There could be a changing of the guard in the AFC East, and it could be coming quickly.
Since Rex Ryan took over as New York Jets head coach in 2009, Gang Green has trotted out elite secondaries. The first season saw Darrelle Revis paired with Lito Sheppard and safeties Jim Leonhard and Kerry Rhodes. The second season saw Rhodes leave but Antonio Cromartie and Brodney Pool join the mix.
Both years, the Jets' defensive backfield was among the best in the NFL. This year, uncertainty surrounds the unit. Revis, arguably the best defensive player in football, is still there, but Cromartie and Pool could leave the team once free agency returns.
The Jets, for the first time in Ryan's tenure, could see their unquestioned spot atop AFC East secondaries fade. And the New England Patriots could be ready to take the throne.
That statement was unthinkable only three years ago. Asante Samuel's departure via free agency in 2008 forced the defensive back situation in Foxboro to bottom out. Ellis Hobbs was unable to serve as a serviceable No. 1 corner, and attempts to provide depth with the signings of Deltha O'Neal and Shawn Springs and the drafting of Darius Butler were failures.
To complicate matters, Eugene Wilson left after 2007 and Rodney Harrison retired in '08, weakening the safety position. The defense was weakened in 2008, '09 and '10, though the free fall wasn't noted statistically until last season, when the pass defense fell from 12th in the league to 30th.
That was the nadir, when third downs became adventures and opposing quarterbacks had field days. Fortunately, as quickly as the pass defense deteriorated, Bill Belichick has been quietly putting it back together.
Belichick has quietly, and deftly, been working the inexpensive and value pipelines. In 2009, the Patriots signed injury-prone cornerback Leigh Bodden and drafted safety Pat Chung in the second round. In 2010, New England spent its first-round pick on cornerback Devin McCourty and promoted cornerback Kyle Arrington from the practice squad mid-season.
Fueled by the successes with those moves (Bodden intercepted five passes in '09, McCourty picked off seven last year, Arrington became a starter by the end of the season), Belichick continued with the restoration project, taking Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling with the 33rd pick in this year's draft.
The overall result is a progressing secondary that shows plenty of promise going forward. Bodden and McCourty are proven successes, while Dowling, a physical corner with shutdown capability, and Arrington will likely battle for slot duties.
It's a win-win scenario for New England; either the top two corners from the past two years return to their positions while a prized draft selection handles the slot, or Dowling makes the rookie impact McCourty did and Bodden becomes one of football's best slot corners.
At safety, Chung is a high-energy player, Brandon Meriweather is a two-time Pro Bowler and James Sanders is a quality veteran and a Belichick favorite due to his steady play.
It's a group that makes plays, which helped ease the pains of yards given up by a young unit learning on the job. Bodden and Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up McCourty are ball hawks, and the polarizing Meriweather, who is a frequent target for criticism from fans and coaches, has made those Pro Bowls thanks to his nose for the ball and high-risk, high-reward style.
As a result of three years of smart signings and drafting, the Patriots have made plenty of improvement with a backfield that used to be the laughingstock of the division, if not the conference and league. It's not the Ty Law-Tyrone Poole-Samuel-Wilson-Harrison secondary of 2003-04, but it's a group that the Patriots will be able to play, and win, with.
It's not an exact replica of the Ryan mold; after all, New England doesn't have a Revis. But after seeing the Jets begin to gain control of the division, it's clear that Belichick is starting to take a page from Rex's book.