Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty, Patriots’ Secondary Is Not Best in NFL, But It’s Close (Mailbag)

Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty, Stephen HillAfter the confetti from Saturday’s parade gets swept up from the streets of Boston, New England’s eyes will shift back to the Patriots.

It’s odd for the NFL to get pushed to the back burner at any time, but when the Red Sox are in and win the World Series, that’s going to happen in Boston. Maybe the Red Sox’ win will inspire the Patriots to do the same, or maybe an NFL team doesn’t need any more motivation than they already have. But another Boston championship won’t make fans around here any less spoiled. If New England doesn’t win a Super Bowl, its fans will be disappointed.

But for the Patriots to win it all, Tom Brady has to make major strides. Maybe he’ll improve when Shane Vereen comes back. Maybe it takes playing a lesser defense to get his confidence back up. Maybe it will never come. But the defense has carried this team for eight games now and they’ll need a reprieve at some point.

Happy Halloween. Let’s dive into this weeks’ mailbag.

I expected Brady to play better despite the rookies, but a 6-2 record is very fair for a team that has been without so many players. The question now is where this team’s upside lies. Every team has flaws, and the Patriots certainly have their own. But most teams haven’t lost players like Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo.

The defense has done a good job without them and acquiring Isaac Sopoaga can go a long way to improving the base run defense. I think this team could still make and win a Super Bowl, but Brady and the offense have to get better. The final piece who has yet to come back is Shane Vereen. New England definitely misses that shifty third-down back.

Hopefully that decision was dictated by matchups. Austin Collie had trouble getting open against the Dolphins and Kenbrell Thompkins is much more dangerous downfield.

Collie is a nice piece to have — he obviously picked up the defense quickly and he’s good depth behind Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, but the Patriots can only utilize so many players that excel in the middle of the field. The Patriots should probably split snaps equally between Amendola, Edelman, Thompkins and Aaron Dobson. All four players deserve to be part of the first-team offense for their different strengths.

It all depends on Bill Belichick. The Patriots should probably use Stevan Ridley more in the first quarter so the team can get off to a hotter start, but New England utilizes their “starting” running back very oddly.

I feel like I’ve covered this far too much at this point and had way too many conversations about it, but Ridley is obviously the team’s best running back. That’s no disrespect to Brandon Bolden or LeGarrette Blount, who would be welcomed as starters on some NFL teams, but Ridley is explosive off the hand off and really works for those extra yards.

The Patriots almost got too far behind by the time they started using Ridley against Miami. They can’t let that happen again. Logan Ryan may not come up with a game-saving strip sack again.

Here’s the full list: Brandon Spikes, Aqib Talib, Danny Aiken, LeGarrette Blount, Andre Carter, Marquice Cole, Collie, Edelman, Dane Fletcher, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan, Will Svitek and Ryan Wendell.

Aiken may be the only definite on that list. Fletcher could possibly find a starting job elsewhere. Spikes and Wendell could get bigger offers outside of New England. Talib should be back, but I suspect the Patriots will be wary to lock him down longterm. The franchise tag may be in his future. If Blount is happy with his role, he could be back. The Patriots may look for upgrades for some of the rest of those players.

Edelman is an interesting case. If this impressive season continues, the Patriots may not be able to pay him and Amendola to serve essentially one role. It would be great to see Edelman back — he’s a very valuable player — but the Patriots will need to offer him a bigger deal than they did for a player like Danny Woodhead.

Let’s save this one until the matchup actually comes. I’ll say this, though: If Talib is back, the Patriots’ may have the secondary to match up with Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas if Belichick goes dime. The Patriots just have to decide if Ryan, Duron Harmon, Devin McCourty or Steve Gregory is the best player to match up with Thomas. They may try multiple players within the game.

I’ll answer this one, though.

Nah, but they’re close. The Seahawks still have the best secondary in the NFL. Richard Sherman is slightly better than Talib, Kam Chancellor is better than Gregory, Earl Thomas and McCourty may be too close to call and right now, Dennard may be playing better than Brandon BrownerKyle Arrington and Ryan are neck and neck with Walter Thurmond and Byron Maxwell.

The Titans, Chiefs and 49ers are certainly up there too as far as pass defenses. But New England’s secondary may be better than those teams’. Those three teams just have better pass rushes and/or cover linebackers.

For those doubting the idea, the Patriots’ defense has allowed a 70.6 quarterback rating (fifth best in the NFL), 216 passing yards per game (fifth), 6.4 yards per attempt (sixth), nine touchdowns (eighth), a 54.9 percent completion percentage (second) and they have 10 interceptions (sixth). And that’s with linebackers who can’t really cover all that great and a pass rush that hasn’t completely lived up to its potential.

Can we take a moment to think about how insane it is that we’re even talking about this, though? We’re two years removed from Edelman, Matthew Slater and Ross Ventrone getting real-life snaps in the secondary — not to mention Nathan Jones, Phillip Adams and Sergio Brown. The sad part is, New England’s secondary is still considered a joke among some Patriots fans. At this point, it seems like they’ll need years of dominant play to regain the region’s trust.

That’s unfortunate, though. McCourty may be the best safety in the NFL right now and he’s hardly getting respect from his own team’s fans. New England essentially has two No. 1 cornerbacks in Talib and Dennard and Gregory and Arrington are both severely underrated this year. The Rutgers rookies, Ryan and Harmon, are damn good too and Cole has played very well in limited snaps.

That’s a deep, talented group.

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