Potentially Patriots: Part five - Five yards and a mugging

Five yards.

That’s the distance that an NFL cornerback has from the line of scrimmage to disrupt a receiver’s route.  That’s it.  After that, they’d better be able to stick to the receiver like a lollypop to a blanket, because the rest of the field is hands off.

The rules in place regarding contact between defensive backs and receivers are so strict that it’s like the cornerbacks have been served a protection from abuse order by the league, and the penalties are so stiff that they can be and have been game changing…

…even after the receiver has inevitably caught the ball, what used to be fair game is now called hitting a defenseless receiver.  In essence, a defensive back can’t touch a receiver until he’s made the catch and has committed a “Football move” and by then all that’s left for the secondary is frustration – and there are rules against that as well.

It seems that all a receiver has to worry about these days is making sure that they don’t extend their arms while pushing off and that both feet are in bounds…Except for within that little 5 yard strip of field turf – and the referees understand this, which means that as long as you don’t make anything obvious, a defensive back can get away with just about anything in that zone.

So it just goes to figure that the traits desired in the new breed of back end defenders are to be bigger and stronger than their brothers from the past – big enough and strong enough to knock a receiver off his route, disrupting the timing of their pattern.  Either that or have the reactionary skills of a mean counter puncher.

That’s it.  That’s all there is for a defensive back in the National Football League.

So as the NFL moves forward with rules that increasingly favor the offense, defenses have no choice but to evolve into aggressive entities – a hybrid that possesses the hips and tracking ability of a corner and the size and violent intent of a safety…

…like Richard Sherman, for example.  At 6′ 3″ and 195 pounds, Sherman is the prototype for the new breed of NFL Cornerbacks – tall and rangy and a brand of confidence that ventures far over the border into arrogance.  Patriots fans may hate him and anytime they speak his name it’s sure to be prefixed by assorted colorful metaphors, but he is the best cornerback in the NFL – and his size and confidence and attitude are directly related…

And while it’s not necessary to be 6′ 3″ – or a jerk – to be a great corner, attitude, physicality and technique are.  Some athletes have such superior physical abilities that they can make up for a lack of size – so it is fortunate that this year’s cornerback crop features a myriad of all of these skill sets.

All of that being said, in what shape does this leave the Patriots?

This off season and free agency period has been about retention more than addition, but the New England secondary has seen a little of both.  The priorities for the secondary coming in were to re-sign Talib and to either draft or sign a strong safety that would bring a hint of violence over the middle…

The Patriots did re-sign Talib, he being a victim of both his own past transgressions and an absolute glut of corners on the free agent market and in the draft.  He signed a one year “prove it” deal for market value which benefited both parties.

For Talib, it gives him the opportunity to turn his career around, to prove that he is a shut down corner that deserves shut down corner money, and the Patriots retain the services of the best corner they’ve had since Ty Law left – one who is now in a contract year and anxious to earn a multi-year, big money contract…and the results promise to be spectacular.

Opposite of Talib is last season’s seventh round draft pick Alfonzo Dennard, a steal so pronounced that Bill Belichick should have been on trial for Grand Theft Corner.  Dennard saw his draft stcok evaporate to nothing after slugging a cop in the grill outside a Lincoln, Nebraska night club just weeks before the draft – and when Belichick decided to take a chance on the projected 2nd rounder with his final selection, he essentially made the best cornerback decision in his 14 year tenure as Patriots head coach…by default.

After a superb 2011 season, Kyle Arrington struggled last season outside the numbers, but once Dennard and Talib took their rightful positions late in the season, Arrington flourished in the role of slot corner.  As a result, Arrington was also retained by Belichick, with a four year deal that many fans have questioned the wisdom of.

Devin McCourty returns at Free Safety where he showed Pro Bowl quality skill after starting the season at corner.  His speed, intelligence, instinct and vision give the Patriots a good, yet slightly built last line of defense while newly signed 13 year vet Adrian Wilson is the favorite to start the season at Strong Safety, though the team would probably prefer to see 2nd year man Tavon Wilson step up and take the job, relegating the ex-Cardinal to nickle safety duties for which he is very well equipped.

Last season’s safety pick up Steve Gregory has seemingly fallen out of the mix at strong, as he is a natural free safety and will back up McCourty…

…at least that’s what can be assumed, but who’s to say that if a corner or a safety that the Patriots covet slips to 29, that New England wouldn’t snatch him up?  In reality, Talib’s one year to prove himself will either price himself out of New England’s price range or he’ll prove to be just another guy – either way, 2013 could be it for the former 1st round pick, and the Patriots must be prepared for the eventuality.

And there’s no guarantee with Adrian Wilson, either.  In the second half of last season, Wilson was benched a couple of times as he was finding no way to impact a Cardinal’s defense that desperately needed his physicality, and that has to be a concern as well, but at least the Patriots have options on the roster in the event history repeats itself.

So what the Patriots have to decide is which is their greatest need in the secondary in regard to the draft, a physical corner to develop under Aqib Talib and take on nickle responsibility immediately or a safety to be mentored by Wilson.

Either way, the standard for aggressiveness in the secondary has been set by the bigger and stronger receivers in the league, and depth is key to both success and ultimate survival…

…because in today’s NFL, you are either attacking, or you’re being attacked.

Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington (1st Round projection)

Athletic and fluid and looking natural in space, perhaps his greatest attribute is his physicality when the ball is in the air – he never concedes the ball to the receiver.  To accomplish this he has worked at tracking the ball over his shoulder and timing his leaps, and has the athleticism to give himself at least a 50/50 shot at the ball every time.

Started every game in his four year college career, spending time both inside and outside and in both man and zone coverage… is durable and tough and lends a hand in run support.  Works on fundamentals but tends to revert to bad habits and gets out of position at times.  The youngest of many Trufant brothers with NFL experience, he must resist the temptation to show them up and remain fundamentally sound.

Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State (Late 1st / Early 2nd Round projection)

Fire and attitude, mixed with impressive size and natural ability makes Banks intriguing fit for the Patriots.  Banks is a ballhawk that aggressively goes after the ball in flight and has the discipline to stay glued to receivers, and tends to get under their skin as the game progresses.

Perhaps a bit too confident in his natural abilities as he tends to take a lot of chances in order to make the big play, driving fast and physical .  Talks a lot but backs it up with work ethic, ambition and a football IQ that is through the roof.  He is a bit lean and could use a little more bulk, but he isn’t afraid to stick his shoulders into a running back’s gut.  Has been very successful with excellent technique making up for lack of track speed (4.59 40 yard dash).

Jamar Taylor, CB, Boise State (2nd Round projection)

Perhaps the most physically gifted corner in the draft pool.  Shorter than ideal but rock solid frame and can flat out fly, as his 4.33 forty will attest.  Has not really been tested in a press scheme but has extensive experience playing off-man and zone coverages and may be best utilized as a slot or nickle corner while being mentored.

Why?  Unbelievable breaks on under routes with closing speed that will make a quarterback think twice after testing him a couple of times, has excellent ball skills and can jump over the moon.  His breaking ability also makes him a factor in the running game, further enhancing his projection as a slot corner, with the understanding that he has all the tools to be a #1 eventually.  Exciting potential in the second round.

David Amerson, CB/FS, North Carolina State (Late 2nd / early 3rd Round projection)

Excellent combination of size, strength and speed.  Amerson has rare height and length for the position and actually played primarily at safety in high school. He has the size and ball skill for the NFL , and probably fits best in a press-based scheme due to his aggression.

Excellent at reading the quarterback, but has to be careful as his aggressive reaction and instinct in coverage makes him susceptible to quarterbacks who are adept at play action and receivers who can sell the double move – but his risk-taking style have resulted in many more successes than failures, as evidenced by his high interception totals.

