For all the turnover and turmoil, the New England Patriots offense has looked remarkably efficient this preseason. While it is always dangerous to read too much into August football results, the fact that Tom Brady has two incompletions through two games underscores how well the new receivers have adapted to the Patriots' notoriously complicated system.
Thus, the more pressing concern actually lies with a position that most of the national media has overlooked—the right cornerback position opposite Aqib Talib.
On paper, things seem solid. Alfonzo Dennard was one of 2012's most pleasant surprises, and Kyle Arrington led the league with seven interceptions playing the position in 2011. But talent is one thing, and fitting into the team's schematic plan is a wholly different issue.
Most Pats fans are concerned with the start of the season, when Dennard may face a potential suspension, and rightfully so. But even when the second-year cornerback does return, those expecting a savior might find themselves a bit disappointed.
Context is important here, too, as the Patriots do not currently have any irreparable holes that will submarine their Super Bowl aspirations. Nevertheless, here are four factors that make the right cornerback spot the greatest positional area of concern in New England.
Inexperienced Depth Options
Consider the progress of the New England passing game, the area that generated the most preseason panic. While many have compared it to the infamous 2006 incarnation led by Reche Caldwell, it's a bit comical to realize that Pats fans are terrified of replicating an offense that finished seventh in points during that season.
And while the Patriots may not match their historic pace of the past three seasons, the rapid progressin of the team's rookie receivers this summer gives reason to believe the passing game will remain elite.
As always, there exists the caveat that one should never read too much into preseason results. But the rookie quartet consisting of wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce to go along with tight end Zach Sudfeld has ingratiated itself much quicker than even the most optimistic fans could have hoped for. Rookie swings will be inevitable during the regular season, but the Patriots ceiling appears higher at receiver than ever before.
On the other hand, none of the Patriots' young cornerbacks have really distinguished themselves. And when considering the depth options in the secondary, 2013 might become a turbulent trial-by-fire season for a few young corners.
Setting aside an impressive pick-six in the preseason opener, Logan Ryan has had his ups and downs throughout training camp. As noted by Luke Hughes of NESN.com, Ryan has had trouble containing deep throws and locating the ball in one-on-ones, which is something one might expect from a rookie corner. Watching his draft profile tape, it's apparent that his hyper-aggressive style could make him susceptible to simple double moves (skip to the 1:41 mark):
Nonetheless, compared to the Patriots' other young corners, Ryan must look like Deion Sanders, circa 1994. Per usual, Ras-I Dowling has been MIA, injured since August 2 with an undisclosed injury. As I noted a few weeks ago, Dowling's roster spot is in serious jeopardy, even though fans have yet to see a glimpse of his well-renowned physical tools.
Apart from those two, the Patriots also have a pair of undrafted Rutgers rookies in Justin Green and Brandon Jones. Alas, unlike with Thompkins and Sudfeld, the Patriots have not struck undrafted gold here. Neither has really stood out in any way so far this summer, and both will probably be auditioning for practice squad slots in the final two preseason games.
Ryan has done enough to perhaps earn a role in dime packages, but it might be a stretch for the third-rounder to immediately start opposite Aqib Talib. Thus, it might necessitate taking away from an area of strength to address a potential void at corner.
A Domino Effect
According to Mike Woellert of Pro Football Focus, Dennard was targeted 61 times in just 601 snaps last season. That's a fairly heavy workload to bear, and if one of the unproven corners steps into that same role this season, that number will likely rise even higher.
But what if the Patriots convert one of their veterans over to the position?
At this point, most Patriots fans know that Kyle Arrington is much better suited in the slot, and there are multiple breakdowns illustrating his troubles against the size and speed of good outside receivers. But for all the grief Arrington draws, he is actually a fairly capable slot corner. In fact, AdvancedNFLStats.com rated him as the Pats' best regular cornerback in terms of Win Probability Added (WPA+) last season.
Erstwhile top corner Devin McCourty has taken reps at his old position throughout camp, according to ESPN Boston's Field Yates, and he's certainly a possibility to play there in an emergency. However, in doing so, the Patriots would be voluntarily removing their greatest asset in the secondary.
