For the third of my 3-part series on question areas for the New England Patriots, today we look at the defensive secondary, a group with few questions about youthful inexperience and more a study in new and/or moving pieces. A steady building project of Belichick’s over the past four seasons, the Pats’ secondary is nearly entirely made up of players the Patriots have drafted since 2010 (with McCourty in the 1st round), many of them taken from a certain college in New Jersey. The biggest acquisition of the off-season was obviously Darrelle Revis, widely considered to be the best cornerback in the game and an historic obstacle for the Pats in his time with the Jets. The Revis signing came the same week in March that Aqib Talib was whisked away by a large Broncos contract. While Revis’ deal is a complicated style of 2-year deal , the impact for even a single season is palpable. Perhaps even more importantly, his presence allows the rest of the Patriots defensive backs to not be forced into roles unbefitting them, creating greater depth to the defense. While Talib’s impact in Denver has also been considerable – 6 tackles, 4 passes deflected, an energetic boost – it’s not difficult to see the upward move the Patriots made from Talib to Revis.
The other free agent acquisition that has flown somewhat under the radar is former Seahawk and CFL’er, Brandon Browner, who can re-join the team after serving a four-game suspension to start the season. Browner is a big aggressive corner and is seen by many to be the heir-apparent to the starting position across from Revis’ Vineyard once he returns. His suspension is an odd one, relating to missed drug tests during his time in the CFL and a recent positive test for weed. Once he returns for the Week 5 Sunday night matchup against Cincinnati, the Patriots will be looking at perhaps the best set of starting DB’s in the league (Richard Sherman, keep your angry ranting emails/tweets to yourself) – quite a switch from a year ago. The duo will not only shut down the opposing team’s best receivers but will allow greater versatility to the Safeties behind them and pass rushers in front of them. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves by a few weeks.
Presently starting in the #2 CB spot is third-year man Alfonzo Dennard, who has also seen looks at the Safety position (versatility, versatility…). Projected to go high in the 2012 draft, Dennard saw his draft stock drop, mainly due to an incident in Nebraska involving an assault on a cop a week before the draft, turning him into a 7th-rd bargain for the Patriots. He made his presence felt with three big interceptions in his first season (two returned for TD’s) and last year he started 13 games, rotating in with the insufferable Kyle Arrington. With 8 passes deflected over each of the first two seasons, Dennard has grown into someone Belichick can trust and while Browner’s return will undoubtedly shuffle him down a spot on the depth chart, his place as a part of the secondary is secure. He was a surprising scratch for Week 2, relating to a possible shoulder issue. His absence allowed the 2013 3rd-rd pick Logan Ryan to find some time to shine to the tune of 3 tackles, 2 passes deflected and 1 interception. Ryan, like Dennard, is another product of Rutgers and found himself starting several games late last season as Dennard recovered from injury. Ryan’s 5 interceptions last season led the Patriots defense and if Dennard has to spend any significant time out, we may be hearing a lot more from him.
And since I just made mention of him, a quick note on Kyle Arrington: He’s not completely without talent, he just gives up too many big plays to be worth the little he does right. Too many times when a receiver is making a game-changing catch to the outside or deep, we’re able to clearly read “Arrington” across the back of the guy getting beat. Despite pre-season speculation to the contrary, he’s managed to remain with the team, easing far more comfortably into the slot corner position.
Rounding out the CB group is undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler, a longshot to make the team who proved himself with a strong training camp and pre-season. While his contributions should be minimal through much of this season, down the stretch and into next year he is name to watch.
So much for the cornerbacks; what about those guys behind them?
Last year, defensive captain and perennial Pro-Bowler Devin McCourty made the fulltime switch to Safety, after being drafted and playing his first three seasons as the #1 Cornerback. A move of necessity for the team at the time, McCourty’s versatility is a central characteristic of Belichick’s defense and a reflection of the development of the passing game over the past decade.
For the less avid fan or the diehard among us that simply don’t know, the difference between the Free Safety and the Strong Safety is basically this: the Strong Safety lines up to the Strong side of the offensive formation, has a bigger role in run defense and is a bruiser. Rodney Harrison was prototypical example of a SS, and the best at the position to put on a Patriots uniform. They are big, tough, hard-hitting MF’s and an important piece of an aggressive defense. The Free Safety is more responsible, in a relative way, for coverage, for aiding the Cornerbacks over the middle of the field and for finding the ball and disrupting the play. But in Belichick’s defense versatility reigns supreme, lessening these role distinctions and valuing cornerbacks that show promise at either or both Safety position.
This year’s starting Strong Safety is a familiar name as Patrick Chung returns to the team after an unsuccessful year in Philly re-joining his college coach Chip Kelly. Chung had a brilliant breakout year in 2010, started the next season strong, and then found himself derailed by injuries. After making a less than positive impression with the Eagles, Chung was cut after just one year of a three-year deal. With the release and retirement of Steven Gregory, the Patriots re-signed Chung in April with no certainty he would start or even make the team. Over the course of the pre-season and the first two games, though, Chung has earned his keep with 5 tackles and 2 kick returns (averaging 25 yds each) in the MIA and MIN games. Will his second tour as a Patriot see a matured, refined Chung?
Behind Chung and McCourty there are two names to keep an eye on, Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson. Harmon, another Rutgers alum and the Pats’ 2013 3rd-rd pick, was a pre-season favorite of many to win the starting SS job. With the Patriots likely to use a rotation at both secondary positions and questions about Chung’s overall durability, it’s likely Harmon will have a role to play at Safety, though it still remains unclear what that might be. In the season opener against Miami, Harmon played only four snaps at SS, compared to 42 for Chung and 22 for Tavon Wilson. Wilson, meanwhile, is looking to move past an underwhelming 2013 season and reclaim some of the fire of his rookie season as the Pats 2nd-rd pick of the 2012 draft.
The Patriots defensive backfield is a talented, home-grown group allowing Belichick to craft the defense over time and as he sees fit. Each member is valued for his versatility and it will be interesting to see which CB finds a greater role at Safety, be it SS or FS. This is a group of young experience with growing chemistry and the question mark here is not how they will find success, as it is with the RB’s and WR’s, but just how high their potential may be.