How the New England Patriots Built the NFL's Best Secondary

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How the New England Patriots Built the NFL's Best Secondary
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

On the way to building the NFL's best secondary, the New England Patriots had some false starts.

Similar to Thomas Edison's adage about the light bulb, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick didn't fail on 11 of his 12 defensive secondary draft choices between 2004 and 2011—Devin McCourty was the lone truly successful pick—he merely found 11 ways to not draft a cornerback.

Terrence Wheatley, Guss Scott, Jonathan Wilhite, Willie Andrews and the other defenders picked by Belichick further refined the process that culminated in the secondary that Patriots fans see today. Not a single player in the defensive backfield was around for the 2008 season—the last time New England missed the playoffs.

The secondary didn't just show up through the draft, however. Here are the myriad ways that New England's back line—the linchpin to success in 2014—came to town.

 

Top NFL Draft Picks: Devin McCourty (2010)

McCourty is the lone first-round draft pick in the secondary who was selected by Belichick. (Darrelle Revis was selected by the New York Jets in the first round.) His work at cornerback as a rookie and safety in recent seasons has been nothing if not sublime.

His range and talent might be stretched in 2014, however.

NFL Game Rewind

At times in 2013—the picture above is from Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—the Patriots employed a single safety on the field, complemented by a trio of cornerbacks. McCourty's ability to diagnose what is going on in front of him and not give up the big play helped shape Belichick's offseason plan for building this defense.

 

Mid-Round NFL Draft Picks: Logan Ryan (2013), Duron Harmon (2013), Tavon Wilson (2012)

Belichick invested three mid-round picks in 2012 and 2013, adding versatile defensive backs who can play multiple roles.

Ryan and Harmon excelled as rookies. Ryan finished as the second-best corner in the league in quarterback rating allowed—trailing only Richard Sherman—according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). With some free-agent additions likely to see extended playing time, Patriot coaches need to find a way to get him on the field.

It might come at expense of Harmon, Ryan's former teammate at Rutgers. Despite a solid performance in 2013 that featured very few mistakes, Harmon getting playing time over the likes of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Alfonzo Dennard and Ryan would be tough to justify. McCourty's role as a single high safety could allow Ryan to be a safety/corner hybrid.

Wilson, primarily a special teams player last year, is likely fighting for a roster spot.

 

Late-Round NFL Draft Picks:  Jemea Thomas (2014), Alfonzo Dennard (2012), Nate Ebner (2012)

Adding defensive backs in the later rounds of the NFL draft is just good business. You can never have too much talent at the position. 

The Patriots got a steal in Dennard due to some legal troubles, and he has paid them off with some solid—if a bit uneven—play in his first two seasons. When healthy, he is one of the better No. 2 corners in the NFL.

Thomas is a perfect fit as a hybrid safety/cornerback. He can drop into the deep half of the defense if the offense dictates it but is just as comfortable in the box intimidating underneath receivers. He might not be as big as Browner, but Thomas is going to lay some people out.

Like Wilson, Ebner has primarily played on special teams and will be battling for a roster spot in training camp.

 

Top-Shelf Free Agents: Darrelle Revis (2014)

After losing Aqib Talib to the Denver Broncos, the Patriots found a way to upgrade the position by bringing in a consensus top-two cornerback in the NFL. Revis cut his teeth with the New York Jets, but he is all Patriot now.

Revis is another piece in the single high-safety puzzle. He doesn't need safety help. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia doesn't need to think about sending additional support toward Revis' side. Instead, Ryan, Dennard, Browner and Kyle Arrington will be getting the safety help while going up against an offense's lesser targets.

All that for a measly $7 million cap hit in 2014. I challenge you to find a more valuable veteran contract in the league.

 

Value Free Agents: Brandon Browner (2014), Pat Chung (2014)

Like Revis, Browner can control the line of scrimmage and funnel receivers to a single high safety. His physical skills are evident, as is the psychological impact he has on opposing receivers. Browner's bone-crushing hits hearken back to a time when Rodney Harrison patrolled the defensive backfield in New England.

Chung is back with the team that drafted him, looking for redemption after a disappointing season with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots aren't going to be exclusively a single high safety team—they always change their game plan week to week and series to series—so Chung and Harmon will likely duke it out for the right to play across from McCourty.

Chung has some special teams talent as well. His ability to contribute in defensive packages will likely give him an edge over Wilson and Ebner

 

Street Free Agents: Kyle Arrington (2009)

Nobody gets a worse rap the Kyle Arrington, who came to the Patriots in 2009 as a member of the practice squad.

No matter what he does on the field, some fans just can't see anything but his negatives. Granted, Arrington isn't a No. 2 corner, a spot he has occupied at times due to injuries to others. When playing to his strengths, however, he is the last bit of spice in this defensive recipe.

According to Pro Football Focus, Arrington was in the top half of the league in run support, recorded two sacks and a hurry on just five pass-rushes and was the No. 17 slot corner in the league.

You can't have five Revises. NFL teams need players like Arrington to do the dirty work, make plays when called upon and execute their assignments. They aren't always glamorous, but defenses can't run without them.

Oliver Thomas from NEPatriotsDraft.com had a great look at Arrington's strengths and limitations:

Arrington may not have the straight-line speed to shade the best and the brightest outside targets. He may not have the footwork to compete with shifty double moves of nuanced route-runners. He may turn his back on the ball down the sideline and pay for it, too. But what Arrington can do is close down the open field and make plays back on the ball.

As the third or fourth cornerback on the field, Arrington is the perfect—if a bit unlikely—choice to cap off the best secondary in the league.

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