The New England Patriots have the best kind of problem on their hands.
With only two starting roles and five talented cornerbacks on the roster, there’s going to be a few great defensive backs sitting on the sidelines when the Patriots are using their “regular” defense. The Patriots, after years of trotting out defensive units built to stop the run first, finally decided to follow the trends and acquired two top-flight cornerbacks in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
Revis is guaranteed to start while Browner will begin the season with a four-game suspension, which could give either Logan Ryan or Alfonzo Dennard time to steal the No. 2 cornerback job away from the former Seattle Seahawks Legion of Boom member.
Patriots roster spots and starting roles are up for grabs, and as training camp nears, NESN.com will review the team’s biggest battles. This week, we’re covering the No. 2 cornerback role.
Strengths: Ryan proved to be one of the Patriots’ biggest playmakers as a rookie in 2013 thanks in large part to his ball skills. In the play below, Ryan was playing in a zone and quickly broke on the ball, putting him in position to pull in this pass intended for Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones that was tipped by linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Ryan also flashed impressive agility in man coverage. He’s matched up with receiver Torrey Smith in the play below and has no trouble tracking the speedy Ravens wideout into the middle of the field, forcing Flacco to move on to his next read.
Ryan also impressed when he was forced into press coverage. Flacco initially looked to Smith on the play below, but Ryan wouldn’t allow him space to come off the line, jamming his hands up into his chest.
Areas of improvement: Ryan had a fantastic rookie season, and already has taken strides to improve over the offseason. Ryan struggled at times to overpower bigger receivers, however, as he showed in the AFC Championship Game against Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker. Ryan appears to have bulked up over the offseason, which could allow him to get in receivers’ faces better.
Ryan also struggled at times to cover the deep ball. Ryan’s biggest strengths are in technique and ball skills, but he’s not the fastest cornerback. He showed in the play below against Buffalo Bills wide receiver T.J. Graham that he lacks the second gear to catch up if he gets fooled by a double move.
At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, it’s no surprise that Browner’s biggest strength is his physical play. Browner wouldn’t let Michael Floyd get off the line, then continued to badger the Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, finally pulling him back and picking up an interception. Browner has to be careful not to get called for pass interference, since he’s so aggressive.
Browner doesn’t have elite speed, but he tracks down the sideline with the best of them. What Browner lacks in his athleticism, he makes up for in his reach, which allows him to deflect and pick off passes.
Browner deflected this Carson Palmer pass intended for Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, allowing Seahawks safety Earl Thomas to get the interception.
Areas of improvement:
Browner is a very talented player, but the Seahawks’ defense hid some of his weaknesses. Browner wasn’t forced to track receivers into the middle of the field very often because the Seahawks have such great coverage linebackers and safeties. He struggles to keep up with more agile, smaller receivers when he can’t get his hands on them.
Browner gets schooled by Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton in the play below.
Browner actually has a hard time covering fellow cornerback Patrick Peterson in the play below. Peterson has great size and agility and beat Browner on a comeback route.
Browner is strong when it comes to covering the sideline and in man coverage, but sometimes he’ll appear lost in zone. He gets bailed out by a bad pass from Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the play below, but he left receiver Damian Williams wide open when he started trailing Kendall Wright instead.
To put it bluntly, Dennard is an absolute pest on the field. He’ll jam, poke, push, prod and harass a wide receiver down the entire field. He did a nice job against Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in Week 14 by doing just that.
Dennard is undersized at 5-foot-10, but he uses his lower center of gravity to beat up smaller receivers. He jams Colts wideout LaVon Brazill in the play below, boxes him out and comes up with an interception.
Areas of improvement:
Dennard, like Ryan and Browner, lacks elite speed. Dennard always is close, but he lacks Ryan’s ball skills and Browner’s reach. Dennard simply gets beat on a go route by Brown on this Steelers touchdown.
Dennard also can struggle when it comes to covering much bigger receivers. In the AFC Championship Game, he got abused by Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas once Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib went down with an injury. Thomas just overpowers Dennard in the play below.
Browner’s the most proven player, Dennard has the most experience in the Patriots’ defense and Ryan has the most potential. The Patriots might be able to use all three players depending on the circumstances. Browner can cover bigger, stronger receivers, Dennard can overpower smaller, shiftier receivers and Ryan can be a jack of all trades and be used in zone with his impressive instincts, ball skills and agility.
This will be a fun battle to watch throughout training camp and preseason, and the nickel role will be the consolation prize for one cornerback who doesn’t win the starting job.
Based on 2013 film study, Browner should come out of training camp as the starter, but four strong games to start the season from Ryan could change Bill Belichick’s mind after Browner’s suspension is over. Browner also has some holes in his game that might not mesh well in the Patriots’ defense.