The 2014 New England Patriots secondary was a lockdown unit, a group of defensive backs who could line up in press, challenge receivers on the release and funnel routes inside to free safety Devin McCourty, the angel over the top of the defense.
I loved watching this secondary on tape, because it always competed and leaned on pro-style technique to play single-high-safety defenses. Forget the window dressing here; just line up, play ball and win with man coverage.
But with star cornerback Darrelle Revis moving back to the New York Jets after cashing in on a monster contract this offseason, can the Patriots and Bill Belichick continue to feature the same style of defensive football in 2015 that led to a Super Bowl championship this past February?
"That group will struggle without Revis," a former NFL defensive assistant coach told me this week. "You have to have at least one stud."
During the 2014 offseason, New England brought in both Revis and Brandon Browner to play press-man. We could all see the shift starting to take place as Belichick was setting the table to play more Cover 1 (man-free). It was a perfect plan, one that produced results and another ring.
But with Revis gone and the multiple changes in the Patriots secondary that included Browner leaving for New Orleans and the release of Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard, this unit will have a much different look.
The Patriots did re-sign McCourty, a player I saw as the jewel of free agency given his range and ability to close down the post consistently in the middle of the field. Those guys are really hard to find in today's game and provide some flexibility to the defensive game plan.
Malcolm Butler, the hero of Super Bowl XLIX, is also back in the mix. The undrafted corner out of West Alabama made one of the best plays I've seen in years when he drove on the slant route to pick off Russell Wilson on the goal line. You want to talk about technique, vision, transition speed and ball skills on one play? That was it. A teaching session in how to take away an inside breaking route in a critical situation to win a championship.
However, Butler played only 220 snaps as a rookie, so we can only project how he will play in his second season. The head coach also recently knocked him down a bit, with Belichick punishing him during OTAs for being late. (Butler's back on the field this week, according to Wayne Epps Jr. of the Boston Globe.)
Is Butler a guy who will make a career in the league, or is he a player who will only be remembered for that one interception? No one knows until he plays more football and deals with some real adversity on the field.
Logan Ryan is back, too, and the team picked up veteran cornerback Bradley Fletcher to come in and compete for a job. At safety, Patrick Chung returns alongside McCourty, and the club added rookie Jordan Richards in the draft.
Richards, out of Stanford, is limited in terms of overall athleticism, and some questioned his worthiness as a second-round pick. (He was projected to go at least four rounds later in a predraft profile by Lance Zierlein on NFL.com.) But scouts I talk to rave about Richards' "football intelligence." This guy is sharp on the field. He's another player to watch during camp.
So the ingredients for success may be there, but in talking with coaches, this discussion still goes back to Revis and the Patriots' ability to adapt without one of the top cornerbacks in the league. His tape from 2014 is excellent, and the man coverage New England leaned on allowed Belichick's defense to show more eight-man fronts. That's critical.
The Patriots could go back to the same style of defense they played in the early 2000s with 2-Man over the top (two-deep, man-under) and a backside "slice" call (bracket) to the weak side of the formation. That would create a situation where the safety could add to the run front. However, to play that scheme, you need a thumper at safety.
"They don't have that Lawyer Milloy-, Rodney Harrison- or Tebucky Jones-type safety," the former defensive assistant said.
Plus, those units also had a playmaking cornerback with names such as Ty Law and Asante Samuel. Guys who could find the ball and finish.
In the roster's current state, McCourty still allows the Patriots to play man coverage, and that's why I would keep him in the middle of the field rather than move him back to corner. But playing man coverage this year and seeing similar results to 2014 without Revis are two different things for New England.
Understandably, there has been an overwhelming amount of focus on the Patriots this offseason due to the Tom Brady suspension over Deflategate, but this squad will get through that. Whether Brady sits for the full four games or gets the suspension reduced, the Patriots are still the top dogs in the AFC East and a club that should be playing football in January again.
However, in terms of playing championship-level football and repeating the Super Bowl run, the Patriots' secondary has to play a major role.
Given Belichick's track record and championship resume, I trust his ability to mesh personnel with scheme. He is one of the best when it comes to maximizing the talent on the field and putting his players in a position to succeed.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.