Part of what made the Aqib Talib trade so successful was that McCourty was finally allowed to roam as a ball-hawking free safety. Take this play from the Patriots' Week 15 win over the Texans last season. When Houston quarterback Matt Schaub releases the ball, it appears like he has an easy touchdown to Kevin Walter in the seam:
And yet, McCourty exhibits his stellar instincts and anticipates the throw, erasing roughly 10-12 yards of separation in a flash and picking off the pass:
The Patriots have received some of the league's worst safety play in recent seasons. For instance, AdvancedNFLStats.com rated 2011 starters Patrick Chung and James Ihedigbo 41st and 56th, respectively, out of 81 qualified safeties.
However, McCourty's presence at the position last season finally provided a reliable cover man in the deep half of the field. Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Patriots gave up an average of 3.9 20-yard passes per game after McCourty moved to safety in Week 12, as opposed to 5.1 per game from Weeks 1-11.
Moving either Arrington or McCourty would take them away from their comfort zone. Still, the optimist might argue that a pair of veteran alternatives should be able to cover up for the inexperienced options. And if either Arrington or McCourty has to cover the position during Dennard's suspension, there should only be a temporary dip in production.
Of course, that assumes that Dennard improves upon a rookie season that was not as impressive as some might believe.
Can the Patriots Trust Dennard?
Perhaps the positive reception Dennard received in 2012 was simply because he was not a complete disaster, which is something Patriots fans have been accustomed to seeing at the cornerback position.
That is not to say Dennard was poor last season, as he far exceeded expectations as a seventh-round flier. However, AdvancedNFLStats.com gave Dennard a mediocre 0.27 WPA+ last season, good for 109th out of 177 cornerbacks. That tied the rookie with Stanford Routt, whom the Chiefs released after eight games.
The hope is that Dennard makes the second-year jump and separates himself from off-field turmoil and his lowly draft status. Unfortunately, he sustained a leg injury roughly two weeks ago, and has yet to return to practice. Those are valuable lost reps, on top of the games he might lose if he draws a suspension. Even for a veteran corner, it would be difficult to jump into the starting lineup with little to no preseason tune-up.
Moreover, Dennard's 5'10", 204-pound frame seems ill-suited to match up against the prototypical big "X receiver," the same problem that plagued Arrington in the past. In fact, Dennard's Pro Football Weekly draft scouting report from last year seems to suggest as much:
Thick hips and trunk. Lacks ideal height and length (short arms) to press and work off blocks outside. Disadvantaged vs. bigger receivers. Average top-end speed. Shows some tightness in transition. Tends to clutch and grab downfield. Does not set a hard edge in run support — plays small, tackles low and results are inconsistent. Has been dinged and durability could be an issue.
Those criticisms sound a lot like the same issues that forced Arrington into the slot. Now, not all undersized corners are necessarily poor options on the outside, as ex-Patriot Asante Samuel is actually the same height and about 20 pounds lighter than Dennard. However, Dennard had his share of struggles when he was targeted deep down the field.
Here, Randy Moss badly burns him on a simple go route, and the single high safety cannot rotate from the middle fast enough:
Even on his first career interception against Mark Sanchez (who else?), Dennard is beaten by about seven yards. Fortunately, that massive gap is apparently enough against Sanchez, though probably not against any competent starting quarterback:
Those two lapses don't override Dennard's year-long consistency, even if he was never really more than an average starter. But with his off-field issues and elevated expectations, the second-year corner is facing a tough set of circumstances. Even when he does come back, don't be surprised if it takes some time for him to knock off the rust.
The Big Picture
The Patriots defense looks capable of becoming a championship unit, and one weak spot will not drastically derail their postseason hopes. But as the Ravens demonstrated in last season's AFC Championship Game, one glaring weak link paired against a hot quarterback can end a team's season in an instant.
Continuity should help this unit, though, as every member of the 2012 secondary is back. And even as a rookie, Ryan's addition should bolster the depth as well.
But cornerback is among the most important non-quarterback positions in today's passing-oriented NFL, and a lack of depth there could be a critical flaw for any club.
Health is traditionally a fleeting mistress, and it is one that varies significantly from year to year. The Patriots' projected secondary of Talib, Dennard, McCourty and Adrian Wilson only missed nine games due to injury last season (this excludes Talib's four-game PED suspension), and hopefully, this healthy trend continues in 2013.
If luck bounces the other way this season, though, the Patriots may not have enough depth to hold up. Past Patriots championship teams have had unexpected contributors step up to combat injuries, though—from Troy Brown to Asante Samuel and, of course, Tom Brady.
If someone can exceed expectations to provide consistency at right corner this season, then the Patriots chances of fielding an elite defense, and thus a Super Bowl contender, are significantly better.
*All photo stills courtesy NFL.com.