The New England Patriots were dealt a huge blow Tuesday as cornerback Leigh Bodden was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
Bodden played 15 games last season as a starting defensive back. He was the Patriots’ most productive player on the weakest unit of a defense that struggled.
He registered 55 tackles and a team-high five interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. New England rewarded him this past offseason with a four year, $22 million contract.
Bodden had missed most of training camp with a knee injury. He had returned to practice last week and played in Thursday’s preseason game against the Saint Louis Rams.
Without Bodden, a seven-year NFL veteran, the Patriots’ already thin defensive backs unit will rely on several young corners that have yet to prove themselves.
The injury means that the starting positions will be handed to Darius Butler, projected to start alongside Bodden, and first-round draft pick Devin McCourty.
The second-year Butler played in 14 games last season, five as a starter, and picked off three passes, one for a touchdown. The Patriots felt confident in Butler as a prospect and were ready to let him, although inexperienced, earn a starting spot.
McCourty is another prospect highly regarded by the Patriots’ brass, but the coaching staff wanted to bring him along more slowly.
An athletic as well as intelligent player, McCourty was expected to play on special teams as well as contributing to the defense as a nickel back.
He has impressed at training camp and could have eventually worked his way into a starting role, but Bodden’s injury expedited the process. Now New England places the starting cornerback positions in the hands of two players who have one NFL season and five starts between them. While not the most enviable situation, if the two players are talented enough it could be a welcome change to inject more youth and skill to the defense.
The depth becomes the problem.
Two players the Patriots desperately need to step up are third-year corners Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley.
Wheatley is a second-round pick, like Butler, but has not matched his productivity. Wheatley has played in only 11 games, has four tackles, and has zero interceptions. Most of the action he has seen has been on special teams and return units.
In his third year and with the team in need it is time for Wheatley to live up to his second-round billing and perform.
Wilhite, a fourth-round pick, has been a bit more productive and has progressed in his first two years. In 2009, Wilhite played in two less games than his rookie campaign (14) yet recorded 17 more tackles (45) and one more interception (2).
He now has a chance for even more playing time, and if Butler or McCourty slip up he could even earn some starts.
The inexperience is the most prevalent issue at hand. Butler, McCourty, Wilhite, and Wheatley have a combined five seasons of NFL experience. There has been inconsistent play from this group, and although there is confidence in those players from the coaching staff, there simply has not been enough of a sample size to be brimming with optimism, not for 2010 at least.
Need more reason to worry? The Patriots will face Carson Palmer, Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers; all considered some of the best quarterbacks in the league.
They also need to cover Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, Brandon Marshall, Anquan Boldin, Reggie Wayne, Calvin Johnson, and Santonio Holmes.
The New England secondary was already in question heading into the season.
Now, those remaining need to learn on the job and grow up fast or else the Patriots will get burned by an all-out aerial attack.