Sketching out the New England Patriots Ideal Depth Chart in the Secondary
It seems it's always a work in progress with the New England Patriots in the secondary, with new leaks springing just in time for the caulk to dry on the old holes.
The acquisition of Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib gives the Patriots a bit more flexibility in the secondary, and it has raised questions about the complexion of that unit going forward.
The first and most important domino to fall could be the future plans for Devin McCourty. He has played both cornerback and safety recently, but has lined up predominantly at safety in the past two contests as the team has dealt with injuries to Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory.
But when they return, where will he end up? Will he return to cornerback, assuming one of the top spots again? Or will he remain at safety, signaling a decreased role for one of the early season starting safeties?
CB1: Aqib Talib
CB2: Alfonzo Dennard
CB3: Kyle Arrington
CB4: Marquice Cole
What we've heard about Talib thus far indicates that he's at his best in man coverage, lined up over the receiver. When he's on the field, the Patriots will likely be in man coverage underneath, possibly with Cover 2 on the back end.
Talib likely won't be thrust into a big role right out of the gate, and Kyle Arrington will likely remain a starter at least until Talib makes his debut following his suspension, if not beyond that point.
Arrington has been up and down this season; he was pulled for Dennard against the Seahawks and left the game against the Rams with a head injury. He returned to practice on Tuesday and is questionable for Sunday's divisional tilt against the Bills.
Of the remaining corners not named Talib, Dennard has proven the better outside man coverage cornerback. His ability in that regard, combined with the perceived direction of the secondary toward a Man-2 coverage scheme, leads me to believe Dennard is in store for a steady and heavy dose of playing time going forward. He has earned an increased workload over the past few weeks as the Patriots have dealt with injuries at cornerback.
Don't sleep on Marquice Cole, either. The fourth-year corner has played just 42 snaps this season, but earned half of those snaps against the Rams (via ProFootballFocus.com), where he played 32.8 percent of the team's snaps. He gave up just one catch for four yards on three targets. If he continues to play well in a limited role, he could see that role increase.
FS1: Devin McCourty
SS1: Steve Gregory
S2: Patrick Chung
S3: Tavon Wilson
It was reported back in April (by The Boston Globe) that the Patriots wanted to move McCourty to safety permanently during the 2012 offseason, but sometime between then and the beginning of the season, they felt they needed him at cornerback. Now, with injuries to both Chung and Gregory facilitating more playing time for McCourty at safety, his positional future is back in question.
From this perspective, his skills are best used at safety. He's a good open-field tackler, and with his hips square to the line of scrimmage, his ball skills would be put to their best use. The Patriots got gashed by Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez with McCourty at safety, but the coverage on the back end looked a lot more stable than it has in awhile against the Rams.
With McCourty at safety, though, what does that mean for Chung and Gregory? When they return, where do they land?
Gregory was brought in with versatility in mind, having played all over the secondary for the Chargers (at both safety spots and some cornerback) over the past few years. The Patriots have used him primarily at the free safety spot, but the Patriots want their safeties to play both sides, as Bill Belichick has said in the past (via ESPN) that it's the offense, not the defense, who dictates the "free" and "strong" safeties.
"...[In] our system we have always taught our safeties both positions. If they’re on the strong side of the formation or on the weak side of the formation, to learn how to play of those because inevitably there are going to be times when the offenses are going to do that and force you to do that and then sometimes we, by game plan, adjust that from week-to-week on what specifically we want them to do.
"Sometimes we can control who is the strong safety and who is the weak safety but a lot of times we can’t so they really need to learn both responsibilities for when it gets to that point, which like I said, inevitably it does."
That, to me, indicates that Gregory would remain in the larger role due to his ability to fulfill the responsibilities of both a free safety and strong safety, as well as his experience doing so.
What should happen when Chung and Gregory return from injury?
Safety Tavon Wilson showed a lot of promise in training camp, but he still shows a lack of awareness on the field. The fact that he was burned on the exact same route twice this season, making the same mistake both times, does not bode well for his current status on the depth chart.
He'll have to work his way back up, but he could play the "money" position, which is essentially the sixth defensive back in a dime package. His size makes him ideal playing in the box, and he doesn't sacrifice much in coverage.
What the Patriots do in the secondary is frequently based on game planning, but Belichick has said himself that he would like to see some consistency in terms of where players are lining up on the back end.
The sooner the Patriots find that consistency, the better off their secondary will be.
Adding Talib to the mix gives the Patriots another option, but it indicates a very specific direction for the secondary in that now, we will likely see a much more straight-forward approach in coverage.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.
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