For the first time since the early 2000s, the New England Patriots can lay claim to one of the NFL's deepest secondaries. The offseason acquisition of Darrelle Revis gives Bill Belichick a uniquely talented weapon, opening up a myriad of game-planning possibilities for 2014.
With Revis entrenched at left corner, the starter opposite him figures to receive plenty of targets. Fortunately, competition typically breeds the best results, and the Pats have several capable options.
Still, playing outside corner requires a specific skill set, specifically the size to press at the line and the ball skills to make plays on intermediate-to-deep perimeter throws. Conversely, a slot corner, who will play the majority of the defensive snaps in sub-package personnel, is typically a smaller player with the lateral agility to mirror shifty slot receivers in short spaces.
With that in mind, it appears there are three realistic candidates to receive the majority of the right cornerback snaps next season. Training camp and preseason form will ultimately decide who wins out, but based on last season's numbers and film, let's take a look at the pros and cons of each and determine who holds the early edge.
While Revis was the splashy signing, Browner's arrival could be the piece that allows New England to play press on nearly every play. The ex-Seattle Seahawk, who will turn 30 during the season, has the edge in physical measurables and experience, though his four-game suspension means that others will have the first crack at showing they belong outside.
Browner's greatest strength is his 6'4", 221-pound frame, which allows him to stand eye-to-eye against nearly every receivers. Browner's best game in 2013 came in Week 7 against Arizona, in which he played all 76 snaps on the right side of the defense, typically matching up against the 6'2" Michael Floyd or 6'3" Larry Fitzgerald.
Though the Seahawks played a true Cover 3 zone for much of that game, Browner demonstrated consistent awareness in breaking on passes, which bodes well for his fit in man schemes. His ability to redirect receivers off their initial releases allows him keep the entire play in front of his eyes, leading to excellent anticipation and route identification:
Indeed, corners like Browner are gaining value throughout the league. Big man-coverage corners such as Aqib Talib and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie received the most handsome paydays in free agency, as opposed to zone specialist Alterraun Verner. A similar pattern unfolded in the draft, where big prospects such as Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Keith McGill went a bit earlier than expected.
So what gives with Browner? An ostensibly ideal fit for Seattle, it should be at least somewhat alarming that the Seahawks made little effort to re-sign him. Though Browner's play has dipped slightly since his 2011 Pro Bowl campaign, he never turned into a liability, contrary to public perception (via Pro Football Focus):
|Brandon Browner Stats, 2011-13|
|Year||Targets||Receptions||Yards||TD||INT||QB Rating||Cover Snaps/Rec.*|
|*Snaps in coverage relative to receptions conceded|
Those 38 targets in 2013 are too small of a sample size to derive anything meaningful. In fact, as Pro Football Focus illustrates, a substantial amount of Browner's targets came on go routes, which he defended at an elite level. As a side note, that illustrates his surprising speed, as Browner is capable of carrying receivers deep:
It's certainly possible that Seattle was simply tired of Browner's off-field issues, as he will be serving his second drug-related suspension of 2013. It's important to note that this suspension stems from missed drug-test appointments when he played in the Canadian Football League, rather than another instance of actually using performance-enhancing drugs.
Nevertheless, Browner became redundant for Seattle after Byron Maxwell's emergence, especially considering that the Seahawks will need to shave salary to budget for their young stars' huge extensions.
Seattle's trash could be New England's treasure, and though Browner faces a difficult task in needing to prove himself by midseason, he possesses the most obvious skill set to thrive alongside Revis.
Even with those positive attributes, the Pats would be unwise to totally entrust the position to Browner. Incumbent starter Alfonzo Dennard (5'10", 200 lbs) is younger, and though he does not possess the same ideal measurables as Browner, his promise and familiarity with the system gives him a better chance of starting than many perceive.
In his second season, Dennard received greater exposure, playing 727 snaps in the regular season after recording 601 his rookie season. Even though the volume of mistakes increased as a result, Dennard generally held his own against tougher competition. It's telling that Dennard conceded receptions less often in 2013, despite an uptick in targets:
|Alfonzo Dennard Stats, 2012-13|
|Year||Targets||Receptions||Yards||TD||INT||QB Rating||Cover Snaps/Target||Cover Snaps/Rec.|
|via Pro Football Focus|
Indeed, though he is smaller than most perimeter receivers, Dennard plays with an impressive physicality reminiscent of Browner. The Pats were happy to play Dennard in press coverage on the majority of plays, where his ability to sustain leverage and positioning allowed him to make plays on the ball:
The pass breakup above came against Marques Colston, whose 6'4" frame dwarfs that of Dennard's. Nonetheless, he was able to use his hands to eat up available real estate and move Colston toward the sidelines. Dennard consistently displayed this skill in 2013, perhaps his most noticeable improvement from his rookie year.
