Every year the Patriots need help in their secondary and every year the team takes a defensive back in the first two rounds. And this year should be no different.
The last time the Patriots didn’t take a cornerback or safety in the first two rounds, George W. Bush was still president, the Blu-Ray was just invented and Drew Bledsoe was still an NFL quarterback. The year was 2006 and New England chose Laurence Maroney and Chad Jackson with their first two picks — what a haul.
Since then, the Patriots have drafted Brandon Meriweather No. 24 overall (2007), Terrance Wheatley No. 62 (2008), Patrick Chung No. 34, Darius Butler No. 41 (2009), Devin McCourty No. 27 (2010), Ras-I Dowling No. 33 (2011) and Tavon Wilson No. 48 (2012).
Now, with Aqib Talib uncertain to come back, Kyle Arrington a free agent, Dowling a major injury concern and Alfonzo Dennard‘s 2013 status up in the air, the Patriots will look to draft a cornerback early.
Throughout Bill Belichick‘s tenure as the Patriots’ primary decision maker, there has been a fairly solid pattern for drafting corners. All but one (Dennard) ran a sub 4.5 40-yard dash and all but two (Dowling and Christian Morton) have been under 6-foot. Belichick also seems to like players who started at least two years in college and posted solid 3-cone and 20-yard shuttle times. The Patriots also typically don’t draft out of non-FBS schools.
The Patriots also like versatile corners who can play in zone or man and are strong in run coverage. New England has broken from the mold recently with players like Dennard, Dowling and Talib, but even with those players you can see a pattern.
Dowling and Talib are both faster, bigger cornerbacks who can play multiple coverages but excel in man. Dennard was a steal in the seventh round, but it’s likely New England wouldn’t have seen a fit unless he fell that far.
Late last season also saw a change in the Patriots’ pass defense. After McCourty shifted to safety, Dennard emerged as a starter and Talib came in via trade, the unit improved. A lot of pundits chalked that up to Talib, but that may not be the case. A shift in scheme was perhaps the bigger game changer.
Belichick put more trust in Dennard and Talib out on the edge, which meant one safety was playing down and the other (usually McCourty) was helping out over the top. We even saw some press-man looks from Dennard and Talib.
Talib was actually statistically the worst corner on the Patriots late last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Overall, he allowed a reception every eight times he was in coverage versus Dennard’s 11.1, Arrington’s 11.2 and McCourty’s 12.4. Talib allowed 1.74 yards per cover snap, while Arrington allowed 1.28, Dennard 1.26 and McCourty 1.16. Those figures may come as a surprise, but even when McCourty was playing cornerback, he was still the best player in the New England secondary.
Talib was forced to play against tougher receivers (sometimes), but his overall average play tells us that the Patriots should be able to draft a cornerback high, and as long as he has decent man coverage skills, should be able to replace Talib fairly well.
So who fits the role of a speedy, physical and dependable cornerback in this class? Actually, plenty of players do.
Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner is considered the ace of the class. Unfortunately, he’ll be long gone by the time the Patriots are called at No. 29 overall. One player who may still be around is Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks (no, that is not a typo, his name is spelled Johnthan).
Banks (not to be confused with Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad fame) is over 6-foot-1 and could play in multiple schemes. He’s being held to some lofty standards with comparisons to Richard Sherman, but he’s not quite as physical. Banks is actually more comparable to player like Talib. He may not shut down his side of the field, but he can stick with his receiver, he trails well and, like the Patriots love so much, he’s a playmaker.
Washington’s Desmond Trufant is another interesting possibility. He’s got an NFL pedigree (both of his brothers are in the league) and he should run a sub-4.5 40-yard dash. He’s not a shutdown corner, but he has good size at around 6-feet, and he’s solid outside, in the slot and in run defense. Both Banks and Trufant will likely be around near the No. 29 pick.
Getting a little lower down some draft boards are Boise State’s Jamar Taylor and Rutgers’ Logan Ryan. Taylor is a physical player who will take a stab at a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage. He’s not quite as big as a player like Talib, but he’s fast and trails well in man coverage. The Patriots don’t ask their cornerbacks to get down in a backpedal very often, but Taylor possesses those traits and should show well in cornerback drills at the combine.
Ryan is more of a McCourty or Arrington-type player. He’s fast, and is as good against the run as any cornerback in the draft. He’ll be better in zone than man, and if Ryan is the pick, it may mean a shift out of the scheme the Patriots were showing late in 2012.
The first two rounds are loaded with quality cornerbacks. San Diego State’s Leon McFadden and UConn’s Blidi Wreh-Wilson could also be potential Patriots. Wreh-Wilson has great size and athleticism. He’s more raw that what the Patriots will typically look for, but with his speed he has upside in man, though he’s better in zone now.
Taylor, Ryan, McFadden and Wreh-Wilson could be available at the end of the second round, but the Patriots have been known to “reach” on defensive backs in the past. Actually, they almost always do.
You don’t typically think of the Patriots as being a team that would focus on speed and numbers, but there’s a history that shows that the Patriots love drafting fast defensive backs. So while you’re watching the cornerbacks in Indianapolis, pay attention to those 40 times. A number in the 4.3’s or 4.4’s could mean the Patriots will show an interest.
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