It was confirmation that practice makes perfect.
Last Wednesday during the joint practice against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots CB Logan Ryan anticipated the out route. He cut in front of the receiver, intercepted the pass and returned it for a would-be touchdown.
On Friday, there was Ryan again in the preseason game against the Bucs: He jumped the out route, picked the ball off and returned it 53 yards for a score.
For much of last week Ryan and fellow rookie DB Duron Harmon ran with the first team defense. But don’t read too much into the promotion. Head coach Bill Belichick probably wanted a longer look at the former Rutgers Scarlet Knights teammates.
When the season opens, Ryan and Harmon likely will take a back seat to the veterans ahead of them on the depth chart: Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington will be the top three cornerbacks while Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson rotate at safety.
Ryan and Harmon seemed labeled “Do not start until 2014” the moment they were drafted as New England re-signed Talib and added free agent Wilson to the team. But the Patriots' “next man up” mantra, along with Belichick’s insistence to play the best players approach, leaves the opportunity for playing time up to the rookies.
All they have to do is look at fellow rookies in LB Jamie Collins, WRs Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins, and TE Zach Sudfeld to know that Belichick doesn’t favor veterans.
While most analysts believed wide receiver was New England’s biggest need in the 2013 NFL draft, the Patriots’ 29th-ranked pass defense made the secondary my priority. Re-signing Talib only bought New England time, as he signed a one-year deal.
Equipped with the 29th overall selection, the Patriots were in position to draft from a deep pool one of the top-ranked corners available after just four were off the board.
Instead New England traded out of the first round and waited until the third round to select Ryan, passing on higher-rated cornerbacks like Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, Boise State’s Jamar Taylor and UConn’s Blidi Wreh-Wilson.
Harmon’s selection was surprising, as New England drafted Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner in 2012.
New England has struggled to find reliable defensive backs as members of the dynasty teams retired or moved on. They failed repeatedly to replace CB Asante Samuel (Terrance Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, 2008; Darius Butler, 2009; McCourty, 2010; Ras-I Dowling, 2011).
Shoring up the safety position finally seems possible, as shifting McCourty from cornerback settled one of two holes. But Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson and James Sanders set a very high standard that Brandon Meriweather (2007) and Patrick Chung (2009) couldn’t match.
Ryan and Harmon enter the 2013 competition with a tough, but possible, climb up the depth chart. Ryan’s playing will, in part, depend upon whether Alfonzo Dennard is found guilty of violating his probation. With Arrington better suited in the slot and Dowling sidelined with an injury, the opportunity is right in front of Ryan.
The safety position seems relatively settled, but Harmon is challenging Tavon Wilson. After a four-interception rookie season, Wilson appears to have regressed, opening the door for Harmon. But as a 2012 second-round pick, the Patriots likely won’t give up on Wilson quickly.
It’s not the same story for Ebner. While valuable for special teams coverage, it probably won’t be enough to keep him on the team if Harmon has better sense in the secondary.
With time running out in the second half of last week’s preseason game, Ryan and Harmon were beat by Tampa Bay receiver Tiquan Underwood for a 41-yard gain that set up a Buccaneers field goal.
Ryan and Harmon still have plenty to learn. But as they continue to learn, they get closer to the playing time they hunger for.
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