New England's secondary a huge cause for concern
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
The New England Patriots are Super Bowl champions, and they haven't had a losing season since the Baha Men graced us with Who Let the Dogs Out?. That being said, isn't it kind of a big deal that the team lost both Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the first week of free agency?
It goes without saying that New England scratching that 10-year itch with its fourth Lombardi Trophy had a lot to do with Revis still being one of the very best cover corners in the league and Browner beating the hell out of receivers in man coverage.
The Super Bowl was the perfect representation of how much those two meant to the Patriots. Revis literally had to run into a referee for Doug Baldwin to get his only reception of the game, and Malcolm Butler wouldn't have been able to get in position to make the game-clinching interception without Browner stifling Jermaine Kearse at the line of scrimmage.
New England's secondary last season was a far cry from the unit it trotted out in 2011 that featured cornerbacks Devin McCourty, who converted to safety full-time the following season, and Kyle Arrington, a slot corner whom we last saw play so badly in the Super Bowl that he was benched after the first half for Butler.
Now with Revis and Browner gone, the best corners on the Patriots roster are 24-year-old Logan Ryan and 25-year-old Alfonzo Dennard. Ryan and Dennard took turns starting before Browner made his debut in Week 7 against the Jets after a four game suspension and ankle injury held him out.
According to footballoutsiders.com, from the Jets game onward, including the playoffs, Ryan played 382 snaps and Dennard saw 67 snaps before being placed on IR before Week 17 with a hamstring injury. Revis played 830 snaps and Browner 719 in that same span. If Ryan and Dennard are suddenly thrust into consistent starting roles this season, it's going to be sink or swim for two players who are still pretty green behind the ears.
That is unless the Patriots delve into the free agency pool to pluck a starting corner. The best cornerback still unsigned according to Pro Football Focus is 35-year-old Rashean Mathis, who had a surprisingly solid year for Detroit last season on a minimum contract. After that are players like former-Patriot Sterling Moore and old-heads like Tramon Williams and Charles Tillman.
Those hardly sound like enticing options given who the Patriots lost, but it was obvious from the get-go that no one who was available could emulate what Revis does on the football field. What was curious was that the Patriots declined Browner's option which would have paid him $1.9 million next season. This was money that would have been recouped and then some after Danny Amendola restructured his deal to free up over $2 million in cap space three days later.
Maybe that move was to go all-in on re-signing Revis, but not only did it not work, as Revis went back to the New York Jets, but Browner ended up signing with the Saints as well. After they lost out on Revis, the Patriots could have tried to sign a viable replacement on the cheap like Walter Thurmond, who signed a one-year deal with the Eagles the day after Revis signed with New York.
It's looking more and more likely that New England just flat out didn't want to find a new starter through free agency. After Revis left town, the Patriots watched as starting-quality corners Chris Culliver, Antonio Cromartie, and Perrish Cox all signed elsewhere.
Some might perceive this as thumb-twiddling when the Patriots should have been aggressive in trying to save their secondary, but knowing Bill Belichick this is all probably part of the master plan. After all, the phrase "In Bill We Trust" has become popular among Patriots fans as the team traded Richard Seymour and Logan Mankins, let go of Randy Moss and Wes Welker and signed Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco.
However, if it really is the plan to start a 2011-esque secondary that will have a trickle down effect on the defensive line as well. The unit lacks a player who can blow up the offensive line and get the quarterback in a heartbeat. Chandler Jones is the closest the Patriots have to that guy, but he'll need to bounce back from a down season in which he struggled with a hip injury. What this means is that the Patriots rely on a lot of coverage sacks, and there will be less of those the worse that coverage is.
The Patriots have been a team that wins with offense for the past decade, and the better your offense is the less you really need a defense. However, last season was the first time since 2009 that New England hasn't had a top-three scoring offense. The Patriots don't run that crazy no-huddle attack that scores at will anymore, and their effectiveness on that end lives or dies with Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots are picking a bad time to lose star players on defense.
The good thing about losing players in free agency is that there's still a draft to plug up those holes. Though they are one of the most unpredictable teams in the draft, it was assumed that the Patriots would use their top pick on an interior lineman, either one to replace Vince Wilfork, who was also let go last week, or an offensive lineman. Now the cornerback position has become a major need as well.
If they don't use a first- or even second-round pick on a corner, there are still some interesting prospects that could fall into the Patriots lap in the later rounds.
New England has a history of taking players whose draft stock falls whether by injury or character concerns. The latter was what made it possible for the Patriots to take Dennard in the seventh round in 2012.
One player who could go down a similar fall is Washington's Marcus Peters. Peters is one of the top corners in this year's draft class but there are questions about whether he is coachable at all. He was dismissed from the Washington football team in November last season following repeated arguments with coaches and a fit he threw on the sidelines during a game against Eastern Washington.
Players with spotty histories don't seem to scare the Patriots much. They traded for and got two great seasons out of Aqib Talib in 2012 and '13, and he had the same kind of reputation with the Buccaneers.
Whatever New England chooses to do with its secondary, as long as it has Tom Brady and Belichick the Patriots are more than likely to finish somewhere around 11-5 and make the playoffs. But in those playoffs they will have to face a Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco or Andrew Luck, and that's when the loss of Revis and Browner will be felt the most.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo