Bill Belichick is not content with retaining the NFL’s No. 1 defense from last season.

How can you tell?

This week, he’s allowed three New England Patriots starters to get picked off in free agency, sent a key member of the secondary packing, and watched one captain walk out the door.

The Patriots traded safety Duron Harmon to Detroit on Wednesday. The deal was struck just hours after defensive tackle Danny Shelton agreed to join the Lions as a free agent. Their exits compounded the defensive losses the team had already suffered, with linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins agreeing to free-agent deals elsewhere on Monday.

Another linebacker, Elandon Roberts, agreed to a one-year contract with Miami on Wednesday. A team captain last season, his playing time on defense decreased in 2019, but he played both sides of the ball, taking several snaps at fullback down the stretch and even scoring a touchdown.

Dealing Harmon was likely a move designed to free up cap room. His exit creates $4.5 million in cap space for the Patriots. Although he was third on the depth chart behind Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, he graded out as the NFL’s 22nd-best safety, according Pro Football Focus rankings for those who played at least 300 snaps. Over eight starts in the regular season, Harmon made 22 tackles and nabbed two interceptions.

Nicknamed “The Closer,” Harmon had a knack for securing game-sealing interceptions. He totaled 21 picks over his tenure, the most of any Patriot over the past seven seasons. During that time, Harmon missed only one game: the season opener of his rookie season.

Shelton was the Patriots’ primarily run stuffer on first and second down. Overall, the run defense finished eighth in the NFL.

The Patriots now have holes all across their front seven. Strapped for salary-cap room and with only a single pick in the top two rounds of the upcoming draft, they must get creative to reload their defense. It’s possible they could pull off a sign-and-trade involving offensive guard Joe Thuney, who was hit with the franchise tag this week at the cost of $14.7 million.

At the very least, Belichick began his rebuild late Wednesday by reaching a deal with former Buccaneers defensive tackle Beau Allen. The 327-pound run stuffer agreed to the same contract terms Shelton received from the Lions – two years, $8 million – and could replace him outright. Allen made eight starts over two seasons in Tampa Bay, where he signed after spending four seasons with the Eagles.

Aside from Allen, there are currently no obvious candidates to step into the vacant defensive tackle position next to Lawrence Guy.

If disassembling his defense was planned, the reason behind Belichick’s reshuffling should be obvious.

After Week 8 last season, when the Patriots were on pace to smash all-time records, the defense surrendered almost triple the number of points it allowed the first half of the year. As opposing quarterback play improved, the unit sunk to a beatable level.

Starting in November, the Patriots went 2-3 against league MVP Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. While the defense maintained decent overall numbers, opponents were able to seize early leads and dictate terms of engagement from there. The Patriots’ punchless offense couldn’t keep up, and they lost to every AFC contender.

SPECIAL TEAMER Nate Ebner, who had been with the team since 2012, has agreed to a free-agent deal with the New York Giants, according to the NFL Network.

Ebner will reunite with former special teams coordinator Joe Judge, now the Giants’ first-year head coach. The 31-year-old made eight tackles last year and blocked a punt over 14 games.

Ebner played at least 70 percent of the Patriots’ special teams snaps in four of the last five seasons. The exception was 2017, when he missed seven games because of injury. He made an All-Pro second team in 2016.

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