Heading into the 2011 season, the Patriots looked to be very deep at cornerback, but the position played out in unpredictable fashion. Devin McCourty couldn't repeat his performance from his rookie season, and Leigh Bodden (injury, ineffectiveness, unhappiness with role) and Darius Butler (ineffectiveness) were each released. Also, rookie Ras-I Dowling had minimal contributions due to a hamstring injury.
With that, Kyle Arrington continued to step up and was their most consistent cornerback during a season when they also used Phillip Adams, Antwaun Molden, Sterling Moore and Nate Jones at the position.
Bill Belichick has some important evaluations to consider as the Patriots transition into the 2012 season at this position.
Cornerbacks on Final Roster: Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Nate Jones, Antwaun Molden, Sterling Moore, Malcolm Williams, Ras-I Dowling (injured reserve), Julian Edelman (true wide receiver)
Key Statistic: Arrington was tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions. He only had two interceptions in his entire career at Hofstra and one interception in his first three NFL seasons.
Hot Topic: Moore's potential is one of the more intriguing aspects surrounding the Patriots as they head into the offseason and prepare for 2012. On one hand, he showed an obvious ability to make plays, evidenced by his two interceptions in the regular-season finale, a game-deciding pass breakup in the AFC Championship and another strong play to knock aside a pass in the Super Bowl.
He's confident in his own ability, and he said the first thing the Patriots told him when he was signed regarded their interest in his ball skills. The Patriots need playmakers in the secondary, and Moore could be that answer if he continues his progression next season.
On the other hand, though, Moore was an undrafted rookie from SMU who was released from the Raiders' practice squad after spending two months with the organization. The Patriots also released him this season before getting re-signed to the practice squad four days later. In September, while discussing some tough roster cuts, Belichick noted he wouldn't release a player if he truly feared losing him. Apply that theory to Moore, and then note that he was a free agent for at least a full 24 hours before the Patriots announced his official re-signing.
So, what is Moore's potential? Were his big plays a sign of things to come, or did he play over his head? The latter must always be considered in the case of a rookie who went undrafted and then got cut twice. Realistically, that playmaking ability won't go away, and he can take his game to the next level with more consistency, which is always the greatest challenge for a young player, especially at Moore's position.
Offseason Question: What's in store for McCourty's future?
Just six months ago, McCourty was expected to continue along the path of becoming one of the handful of the NFL's elite cornerbacks, but his second season fell short of expectations. He was given too much responsibility at the start of the regular season, and his confidence appeared to wane due to the rough start. And while McCourty started to improve later in the year, he still didn't get fully back to speed before Belichick split his time between corner and safety.
One of the biggest questions this offseason involves McCourty's long-term position. All things being equal, he'd be more valuable to the Patriots at cornerback, but the most important thing is that he's put into a position to best utilize his playmaking ability. McCourty didn't exactly have much time to learn the safety position this season, so he was put in some conservative spots. With an entire offseason to prepare, he could prove to be an exciting player with fulltime duty squaring up to the ball.
Whatever the case, McCourty's potential is an important aspect for the success of the Patriots' defense, and his positional evaluation will be a priority this offseason.