This is the year for the Pats to finally fix the back end of their defense.
While that's probably for the best (nobody is clamoring for Aqib Talib at a $10.8 million annual cap hit), it leaves those of us who are eagerly awaiting the next edition of the Pats secondary in the lurch.
After all, if Devin McCourty sticks at safety and Alfonzo Dennard's sentencing goes ill, the most accomplished corner on the Pats would be Ras-I Dowling. That's not a recipe for improvement on last year's 29th-ranked pass defense.
This may seem like cause for panic, if you're a Pats fan. But the offseason is young, and there's plenty of time to put together a competent secondary before Week 1.
Here's an offseason plan to finally plug the leaks in the Pats secondary.
Step One: Replace Steve Gregory With Tavon Wilson in the "SS" Role
This first step doesn't even require a roster move—just a little faith in a reasonable sophomore leap from Tavon Wilson.
Wilson struggled in a deep shell last year (I hate linking to this video, but here's one example) and he likely doesn't have the instincts to play a centerfielder role for the Pats at this stage in his career.
But what he can do is play a traditional strong safety role competently, and that's a hugely important step in improving this secondary.
For all the talk about the struggles in the Pats secondary, they did a fairly good job of defending opposing receivers. By Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, the 2012-13 Pats ranked 14th and 6th in guarding opposing No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, respectively.
Where they struggled mightily in coverage was against everyone else—they were 30th in defending against "Other" WRs, 29th against TEs, and 23rd against running backs.
A lot of that falls on safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung, who struggled in man coverage against those players due to poor instincts and angles of attack (here's another less-than-fun example).
As a former corner, Wilson has the skills to come up on TEs and RBs out of the backfield, and he provides the run support you expect from a SS type (the Pats don't run a typical SS/FS scheme, but Wilson in this instance would play a reasonable facsimile of the SS role). By Pro Football Focus' grading metrics, Wilson graded out negatively against the run just once last season—Week 4 at Buffalo.
For reference, Gregory had seven negative grades against the run last year, and Chung (a player known primarily for run defense) had three in a comparable number of snaps to Wilson.
If nothing else, Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe agrees with me:
Start McCourty & Wilson, use Gregory as sub S, move Wilson to cover TEs.
— Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) February 15, 2013
Step Two: Keep Devin McCourty at Safety
Hey! Another step that doesn't require a roster move! Let's just skip the offseason and head right for opening day, why don't we?
If Tavon Wilson is one of the Pats' starting safeties, he'll need a partner with veteran presence and excellent range. The Pats already have that player on the roster in McCourty, and despite the lack of depth at CB, the Pats would do well to keep the former Rutgers star at safety.
McCourty and Wilson's skills are perfectly complementary. Wilson can play up in man against tight ends but struggles deep, and McCourty gets lost with his back to the ball but shows tremendous range in a deep shell.
It's a match made in heaven for the Pats, provided Wilson can make the leap and crack the starting lineup.
By contrast, a CB pairing of McCourty and Dennard doesn't fit well at all. Individually, both players are good corners, but as a unit you're stuck with one press corner without much zone experience (Dennard) and one zone corner whose skills are mitigated in man coverage (McCourty).
New England's system should maximize the strengths of its players by keeping McCourty in a deep shell to protect its press corners over the top.
Step Three: Let Talib Go, Re-Sign Kyle Arrington
This section hurts to write—Aqib Talib is, as us fanboys say, my binky.
Enough has been written about Talib's injury history, suspensions and inconsistency, but even these question marks aren't the tipping point for me. Where I really draw the line is opportunity cost. The Pats (like any NFL team) simply have too many holes to break the bank for a single player, and they wisely refuse to dedicate too much of their cap to any one position (even QB, apparently).
The Pats need a press corner to pair with the second-year Dennard (who likely won't miss much time, if any), but that need doesn't require a premium investment like the one Talib will probably command.
To that end, the Pats can actually improve their pass defense by letting their best cover corner go. That sounds weirdly counterintuitive, but they can use that money to bolster their pass rush and get a cover linebacker, which in turn will help their secondary.
As for Kyle Arrington, the Pats need a strong slot corner and affordable depth. Arrington fills both needs, and he's better than you think. I'll leave it at that.
Step Four: Sign Greg Toler
The CB market is crowded this year (and could get even stuffier if Nnamdi Asomugha and Chris Gamble become cap casualties), which makes 2013 the perfect time to strike in free agency to fill the CB need.
While players like Talib and Sean Smith will likely require a huge investment, one strong cover corner that could be had on a reasonable deal is Greg Toler.
Toler isn't a household name. But he is a willing tackler in run support and an excellent cover corner who can play both man and zone. By ProFootballFocus' metrics, Toler was the 15th overall cover corner in the NFL—ahead of guys like Champ Bailey, Leon Hall and Ike Taylor.
He's had a few injury issues, particularly with his knee, as he's missed 10 games combined in the past three years. Still, at 28, Toler likely has several good years ahead of him, and is a better bet to stay healthy than Talib.
Toler has the skills and experience in man coverage to pair with Dennard beautifully. With Toler and Dennard on the outside and McCourty and Wilson manning the safety positions, the Pats secondary could finally turn from a liability to an asset.
Step Five: Draft Xavier Rhodes
The Pats have seen what attrition can do to a secondary. They've been through too many seasons with Matt Slater, Julian Edelman and (going back a bit) Troy Brown playing meaningful defensive snaps.
Even if this whole plan played out the way I've described, the Pats' second backup corner would be Ras—I Dowling, who may well be made of glass. They need another viable option with upside, and a long-term investment for the near-certainty that Toler will lose a step in a few years.
To that end, they should go all in with a first-round pick on the biggest corner in the NFL combine, the 6'1", 210 pound Xavier Rhodes from Florida State. He's a big, physical safety who could slide right in to the Pats man-under scheme, and may even slide over to safety someday.
Rhodes would solidify the back end of the Pats secondary depth chart instantly, and he's got the potential to succeed in his first year if he's pressed into duty.
With Rhodes, the 2013 Patriots secondary would be complete. For the first time in years, Pats fans wouldn't hold their breath with the ball in the air.