Depth Perceptions is a weekly look at the depth chart and positional battles all over the NFL.
One common thread in the New England Patriots' near decade-long run of success has been their ability to adapt to personnel changes.
The Pats have shown a remarkable capacity to utilize every player on the roster to help improve the team (see, QB Tom Brady filling in for the injured Drew Bledsoe and leading them to SB XXXVI title). Plus, they have displayed an uncanny dexterity to fill holes in desperate scenarios (see, WR Troy Brown pressed into defensive duty in 2004 due to myriad injuries in the backfield).
Each offseason, they retool and enter the regular season as one of the odds-on favorites to reach the Super Bowl—2009 should be no different.
Coming off a dominant 2007 campaign that ended in Super Bowl XLII heartbreak, the Patriots had high hopes for the 2008 season. However there were some glaring positional concerns entering last season, particularly at cornerback.
First team All-Pro CB Asante Samuel signed a six-year, $57 million with the Philadelphia Eagles and his ability to track down the ball was sorely missed. Samuel was replaced by capable veteran Deltha O’Neal to complement second-year starter Ellis Hobbs at corner, but the big play was alive and well against the Pats' defense last season, resulting in the following stats:
- New England allowed 27 passing TDs on defense in 2008, the second-highest total in the NFL.
- New England allowed 12 pass plays of 40 yards or more, the second-highest total in the NF.
So, the Patriots shook things up again by dealing Hobbs on draft day to the aforementioned Eagles for draft picks. In addition, they brought in veteran cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden via free agency and took UConn product Darius Butler early in the second round of the draft.
Let’s take a look at the state of the cornerbacks in New England for 2009.
The 13-year veteran will give this defensive backfield some much needed experience that left with the retirement of former Strong Safety Rodney Harrison.
Springs’ best days are certainly behind him, producing only one INT in 2008 along with a pedestrian 36 tackles. But, he will likely fill one of the starting corner roles if he is able to stay healthy, something he could not do two of the last three seasons.
Bodden had developed into a solid corner for the Cleveland Browns, turning in his best season in 2007 (88 TKL, 6 INT) before being shipped off to "Football Siberia," a.k.a. Detroit, in 2008. The defense in Detroit was historically bad so it's fairly easy to write off Bodden’s drop in numbers.
The Patriots are hoping he returns to 2007 form and uses his six years in the league to complement Springs for a nicely-rebuilt starting duo at CB.
The second-round draft pick in 2008 out of Colorado saw very limited action in six games, logging just two tackles. Corner is one of the most difficult positions on the field for rookies to contribute immediately, so his struggles should be seen as part of the growing process.
New England has high hopes for him to have a much bigger impact this season and you can expect him to see a lot more action in 2009.
Butler received first-round consideration and was coveted by many teams on draft day. New England snatched him with the 41st pick, getting a player with excellent ball skills who can contribute immediately as a returner on special teams—something he did very well at UConn.
Again, rookies will struggle at CB, but expect Butler to be used often this season, especially in nickel and dime packages, as the Patriots don’t have the luxury of great depth at this position.
A fourth-round pick in the 2008 draft, the Auburn rookie played in every game in 2008, chipping in with 28 tackles and an interception.
The Patriots were pleased with his progress as he got up to speed quickly, even starting the last four games at corner opposite Hobbs.
By exceeding expectations in his rookie season, Wilhite will likely start the season on the "two-deep" at corner, but will battle Wheatley and Butler consistently for playing time in all defensive packages.
In his first year on New England's roster, Richardson contributed 17 tackles during 10 games of limited action.
He will provide depth in specialty packages and may have to fight to keep himself on the roster as opposed to being placed on the practice squad once again. His special teams contributions could save him a spot on the roster in 2009.
While everyone connected to the Patriots was dejected after the loss of Samuel before the 2008 season, it was justified by knowing it would be too difficult to pay top dollar to keep him.
You won’t see too many people in the same mood over Hobbs’ departure.
Hobbs played tough through injuries over the last two seasons, but was regularly picked on by bigger wideouts (see Plaxico Burress’ SB XLII-winning catch) and his ceiling had been determined to be limited by the Patriots.
By bringing in two veterans with a combined 19 years of experience and drafting three corners in the last two years, New England acknowledged the need for an overhaul at the position.
With Brady back from injury, coach Bill Belichick is aware than the margin for error in winning the Super Bowl is razor-thin and they cannot afford a weakness at any position.
Bodden will pleasantly surprise fans and Butler will open eyes, at least in the return game.
If Springs stays healthy—a sizable if—the Patriots have upgraded both corner spots with three talented youngsters backing them up and supporting in special packages. That is as good an overhaul as can be done in just over a year’s time and the position now has a very good makeup for a team trying to return to the Super Bowl after a one-year hiatus.
This article originally appeared on FantasyPros911.