And yet, Dennard's most recent game was also his worst, as his abuse at the hands of Demaryius Thomas exposed how far he is from being a true shutdown corner. Dennard gave up seven receptions for 100 yards and a touchdown, conceding a ghastly 135.4 quarterback rating. In several instances, Dennard demonstrated the same stellar technique, but he was simply physically outmatched:
In fairness, Thomas is a mismatch against nearly any corner, and he's not the type of receiver Dennard typically covers. Still, Dennard has occasional issues tracking the ball in the air (see here and here), another flaw that sometimes leads to the correct process producing a poor result.
But that is a fixable issue, and the two plays above show Dennard turning his head around in time, which was a far more frequent occurrence than not. Dennard could also stand to loosen his hips a bit more; in theory, increased fluidity could allow him to displace Kyle Arrington in the slot, where his size is a much more tenable play.
That's getting ahead of things for now, though. The Pats already have better fits in the slot (including potentially the next name on this list) and need a right corner for at least the first four games while Browner serves his suspension. However, the Boston Globe's Ben Volin speculated that Dennard's 35-day jail sentence for probation violation could lead to league discipline:
Losing Dennard and Browner at the same time would be a tough blow to start the season, as one more injury could leave the Pats scrambling for bodies simply to fill out the depth chart. Pro Football Talk's Josh Alper noted that since Dennard's initial arrest came before he was in the NFL, legal semantics make it difficult for the league to impose a suspension.
Though Dennard is one more strike away from some real long-term trouble, it seems unlikely the Patriots will be without him this season. If his off-field issues are behind him, the former seventh-rounder represents a promising young starter who will likely receive first crack at proving he can hold up opposite Revis Island.
To illustrate Logan Ryan's impressive rookie season, let's conduct a blind comparison:
|Coverage Comparison, 2013|
|Player||QB Rating||Cover Snaps/Target||Yards/Cover Snap||Cover Snaps/Rec.|
|via Pro Football Focus|
Player A is Ryan, B is erstwhile top New England corner Aqib Talib and C is Arizona's Patrick Peterson. The traditional stats do not tell the whole story, since Ryan played about half as many snaps as Peterson, but on a per-snap basis, the rookie was targeted about as often and conceded catches at a similar rate to the Cardinals' All-Pro.
The third-rounder certainly fulfilled the scouting reports that praised his ball skills, as his five picks were the most of any rookie last season. Ryan (5'11", 195 lbs) is a different animal from either Dennard or Browner, as he is leaner but rangier. Apart from free safety Devin McCourty, it's not unreasonable to assert that Ryan covers more ground than any other Patriots defensive back:
Indeed, Ryan's instincts and overall skill set bear a strong resemblance to that of his fellow Rutgers alum. Consequently, some have speculated about a possible move to safety this offseason, a notion Belichick somewhat confirmed after the draft:
Ryan will likely play multiple positions this spring and summer as the Patriots search for ways to integrate him into their lineup. Though the sample size is mostly limited at right corner, he did play a substantial number of snaps out wide in Week 17 against Buffalo in place of an injured Dennard.
Though he only conceded two receptions, Ryan did give up a 41-yarder to T.J. Graham. On the play, he failed to properly use his hands to stem the receiver's release, allowing Graham to slip inside and forcing Ryan to turn his hips:
Against a burner such as Graham, that split second cost Ryan. Plenty of "X" receivers possess the speed to eat up cushion, and Ryan will need to improve his hand usage and balance to prevent giving up positions like this:
Ryan also had problems against the 6'3" Eric Decker in the AFC Championship Game, though like Dennard, he was forced into an unexpected position due to Talib's injury. Ryan gave up seven catches for 99 yards in the contest and generally had issues gaining leverage on the bigger and stronger Decker.
This is not to suggest that Ryan is a finesse corner, but he does need to improve how he uses his hands and body to gain position. Thus, if he does not play safety, Ryan could theoretically challenge Arrington for snaps in the slot. Apart from Arrington, Ryan played the highest percentage of his snaps in the slot of any Pats corner, checking in at 28.1 percent.
Regardless of how they deploy him, the Pats must find a way to get Ryan's versatile skill set on the field. Although some of those snaps are likely to come at right corner, Ryan's agility and range appear better suited for the slot or deep safety, where he can play more of a read-and-react role.
It appears that barring an unexpected suspension, Dennard will begin the season as the starting corner opposite Revis. But does that mean he should keep it when Browner returns?
The Patriots face a bit of a dilemma in this regard, albeit one of luxury rather than poverty. Browner and Dennard both seem ticketed for a specific role on the outside. Considering that Arrington and Ryan are both better fits inside, the loser of the right corner race might not see the field except on dime personnel.
Belichick is not averse to change, but he also places a value on continuity. The Patriots have turned over their secondary on a seemingly annual basis, and many currently project McCourty as the only returning starter. It is important not to discount the fact that the Pats have already seen Dennard's baseline performance or the fact that he projects for more future growth than Browner.
Ultimately, Browner presents more of an unknown, even if his ceiling presents the tantalizing possibility of employing two shutdown press-coverage corners.
If he dazzles during training camp and preseason, he could very well convince Belichick to install him as the starter as soon as Week 5. But until Browner proves his ability to stay healthy and avoid flags, Dennard possesses the upper hand as summer approaches.
*All stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).