Snarky critics often mockingly call the Patriots' defense a "bend don't break" style of defense, but that's exactly what they were last year, when the Patriots defense ranked No. 5 in scoring despite giving up 193 first downs through the air (27th in the league).
It's clear, then, that improvement is needed against the pass. The Patriots' hope, however, is to improve from within.
They re-signed key free agent Leigh Bodden to a four-year deal worth $22 million. He performed well last year, with 5 interceptions and 17 pass deflections. Bodden has solidified himself as New England's No. 1 corner, despite the fact that he's not a "shut down corner" in the purest form.
Behind him, though, sits a group of undistinguished youngsters vying for time. An interesting fact from patspulpit.com about last year's Patriots: CBs Darius Butler, Shawn Springs, and Jonathan Wilhite split time almost equally, with between 500 and 600 snaps apiece.
With that, let's look at what the depth has to offer.
Butler may not be the best No. 2 option in the league, but he's better than anything else the Patriots have to offer. He had more interceptions and pass break-ups than Jonathan Wilhite (whom I'll discuss later) in less time.
He got a lot of experience last year, playing in 58.7-percent of the team's snaps. He registered three interceptions, a touchdown, and eight defensed passes in that time, which was spent mostly in the nickel.
He wasn't easily rattled last year, even when teams targeted him with frequency. Confidence is a characteristic that can't be taught, and the fact that Butler already has it makes him a good-to-great prospect at cornerback moving forward.
McCourty has been heralded as a great special teams contributor as a gunner, and will compete for time as a kick returner.
Of course, it takes more than that to be drafted in the first round. McCourty was drafted for his quick learning curve, attention to detail, discipline, and teamwork. He was regarded by several Big East receivers as the best cornerback in their conference.
His combination of tools—both mental and physical—makes him an intriguing prospect for the Patriots. I’m postulating that McCourty will see the field on defense quite a bit this season, if only as one of three in a rotation like last year’s group.
Wilhite had flashes of greatness, and had long dry spells to go with them. He has all the tools to be an effective cornerback in the league, with top-end straight-line and recovery speed, as well as above-average instincts.
With only two interceptions and five passes defensed in 2009, though, he needs to make more plays on the ball.
He has the makeup of a nickel corner, and plays like one to boot; he gave up a few too many big plays to No. 1 and 2 receivers last year. He'll have to make some strides in training camp to earn the time to prove his worth.
In today’s NFL, five cornerbacks are the standard. Spread offenses have run rampant through the league and are now the predominant modus operandi for offenses.
Wheatley had a promising sophomore year that was cut short by injury, and is considered by many to be on the “make or break” list. Wheatley won’t make the roster simply because he was a second-round draft pick.
Still, Wheatley has the speed to keep up with quick slot receivers and has the potential to contribute, albeit not necessarily on a big level.
Kyle Arrington: Arrington has been a favorite of Bill Belichick for his thankless work on special teams, but will be competing hard with Wheatley who will more than likely supplant him as the special teamer. He played in a few games last year, but could land back on the practice squad until an injury flares up.
Terrence Johnson: Johnson went undrafted in the 2010 draft, but earned a spot on the Patriots roster for his—wait for it—special teams play. At 6-flat tall and with a 4.56 40-yard dash time, he has the measurables to be a good back-up corner, but will have to work his way up from the practice squad at first.