Has many of the same attributes as Devin McCourty and may be viewed as a valuable hybrid that could sub in at both corner and free safety, a very good thing to have on the roster given the recent news of McCourty’s off season shoulder surgery and excellent insurance given the Patriots’ bad experience in last season’s AFC Title tilt when Talib went down and New England had nothing more to offer.

Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU (3rd round projection)

Fans of every team wants the Honey Badger flying around in their secondary and returning punts…

…and why not?  His all-in playing style adds a dramatic anticipation to every punt return and adds an electric quality to pass coverage.   Possesses excellent lateral agility and acceleration which gives him the ability to close quickly on the ball.  Enjoys the challenges of press coverage against taller receivers and his skills become even more pronounced the closer in he plays to the line of scrimmage – which makes him an excellent candidate for slot corner.

Is a tenacious defender with strong, active hands to rip the ball away. Excellent ball skills.  That said, he does tend to rely on instincts and reading the quarterbacks eyes, which makes him susceptible to double moves and can be beaten badly on fly routes by quarterbacks who are good at disguising and play action.

Has a documented history of mistakes and poor decision-making in his personal life, which will cause him to fall deep into the second day of the draft, but the Patriots have a good working sample of handling players with the same type of issues, and if they were able to pluck Mathieu in the 3rd round, it could conceivably be a steal reminiscent of last years 7th round gem Alfonzo Dennard.

Matt Elam, SS, Florida (1st Round projection)

Athletic, instinctive and quite physical , Elam demonstrated the ability to walk up into the box and be a force near the line of scrimmage while also dropping back into coverage as a single-high safety when coaches called for it — showing off the type of versatility NFL teams are demanding from today’s hybrid safeties.

His attacking style is particularly evident underneath, covering the slot and jamming the receiver at the line, causing them to waste valuable time getting five yards upfield, then showing finesse in knocking the football away rather than mugging them after the catch.

He’s shorter than what you’d like out of the position, but that’s not a deal breaker on someone that can bring the wood like Elam.

Jonathan Cyprien, SS, Florida International (1st Round projection)

Large, chiseled athlete who certainly looks the part of an NFL safety , running full speed on each and every play, showing off an aggressive playing style and active demeanor.  Meets the ballcarrier with a pop and refuses to let up.

Shows a ballhawking ability to extend and snatch the ball out of the air and has a reputation as a “gamer”, meaning he plays his best against the top shelf competition.  The concern with Cyprien is that he hasn’t been asked to be a centerfielder, but that really isn’t a concern with the Patriots scheme.

Eric Reid, FS, LSU (late 1st / early 2nd Round projection)

A rare athlete that seems to treat every play like it may be his last, taking full advantage of his size and strength.  Reid is a fantastic downhill athlete with quick read-and-react ability to attack the play full speed with his teeth on fire.

If Belichick is looking for a physical specimen to mentor with newly acquired Adrian Wilson, this is the guy.  He may be the most explosive hitter from the safety position in the 2013 draft, closing with the speed and physicality of a linebacker rather than a defensive back – which makes him perfect for taking on tight ends in the box and up the seam, and has the bulk and power to hold his own.

If there is a downside to Reid, it’s that he seems to have the big hitter mentality and will sometimes whiff while looking for the knockout blow instead of using his natural speed and agility to break down and make the tackle – but having Wilson to teach him the nuances makes a perfect set up.

That’s a lot of options for the Patriots if they are on the offensive and being proactive in regard to the somewhat fluid long-range prospects of half of their starting secondary.

From this perspective, the need for corner depth is the priority in the secondary, and the low number of draft picks that the Patriots possess dictates that they aren’t going to be able to address safety depth, or vice versa…

…particularly when there are other needs that are actually more pressing, but it sure is a nice thought, huh?

Tags: Adrian Wilson Aqib Talib Buffalo Bills LSU Tigers Miami Dolphins New England Patriots New York Jets North Carolina State Wolfpack

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