Determining Devin McCourty's position in 2012 will have big ramifications for the Patriots defense.
Although he's touted as a defensive genius, New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick has a shaky track record when it comes to drafting defensive backs.
From 2003 to 2009, he selected 10 defensive backs within the first four rounds with mixed results. For every Asante Samuel and Pat Chung, there was Terrence Wheatley or Darius Butler. Throw in some average guys like Ellis Hobbs and Brandon Meriweather, and it's tough to be pleased with these investments.
Then came 2010.
Despite a huge need for a pass-rusher, the Patriots opted to take McCourty with the 27th overall pick. The 5'11" 193-pounder was lauded for his experience, special-teams ability and work ethic, but he was viewed as more of a fringe first-rounder.
However, once he stepped on the field, Belichick's faith in the former Rutgers standout paid dividends.
Starting at left corner, McCourty turned in one of the best rookie seasons in both team and league history, recording 82 tackles, seven interceptions and 16 passes defended. His impressive contributions earned him a rare first-year Pro Bowl nod and a Second Team All-Pro selection. According to Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus, McCourty's rookie season earned a plus-11.6 rating, good for ninth overall among corners.
Entering 2011, expectations were through the roof for No. 32. His physical style of play drew comparisons to Ty Law, and he was largely expected to become the next shutdown corner. Boy, were we wrong.
Even though he improved his tackle total to 89, his pass-coverage skills all but eroded. He got toasted by Brandon Marshall, Vincent Jackson and Stevie Johnson during the first three weeks and went on to surrender 1,004 yards on 62 receptions for the year. He also had the eighth-worst quarterback-against rating at 106.2, according to Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus.
Where should Devin McCourty play in 2012?
By season's end, McCourty's struggles at corner, along with the lack of depth at safety, forced the Patriots to slide the former first-round pick to safety. While he didn't embarrass himself, he didn't stand out either.
When examining the Patriots' offseason, it's notable that the team didn't add any impact players at corner but did make upgrades at safety by signing former Charger Steve Gregory and drafting Tavon Wilson in the second round.
With Pat Chung locked in as a starter, it would seem Gregory and Wilson would battle for the other spot. So where does that leave McCourty?
Because of his experience and the big disparity between his first and second seasons, McCourty should get another chance to prove himself at corner.
Even if he plays at a level between 2010 and 2011, it would be a huge upgrade for a historically bad defense. Provided he's able to become a reliable corner, it would allow Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling to battle for the No. 2 spot, with the loser settling for slot duties.
It's not often that a third-year player who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie enters a make-or-break year, but for DMC, 2012 is just that.