New England Patriot's positional wrap-ups now shifts its focus to primarily, well, the secondary. As is appropriate in introductions, let's start with attendance. Here is the contractual roll call of each player in this year's class:
Free: Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung, Marquice Cole, Derrick Martin, Aqib Talib
Signed: Alfonzo Dennard, Nate Ebner, Steve Gregory, Devin McCourty, Malcolm Williams, Tavon Wilson
Not present: Will Allen, Josh Barrett and Ras-I Dowling, who were on injured reserve.
So, of the 11 defensive backs on last year’s active roster, only six are under contract. Just what the Patriots need.
At no facet of the game did the 2012 Patriots struggle more than coverage from their secondary. From being ranked fourth-worst in passing yards allowed to 74 pass plays of 20 yards or more (worst in the NFL), the defensive backfield was atrocious for the second straight year.
Finishing with 20 interceptions (tied for fifth in the NFL) neither overshadows nor excuses all the yards and big plays allowed. They were flat-out bad.
The good news for a unit that needs a drastic makeover is that having five free agents (of whom, several are most at fault for their shortcomings) provides the opportunity for a fresh start. That said, Chung, Cole and Martin should be allowed to walk.
Yes, even Chung, once one of the defense's key players. He lost his starting job to McCourty and served as little more than a run defender in limited action. Wilson and Ebner will compete for Chung’s snaps.
The aforementioned IR trio may never get back on the field with New England again, especially Dowling. In two years, the 2011 second-round pick played in just nine games, living up to his fragile label from his University of Virginia days. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Patriots ran out of patience for Dowling.
There are two keepers from the free agent class. Talib seems like a no-brainer. His acquisition allowed McCourty to move to safety full time and enabled defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to call a more aggressive defensive gameplan.
The difference between the pre-Talib defense to iteration with Talib present was significant. But New England isn’t sold on Talib and his character concerns. According to CSNNE.com, they weren’t satisfied with his work ethic and wonder how Talib would react with a multi-year contract in his pocket.
If the Patriots really are willing to offer just a one-year deal, Talib is probably gone. He will get multi-year offers, as he is considered one of the top corners in the open market.
The other keeper is Arrington. He found a home playing in the slot, as he was overmatched as a starter. Arrington will never be anything more than an average corner, but he’s serviceable and is a solid tackler. Arrington won’t cost much to retain.
Decisions on Talib and Arrington aren’t the end of the internal problems. Dennard is on trial in Nebraska, facing a felony charge of third-degree assault on an officer and two misdemeanors. If convicted on all three counts, Dennard could be jailed for up to seven years, plus up to $12,000 in fines.
Worst-case scenario is New England would be without their starting corners for 2013.
If the Patriots situation at cornerback becomes that dire, they may dip into free agency to address the priority. Trading for New York Jets’ Darrelle Revis is out of the question because the Jets won’t deal their shutdown corner to a division rival, nor do the Jets want to see Revis lined up on the other side of the line against them at least twice a season.
While we’re at it, let's shoot down the slim possibility of New England signing Baltimore’s Ed Reed. Patriots need a physical strong safety, not another free safety. Maybe New England goes after San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson. They made Goldson an offer in 2011. New England could pursue him again.
Fortunately, this year's draft includes an ample number of big corners and safeties from which to choose. Only a handful of them are projected to be selected in the first round, so the Patriots would get a good one if they use the 29th selection on a defensive back.
The bad news: do you trust the Patriots to make the right selection, given their recent track record? Dowling (second round, 2011), Chung (second, 2009), Darius Butler (second, 2009), Terrence Wheatley (second, 2008), Jonathan Wilhite (fourth, 2008), Brandon Merriweather (first, 2007). You get the gist.
The Patriots should welcome the opportunity of overhauling their secondary, often seen as their Achilles' heel. The task itself, though, could be more than they bargained for. Gregory, McCourty and Wilson are the only locks for next season and comparable options will not come cheap.
As for the rest of the secondary, you’ll need to check the attendance next season.
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