Between cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, the New England Patriots are much better off than they seemed to be at this time last year when they were beginning to lose pieces left and right.
But the work of building a complete secondary is not finished. Butler and Ryan are a good duo atop the depth chart, but a strong third cornerback would give the group the complete set it needs.
They could go a number of ways here; Ryan's versatility to play either outside or inside gives them that flexibility. Whoever they add would likely be the third cornerback on the depth chart, so his role would be part time either way, and it would just be a matter of determining where to put him. The best bet might be to look for a boundary cornerback, though, since that position is easier to learn.
In the slot, a cornerback has a higher level of responsibility against the run; he must also be able to defend well horizontally, without the help of the sideline that comes from defending downfield receivers; he must also be hyperaware of the assignments of players around him to avoid getting stuck in traffic and letting a receiver get open on a pick play.
Ryan and Butler did that job expertly in 2015, so why not let them continue?
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Of course, Butler and Ryan were the consensus picks for the top two spots in 2015, but beyond them, there was little certainty in the depth chart. Veterans Robert McClain, Tarell Brown and Bradley Fletcher, and rookies Darryl Roberts, Jimmy Dean, Brandon King and Eric Patterson, were all part of a large battle for playing time, but none of them emerged as the dominant front-runner.
Over the course of the year, the Patriots went multiple directions with personnel choices. Brown was injured early in the year, and Fletcher never caught on. Leonard Johnson, Justin Coleman and Rashaan Melvin also got opportunities both outside and in the slot.
But here's a telling statistic: The Patriots' top five defensive backs on the field were two cornerbacks (Butler and Ryan) and three safeties (Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon). Oftentimes, when the Patriots went onto the field with five defensive backs, their extra cornerback was Chung in the slot.
This strategy worked perfectly in 2015, because Chung has a safety's mentality and aggressiveness for run defense, but has also worked to improve his coverage skills and is much more formidable in that area than he ever was before.
That being said, the Patriots could use some improvement in a depth chart consisting of Brown, Coleman, Melvin, King, Roberts and Brock Vereen. None of those players proved enough to have earned the inside track in 2016, but Brown, Coleman and King are all free agents this year, so the Patriots might be hopeful to add someone to the group that can lift the middle of the depth chart quickly.
The Patriots are facing some salary-cap constraints that restrict their ability to target the top free agents in this year's group—New England is just $6.3 million under the salary cap, according to Over The Cap—but there are some talented cornerbacks in the middle of the pack. Whoever the Patriots target, it has to be someone who can play multiple roles to allow all three cornerbacks to be used interchangeably on the boundary and in the slot.
That eliminates career slot cornerbacks like Green Bay Packers cornerback Casey Hayward, New Orleans Saints cornerback Kyle Wilson, Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Leon Hall (though he might have been too expensive regardless) and New York Giants cornerback Trumaine McBride. All four are undersized for the boundary.
A better option for the Patriots would be someone like San Diego Chargers cornerback Patrick Robinson, whose coverage snaps were split almost evenly between the boundary (232 snaps) and the slot (202), according to Pro Football Focus.
There's also the draft, where the Patriots could find a younger, cheaper option.
Mississippi State's Will Redmond could be a strong candidate; he has the height for the boundary (5'11"), although he could stand to add a little bulk (182 pounds), but he also has the experience lining up both outside and in the slot. CBS Sports' Rob Rang says Redmond is a quick-twitch athlete who has awareness in zone defense and is eager to abandon his coverage duties to help out in run support.
He's considered a second-round prospect, but the Patriots would need to be comfortable with his recovery from a torn ACL that ended his college career, and would also need to be comfortable that he wasn't a flash in the pan before that.
There's also Georgia Tech's D.J. White, who could be a Day 3 selection. The 5'11", 193-pound senior doesn't have the elite size of high-profile boundary cornerbacks, but he does have the toughness, ball skills and willingness in run support that would make him a fit in the slot. According to Rang, White also has experience in all different types of coverage—press-man, off-man, press-zone, off-zone—all over the field.
The Patriots won't have their pick of the litter, due to a lack of a first-round pick, but they'll still have a chance to add a helpful cornerback to the depth chart.
Of course, there's also the possibility that they could re-sign one of their own and avoid the search altogether. But one look at the cornerback situation shows that the Patriots should be looking to do something to bolster the position.