-have-it games. In the Patriots' 47-17 playoff loss to the Bills, Buffalo scored a touchdown on EVERY SINGLE DRIVE.

This is what Devin McCourty said on his Double Coverage podcast days after the loss.

"It was just a game, as a defender, that was very frustrating because you just felt like you did no right in the game no matter what," Devin said. "The play calls, they kept changing. We kept trying something different. I mean, (defensive play-caller) Steve (Belichick) called everything we had Saturday night, and just nothing went right for us.

"And I would say the disappointing part about that is when that happens, I think everybody’s played in a game where you felt like, man, we just can’t get anything going. But for that to show up in a playoff game ... (it’s) obviously not a great feeling."

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Tried everything and nothing worked. Meanwhile, three weeks earlier, when the Patriots lost to the Bills, McCourty lamented that the Patriots' strategy of sitting back and waiting for Bills quarterback Josh Allen to make a mistake hadn’t worked either.

"In zones, (Allen) did a good job of just checking it down," McCourty said on December 26. "And it wasn’t like it was huge plays, but it was seven, it was eight (yards). And it made us harder in second-and-twos and things like that. So, I thought he did a good job, but I didn’t think we adjusted well to that. It was kind of like we were behind in each part of that, and he kept the chains moving, and it made them have the ability to really control the game."

There have been plenty of indicators this offseason the Patriots are trying to get smaller and faster defensively. They released 250-pound Kyle Van Noy, their most productive linebacker. They have yet to bring back veterans like the 260-pound Hightower or the 250-pound Jamie Collins.

They traded Chase Winovich to Cleveland for 233-pound linebacker Mack Wilson and have cleared the decks for players like 242-pound Raekwon McMillian (a second-rounder for Miami in 2017) and 2021 draftee Cam McGrone (236 pounds) to make their case for playing time.

"Positionless football is the future," Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones tweeted last month.

The tweet was context-free on Twitter but really cuts to the heart of what the Patriots seem to be moving toward -- smaller, faster, interchangeable, back-seven defenders who can match up with a tight end like Buffalo’s Dawson Knox and (hopefully) keep pace with Miami’s Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.

The Patriots haven’t veiled their intention to add speed.

"What I would say is you always want to get faster, especially in today’s game," said Director of Player Personnel Matt Groh in his pre-draft press conference. "And that’s in all spots, not only at linebacker, defensive line or in the back end. You always want to get faster. But what we covet here is versatility and smarts -- football intelligence. Those are things you definitely want to have on the team.

"Now, we have some guys who were new to the system last year, which I expect going forward, they’ll have a better understanding of that. And also through the draft and through free agency, we’re definitely going to look to get faster, look to get more explosive and look to put more playmakers on the field."

The Patriots will have plenty of chances to do that the next three days. There are sideline-to-sideline linebackers on the board like Nakobe Dean and Quay Walker from Georgia, Devin Lloyd from Utah and Christian Harris from Alabama. There are EDGE players that can help with a pass rush that flagged at the end of 2021. There are abundant corners.

The upshot of all of it is this: If you want to know what the Patriots will do in their draft room this weekend, look at what happened to them on the field in December and January. Lack of speed is a problem that needs fixing. Fast.

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