New England Patriots have the making of an intimidating secondary

Oct 8, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Oregon Ducks defensive back Christian Gonzalez (0) against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 8, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Oregon Ducks defensive back Christian Gonzalez (0) against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

If the NFL hasn’t done so already, expect the league to send a letter to the New England Patriots requiring all members of their secondary to submit samples for drug tests. The group’s appearance changed drastically after the 2023 NFL Draft, so the league is suspicious.

We knew cornerback was one of the Patriots’ top needs going into the draft. So they were tremendously fortunate that Christian Gonzalez, arguably the top prospect at the position, fell to them at No. 17 overall.

The former Oregon Duck is not what the Patriots typically looked for in cornerbacks in the past, but Gonzalez’s combination of excellent size and athleticism is exactly what New England needs to defend receivers that are bigger, faster and more agile than before.

The Patriots liked the Gonzalez selection so much, they triple-dipped for corners with extraordinary length and straight line speed – Day 3 selections Ameer Speed and Isaiah Bolden.

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And though listed as a linebacker by the Patriots, Marte Mapu is a safety/linebacker hybrid that will bring athleticism to the second level, but can drop into coverage as well.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft has plenty of help reaching top shelves now.

New England Patriots secondary might be bigger and faster than ever before

Does anyone know what has gotten into New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick? For more than 20 years he almost never drafted corners with extreme physical traits. The two times he did (6-1 Ras-I Dowling, round two, 2011; 6-3 Joejuan Williams, round two 2018), they were busts with New England.

Well whatever infected Belichick, don’t give him the antidote. It’s about damn time he decided to stock his secondary with corners that can compete with modern outside receivers.

Maybe it was his experiences with Aqib Talib and Stephon Gilmore. Patriotsacquired Talib via a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012. He helped the Patriots reach two AFC Championship games.

Gilmore was a rare free agent splurge by New England, as usually the Patriots don’t sign elite free agents. This exception was worth it. The Patriots reached the Super Bowl twice, winning in 2018 with Gilmore as their shutdown corner.

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Watching his secondary get taunted with the “too small” celebration last year might had been too much for Belichick to endure. So first he gets the 6-1 Gonzalez. He follows it up with the 6-3 Speed in the sixth round. And Belichick finishes with the 6-2 Bolden in the seventh.

Too small? Only if they go clothes shopping at an average person’s store.

Gonzalez’s stock apparently slipped, in part, for a lack of physicality. That is understandable. Between Gonzalez and Devon Witherspoon, I considered Witherspoon a better fit for the Patriots due to his tacking ability.

That doesn’t mean that Gonzalez won’t be successful. There were plenty of corners in the history of the NFL that weren’t very physical. Gonzalez is a willing tacker, but he may never be the type that de-cleats receivers with a stiff shoulder to the chest. If Gonzalez develops into a shutdown corner, that will be most important.

Speed might not play a large role in the secondary, but he has 518 special teams snaps. New England signed two free agents with improving special teams in mind. Speed clocked a 4.34 40-yard dash at 209 pounds. He has the traits to be an excellent addition to the unit.

Bolden, the final piece of the revamped secondary, is everything one could hope for in a developmental prospect – physically gifted, fast (4.33 40-yard time) but raw. The Patriots hope to sharpen Bolden’s tools into a formidable defender. The sky’s the limit for Bolden. At the very least, New England has a back-up returner who comes to Gillette Stadium with two kickoff return touchdowns under his belt.

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New England Patriots should have some easy decisions to make in the secondary

Add these three to the DB room and the New England Patriots have the players to defend any kind of receiver, and sometimes tight ends.

The one concern is whether the Patriots can keep all three. New England carried six corners on the roster for much of last season.

Some cuts should be easy, like Shaun Wade and Myles Bryant. If Jalen Mills moves to safety, then that’s three spots.

If not, it might be impossible to stash one on the practice squad. The Patriots tried that in 2015 with seventh round draft pick Darryl Roberts and 2016 rookie free agent Cre’von LeBlanc. Roberts signed with the New York Jets and LeBlanc with the Chicago Bears. Both played multiple years in the NFL, but never suited up for the Patriots.

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Let that be a cautionary tale if New England thinks Speed and Bolden wouldn’t attract attention from the rest of the league if the Patriots cut them after training camp. Athletes like them likely will be coveted by several teams.

Thankfully the New England Patriots got to Gonzalez, Speed and Bolden first. If all goes well, all three will make the team, making New England better equipped to defend the talented receivers in the AFC East and throughout the league.

That will be the real test.