The Patriots already shaky defense was dealt another serious blow Tuesday when the team placed cornerback Leigh Bodden on season-ending injured reserve with a torn rotator cuff. While Bodden's experience will be missed, his injury provides an opportunity for young players to truly cut their teeth in Bill Belichick's defense.
The 28-year old was heading into his second season with New England after a reasonably impressive first year in 2009. Bodden tied for the team lead with five interceptions and emerged as the team's top corner quickly. Now, his time will be handed down, likely to rookie Devin McCourty as the Patriots try to absorb yet another key injury.
Instead of looking at Bodden's absence as a loss, I view it as a chance for McCourty and second-year DB Darius Butler to prove that they can be legitimate starters at this level. McCourty comes in with some solid credentials. While his overall numbers at Rutgers don't jump off the page, he is a physical player and isn't afraid to fight receivers in that limited amount of space that cornerbacks have to work with.
Butler was projected to start opposite Bodden prior to the injury. The former Connecticut standout now may have to take the unenviable position of drawing the opponent's top target. This season that includes the likes of Sidney Rice, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Marshall and Chad Ochocinco. Butler has great athleticism but still needs to apply all of those talents to the corner position.
In any event, whatever holes that exist in the games of both Butler and McCourty need to close quickly. The past few seasons in New England have been something of a rotating tryout for young cornerbacks with mostly failures and backups as a result. Now is the time for some of the Pats' early round draft picks to pan out because behind Butler and McCourty there isn't much for fans to get excited about.
Jonathan Wilhite likely steps into the nickelback role, one he is familiar with. Wilhite has overacheived as a fourth-round pick from back in 2008, but he still hasn't developed into the player the Patriots envisioned him as. Aside from him, the team is working with the oft-injured Terrence Wheatley and undrafted Kyle Arrington, neither of whom inspire greatness. New England also could adjust its scheme so that a combo player like Brandon McGowan sees more time in coverage situations.
One comforting fact is that Bill Belichick is not unfamiliar with these situations. During his tenure as head coach, it seems like the Patriots have had a laundry list of talented defensive backs go down, only to see no-names and backups step up. Then, it was Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland. Now, it needs to be McCourty, Butler, Wheatley and Wilhite. They don't need to become Champ Bailey overnight, but they need to be serviceable that it gives the rest of the defense a chance to do its job.
No one needs to tell them that the bull's eye will be firmly planted on each one of their backs. Opposing coaches and quarterbacks will see the youth and inexperience and lick their chops. Butler, McCourty and the rest need to relish that challenge and raise their level of play accordingly. Otherwise, the team will once again need to rely too much on its offense to bail out a young defense.