The New England Patriots won the AFC East in 2013, for the fifth consecutive season and 10th time in 11 years.
However, in Beantown a division title isn't good enough. In fact, anything less than a Super Bowl win is considered a letdown year.
It was the defense that faltered down the stretch last year, but between players returning from injury and new faces, the defense that takes the field in Week 1 this year will look much different from the one Peyton Manning carved up in last year's AFC title game.
The overhaul continued on Friday. As Mike Reiss of ESPN reports, the Patriots released veteran safety Adrian Wilson:
The 34-year-old was brought in last year to vie for the starting spot at strong safety for the Patriots, but after spending all of 2013 on injured reserve, even the five-time Pro Bowler conceded that all but sealed his fate:
Wilson joins 2013 starter Steve Gregory as strong safeties let go by the Pats this offseason. Gregory logged a career-high 79 tackles a year ago, but the 31-year-old was a liability in coverage, grading 40th at the position in that regard, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
|Steve Gregory 2013|
|Per Pro Football Focus|
If there's a "weak spot" in this "new and improved" Patriots secondary, it's at that strong safety spot.
Of course, that may not be the case if second-year pro Duron Harmon takes the job and runs with it. Harmon was a surprise third-round pick a year ago, but the former Rutgers standout played well in relief of an injured Gregory and improved as the season went on.
Behind Harmon, unfortunately, isn't much. The Patriots brought back Patrick Chung after one year in Philadelphia, but the sixth-year pro was awful last year with the Eagles. Tavon Wilson has done next to nothing since being drafted in the second round in 2012.
Luckily, the situation is quite a bit more stable at free safety. Devin McCourty has thrived since making the switch from cornerback to free safety. In 2013, the fourth-year pro tallied 69 tackles, forced three turnovers and graded as PFF's top overall safety.
Of course, McCourty isn't the only player in the Patriots secondary who took home PFF's top spot at his position last year.
There probably wasn't a bigger offseason acquisition this year than the Patriots' free-agent deal with Darrelle Revis. As a matter of fact, Wilson's release on Friday had an effect on the eighth-year veteran, who ranked as the top corner at Pro Football Focus despite being miscast in a zone defense in Tampa Bay last year:
You can rest assured that Bill Belichick won't be asking Revis to play the Cover 2 this year. He'll be asking Revis to maroon the opposing team's best receiver.
It goes beyond "Revis Island" for the Patriots at cornerback. Once he returns from suspension, fellow free-agent acquisition Brandon Browner gives the Patriots the big-bodied outside corner that's so en vogue in today's NFL.
Slot corner Logan Ryan was something of a revelation as a rookie, intercepting five passes in seven starts. Reserves Kyle Arrington (who ranked highest among New England's corners at PFF last year) and Alfonzo Dennard both have more than a little experience as starters.
It's a deep and diverse group of cornerbacks that should (in theory, anyway) be able to match up with everything from speedy wideouts to athletic tight ends.
This isn't to say that everything is "fixed." Browner's no sure bet after two seasons of suspensions and missed games. A front seven that completely fell apart last year will have to do better, or it won't matter how well the secondary plays.
Still, the Patriots have managed to avoid any big losses up front or on offense, and there's still the NFL draft with which to upgrade the team.
In fact, Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com thinks the Patriots may first look to the secondary in May's draft by selecting Louisville safety Calvin Pryor, who Prisco thinks could slide in next to McCourty as "the Patriots' Kam Chancellor."
All in all, New England's moves in the secondary this offseason are a microcosm for the offseason as a whole, as well as how the Patriots have done business during Belichick's reign.
The Patriots are going to do whatever it takes to get back to the Super Bowl. If that means a big signing, so be it. If it means veterans like Wilson and Gregory being let go, so be it.
It's a balancing act, but one the Patriots seem to have gotten pretty good at.
After all, they've been perched atop their division a little while now.
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