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Check-In with the New England Patriots: Defensive Backs

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IAugust 11, 2009

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 20: Darrell Jackson #82 of the Denver Broncos has a pass intended for him intercepted by Brandon Meriweather #31of New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on October 20, 2008 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Out with old; in with the new.

After being exploited way too many times in the passing game last season, the Patriots were left with the burning question of which position was in more need of an upgrade: defensive backs, or the pass rush.

They chose to severely revamp their secondary.

Boy, did they need it. They gave up the second most passing touchdowns of any defense (27), and they were near the bottom of the league in passes of over 15 yards.

Much of this was due to the small stature of their cornerbacks. Deltha O’Neal (5’11”), arguably the worst cornerback to ever start for the Patriots, was cut from the team early in the offseason.

Ellis Hobbs (5’9”), whose most famous moment as a Patriot was one that highlighted his diminutive frame (a touchdown pass with seconds remaining in Super Bowl XLII) was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for two fifth-round draft picks in 2010.

Almost immediately, they picked up CBs Leigh Bodden and former Pro Bowler Shawn Springs in free agency. Both players may be approaching the twilight of their careers, but both can still be impact players, and both have the coverage skills and physical traits (namely: height) necessary to get the job done in Belichick’s defensive scheme.

I continue to harp on the importance of the combination of veteran leadership and youthful athleticism on the Patriots roster, but the front office has really done a stellar job this offseason of compiling an excellent mix of both to their roster.

Springs and Bodden can provide the role model of great work ethic needed for the Patriots’ plethora of youngsters in the secondary.

Darius Butler was a steal in the second round of the draft, as many had him ranked among the tops at his position. Butler will definitely serve as an apprentice in nickel situations before potentially stepping into a starting role next season.

Second-year cornerback Jonathan Wilhite played in all 16 games, and started four in his rookie season last year. Terrence Wheatley, who missed most of last season with a wrist injury, is another sophomore who will greatly benefit from the presence of the two veterans.

With Shawn Springs coming off injury, and perhaps a little too much hype surrounding the arrival of Leigh Bodden, the secondary may not be the shutdown group people are anticipating.

The group has the tools to be formidable this year, and with the athleticism of the younger players in the unit, they could take the words of the wise and become some of the best in the league in the future.

At safety, former Pro Bowler Rodney Harrison announced his retirement in the offseason. Those who had hopes for a Favre-like return had their pipedreams go up in smoke when he ended his press conference by proclaiming, “When I made my decision to retire, I made my decision to retire...I'm done."

Though none can deny the rich history Harrison has in a Patriots uni as well as throughout his career (the only 30 sacks/30 interceptions safety in league history), the Patriots are more than ready to replace his production, though it may be awhile before they find a leader, or an anchor in the secondary, quite like Harrison.

Third-year safety Brandon Meriweather out of Miami has played well as a strong safety, having nabbed 79 tackles to go along with two sacks and four interceptions while starting only 11 games.

His progress was visible last season; instead of continually trying to “blow up” receivers with a heavy hit stick, he began to make the clean wrap-up tackles in the open field. His continued maturation will be vital for the Patriots’ defense, as he could prove to be a scary force over the middle.

At free safety, we have James Sanders, who started 14 games for New England last season. He wasn’t incredibly productive, nabbing only one interception to go along with his 64 tackles.

The Patriots' first draft pick of 2008 was in the second round, safety Patrick Chung out of Oregon.

I had never heard the name until the Patriots drafted him, but any Pats fan is put at ease by this segment from his scouting report on NFL.com: “Chung evolved into an exceptional leader by mastering the mental aspects of the game and grasping an understanding of the team's defensive objectives.”

From that sentence alone, Chung sounds like a Belichick player through and through—he’s a learner, a true student of the game, who possesses the sound fundamentals and mechanics necessary to make an impact for this defense sooner than later.

In what could be quite the rotation situation, Meriweather will flex back and forth between free and strong safety while James Sanders fills in at free safety. Coverage deficiencies considered, Chung should fill in sparingly at strong safety until he learns the ropes of the NFL game.

With such a strong diversity of talent, the Patriots’ secondary will be as dangerous as they’ve ever been in Belichick’s tenure as head coach.

That spells terrible things for opposing quarterbacks who think they can sneak one past New England’s defensive backs. The veterans have talent for this year, and the young guns have potential for the future.

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