The Patriots have had no problem finding a cornerback in the NFL draft in the past two seasons.
After years of selecting players like Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite, Darius Butler and Ras-I Dowling in the first four rounds of the draft, it appears New England has hit in consecutive years. They took a risk with Alfonzo Dennard in the seventh round of the 2012 draft. The second-year player has gone on to become a starter in New England, despite facing some legal troubles. Logan Ryan was a much safer pick in the third round of the 2013 draft.
Ryan did not have the elite 4.4-second 40-yard dash speed that teams typically look for out of a high-round cornerback, but he showed intelligence, awareness and, most importantly, ball skills during his three years at Rutgers. Despite the lack of top-end speed, athleticism is no issue for Ryan. He ranked second in the 3-cone drill among cornerbacks at the NFL scouting combine and fourth in the 20-yard shuttle. Both events show off agility, rather than speed.
Ryan’s ball skills were on display on Sunday, though. The rookie picked off Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco twice.
“Sure. I think that was a big strongpoint of Logan’s,” Belichick said about Ryan’s ball skills. “He was a very productive player in college. I think that a lot of the league-wide, a lot of the interest and the grades on him were high relative to his production. I think probably what hurt him a little bit was his 40 time at the combine, just in terms of where he was drafted.”
Ryan’s first interception came after linebacker Dont’a Hightower tipped Flacco’s pass heading for receiver Marlon Brown. Hightower probably deserves more credit for the play than Ryan, who was slightly out of position before the linebacker leapt up. But Ryan deserves credit for adjusting and actually catching the tipped ball, which can be tricky, especially for a cornerback.
Ryan’s second pick can be credited to his awareness. He was covering Brown again when he noticed Flacco’s pass was heading for tight end Dennis Pitta. Hightower, who was supposed to be covering Pitta, slipped, so Ryan broke on the ball, which passed through the tight end’s diving arms and into the cornerback’s waiting hands.
“As we’ve seen this year throughout the year, it’s not only ball skills but I’d say an awareness or an instinctiveness, if you will, in terms of when to look for the ball, having an awareness of the ball being thrown and near his location and anticipating routes and being able to react to those routes sometimes a little bit before the ball is thrown and in some cases, maybe if he’s reading the quarterback a little bit before the receiver can get into his breaks,” Belichick said. “He’s had a number of plays like that, both in games and throughout the year in practices where you see his awareness and his instinctiveness, his understanding of the passing game and kind of getting that little one half step, split-second jump on the play. That’s shown up. He’s got good ball skills and good hands. I don’t think that’s ever been a question. But I think it’s that awareness and instinctiveness that’s obviously so hard to teach but it’s something that he just naturally does.”
Ryan has played in all 15 games for New England. He has mostly served as the team’s sixth “dime” cornerback, though he has also started six games, including Sunday’s in Baltimore. His snaps have wavered throughout the season. He got just 17 last week against the Dolphins and he played nearly every snap against the Ravens. That has not stopped him from being productive, however. Ryan has five interceptions, 1 1/2 sacks, a forced fumble, a touchdown and 30 tackles.
Ryan’s ball skills flashed as far back as training camp and the preseason. He was picking off passes both against his own quarterbacks and in joint practices during the summer. He also intercepted Josh Freeman in New England’s second preseason game against the Buccaneers.
The Rutgers product has had a lot of positive moments this season, but Sunday’s game might have been his best. He did not allow a reception on two targets. He also had a pass breakup on a play that he dropped back into zone.
On the season, Ryan has allowed 22 catches on 47 targets for 278 yards and three touchdowns with five interceptions. His completion percentage against is 46.8, his quarterback rating against is 47.4 and he is allowing just 5.9 yards per attempt.
With four starting-quality cornerbacks on the roster, including Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington, it will give the Patriots some flexibility going into the offseason. Talib is a free agent, but if he’s demanding too much money on the open market, Ryan has proven he can step in and make plays.