Editor’s note: In this 10 part series, we will be focusing in-depth at each level on the field from a potential and performance standpoint including who’s likely to be back, who’s likely to be elsewhere and where improvement is needed…today is part 2 of the series, looking at the secondary…
Steve Gregory doesn’t scare anyone.
He looks too much like Joey Tribiani from the sitcom Friends to be frightening. Bless his heart, he tries to be intimidating, but being devastatingly handsome with a killer pickup line and having a propensity for bouncing off of tight ends and for forgetting that he has arms to wrap up with wouldn’t even cut it on a fictional comedy series.
In fact, few of the New England Patriots defensive backs make the grade, either in technique or in the intimidation factor.
But, what is intimidating to a receiver? What makes a quarterback have a moment of hesitation before throwing a certain direction?
Hockey teams utilize a player designated as a “Goon”. Baseball has the “beanball” reliever and Basketball has hack artists that were known as “Enforcers” back in the day…and football’s equivalent is nothing more than a big hitter patrolling the middle of the field, making the folks running pass patterns have panic attacks…
…and having a fearsome hitter roaming the back lot is one thing, but not the only thing. Athleticism and coverage ability are just as intimidating – but when you combine all three of those things and use them as a schematic for what a secondary should be, the Patriots fall woefully short.
The good news is that the Patriots have the roster room and cap space to make this an elite unit, but it would mean eating contracts and admitting bad personnel moves – but Bill Belichick is playing with house money and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him anyway.
The key to the scenario is figuring out what to do with Aqib Talib. He was obviously the difference maker in their secondary the last half of the season, but with him the Patriots’ staff have put themselves in a precarious spot of knowing that one injury to him – which is likely, as we’ve seen -and the Patriots were right back at square one…
..oh, that happened already, didn’t it?
When Aqib Talib came limping off the field after the second defensive series in the AFC Championship game against Baltimore, New England’s chances of winning the game limped off with him. Though he is not to be blamed for the deficiencies in the secondary when he’s not out there, one could reasonably pin a “Fragile” label to his jersey and not get any major argument from Patriots fans.
So how does his combination of top shelf coverage talent and fragility figure in with the Patriots’ plans for a Championship run in 2013?
Sadly, not very well. Though most fans would like to see him back, it has to be noted that Talib was brought in on a contract that bound no one to anything beyond the end of this season…and with this being Talib’s big contract year, the feeling is that he will demand more money than the Patriots would probably be willing to spend.
And with Patrick Chung not likely to be invited back and the afore mentioned Gregory with his issues, the secondary promises to look vastly different in 2013.
So, let’s look at this from a standpoint of status: What in the secondary is good?
That conversation starts with Devin McCourty. The Free safety converted from cornerback brought as much stability to the position as it’s seen in almost a decade and, honestly, he is a much more natural for the position than he was at corner, though his corner play would have been a lot better had he any confidence in the people playing behind him…which ended up being him, which is a tangled web that – well, you get the point.
McCourty has the over the top skills and ball awareness and vision to be a top flight free safety, and room on his wiry frame to add a pound or ten to be proportionate to his height. Assuming that Patrick Chung has worn out his welcome in Foxboro and that Gregory will never learn how to wrap up when tackling, the safety pool is very shallow after McCourty.
Tavon Wilson, last year’s second round draft pick likely will not be in the talk for Strong Safety consideration, which leaves us thinking either draft or free agency – the problem being that neither of those things have been kind to the Patriots in the recent past in regard to the secondary.
The outlook on the corners is a little more rosy, though issues with both of the starters could impact the group even more deeply than the ambiguity at safety.
Aqib Talib’s status is that of either accepting way less money than other cornerback-desperate teams would be willing to dish out, or being tagged as the team’s franchise player – with the latter far more likely than the former.
But much of what happens with Talib is tied to what happens with Wes Welker’s contract status and the franchise tag – so that bears watching. The feeling here is that Talib will be playing elsewhere in 2013, leaving 2nd year steal Alfonzo Dennard as the only starter-quality cornerback on the unit.
Dennard also had injury issues which kept him out of a few games, and his absence was more noticeable than it should have been for a rookie 7th round draft pick…but as we all remember, Dennard was touted as a 1st or 2nd round talent coming out of Nebraska, but fell almost completely off the draft board after jacking up a cop in a bar scuffle just before the draft.
He goes on trial for the incident in early Feburary, so his availability may be in question – but the team is going forward as if he’ll be around for the start of Camp in July….
…and that’s about it. No Chung or Talib, perhaps a Gregory and a Wilson – hopefully Dennard and McCourty for sure. Needless to say, this is a unit that has some holes to fill.
Analysis: Blow it up. McCourty and, if available, Dennard are locks for seeing the starting nods for the Patriots at Free Safety and Cornerback when the 2013 season begins…but after that, there’s really nothing but a bunch of regular guys.
Talib will be looking to cash in on his first big payday and the Patriots have to be wary of his injury history in his brief tenure with the club. Some will look at the fact that he came to the Patriots fresh off suspension and hadn’t played in a month prior and that contributed to his injuries, but if you are the Patriots do you want to take that chance?
If so, the franchise tag may be the only available option, and that tag is too valuable to the cohesiveness of the offensive line – which we’ll get to in another part to this series – so we have to assume that New England will look toward the draft or free agency to fill these spots opposite McCourty and Dennard.
The name Jarius Byrd has been tossed about in relation to someone the Patriots would target as an option at safety, and it is clear from his play in Buffalo that he was the better of the University of Oregon safeties between he and Chung – whom the Patriots nabbed in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft, a few spots ahead of Byrd - but Byrd may not make it to free agency as he is a player that Buffalo will make every effort to retain.
The draft offers a few possibilities, and though it’s very early in the evaluation process to make any solid speculation, cornerback Xavier Rhodes out of Florida State is a big, physical corner in the mold of Talib who could be available late in the 1st round. He excels in press coverage and is viewed as a potential shut down guy.
There have been a few early mocks that have associated the name Matt Elam with New England. Elam is a safety that is much in the mold of a Chung, but with far greater skill in deep coverage. To Chung’s credit, he does play the run well and Elam has a similar close to the line impact with the Florida Gators…plus, how much does Bill Belichick like Florida defenders?
With the secondary being the bitch-kitty for the Patriots’ overall success and the veterans on the team not getting any younger, the team must be aggressive in filling these spots with quality. Whatever they end up doing, they absolutely can not miss with their acquisitions – there is too much at stake and the unit has been the weak link for an otherwise loaded team for far too long.
The Patriots are going to be watching the Super Bowl instead of playing in it, and a big reason why is that the Patriots secondary doesn’t scare anyone. But what we’ve pointed out is that intimidation is key, but intimidation takes many forms…
…and hopefully the Patriots are able to form an intimidating secondary that can press the issue and force quarterbacks into poor decisions and cause recievers to think twice about going over the middle.
The Patriots are loaded everywhere else, and if they let this offseason go by without solidifying the secondary, they will again doom themselves to falling short of their ultimate goal.