Aqib Talib’s Possible Absence Would Force Rookies Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon to Step Up and Other Patriots Thoughts

Patriots Falcons FootballFOXBORO, Mass. — If there was such thing after six weeks of the season, Aqib Talib would undoubtedly be the Patriots’ team MVP.

The cornerback has shut down Julio Jones, Roddy White, A.J. Green and Jimmy Graham in subsequent weeks. He made a game-saving play in the final seconds against the Falcons and has solidified the Patriots’ secondary with the help of his fellow defensive backs.

Tom Brady may be the most irreplaceable player in New England, but Talib is a not-so-distant second. That’s why Talib’s absence at practice on Wednesday is huge news. Talib re-injured his hip against the Saints. Missing time during the season would be nothing new for the former Buccaneer. He’s never played a full 16-game slate.

Losing Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo is massive for the Patriots, not only for their on-field play, but from a leadership perspective, as well. Talib may not have the experience or leadership of a Wilfork or Mayo, but it’s obvious from seeing him in the locker room and out on the field that he energizes the Patriots.

It’s unlikely New England has lost Talib for the season, but it will be a huge hit if he has to miss any time. I discuss how the Patriots may replace Talib in this week’s No-Huddle Offense.

1. Devin McCourty moves down – After Talib went down against the Saints, McCourty played cornerback on every snap that Jimmy Graham was still on the field. Once Graham got hurt, McCourty moved back to safety, bumping Duron Harmon out of the game. Logan Ryan came in as the third cornerback.

The Patriots have solid depth in the secondary, and the option always exists to move McCourty back down, but he’s one of the top safeties in the NFL. Teams have barely even tried to test New England with the deep ball since McCourty is such a threat back there. Harmon would not pose as much of a threat.

2. Another rookie steps in – If Talib has to miss time, that just means another rookie will be playing a key role for the Patriots this season. Either Ryan will have to play cornerback or Harmon will have to play safety. On defense, Joe Vellano and Chris Jones are already starters. Jamie Collins may get the starting nod at linebacker with Jerod Mayo out and Michael Buchanan has a key role as the team’s third-down rusher. That’s a lot of rookies starting for a team that’s 5-1.

3. Rob Gronkowski should not be doubted – It’s amazing how many Patriots fans seem to think Gronkowski is willfully sitting out, as if he has no desire to play football for New England. Dr. James Andrews advised him not to. Gronkowski is supposed to think he knows more about his forearm than one of the most famous arthroscopic surgeons in the world? That’s ridiculous. Gronk already re-broke his forearm once, coming back too early. The last thing he wants to do is have that happen again.

4. Dane Fletcher’s new role – In case you haven’t noticed, Fletcher has been playing nose tackle in the Patriots’ goal-line defense.

“Nose tackle in a goal line? Yeah, it’s something new, huh? It’s fun,” Fletcher said. “Any way that I can get in there, I’ll take it. They call me ‘the praying mantis’ during practice. I just shoot, man. Speed would be the key there.”

It’s certainly not a typical look, but the Patriots are shallow on the interior defensive line. Fletcher has done a nice job in the role.

5. Patriots’ 5-4-2 defense does not include McCourty – I find it fascinating and perplexing that when the Patriots went 5-4-2 (five defensive linemen, four linebackers and two defensive backs), the alignment did not include McCourty. Steve Gregory has more experience playing strong safety, so maybe Belichick wanted to get the player more familiar playing near the line in, but McCourty is the better overall player.

Since the Patriots went 5-4-2 after Mayo and Talib left the game, Chandler Jones, Chris Jones, Marcus Forston, Vellano, Rob Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Fletcher, Jamie Collins, Alfonzo Dennard and Gregory were the personnel.

6. Austin Collie gets the nod over Josh Boyce – There always seems to be one Patriots rookie that doesn’t latch on very quickly. In 2010, Taylor Price was redshirted, while many other rookies, like McCourty, Spikes and Gronkowski, took on starting roles. In 2011 it was Shane Vereen, in 2012, Jake Bequette fit the bill. This year it appears to be Boyce.

The Patriots elected to activate Collie over Boyce on Sunday. The decision paid off, as Collie hauled in two valuable passes on the team’s final drive. As Vereen proved, just because a player doesn’t contribute his rookie year, that doesn’t mean he won’t be a key part of the offense later.

7. Cory Grissom spotted in locker room – The rookie defensive tackle made the rounds on Friday, saying “hi” to all of his teammates. Grissom was placed on injured reserve over the summer. He appears to be moving well.

The Patriots likely thought they were stashing Grissom for the season when they placed him on IR. It would have been nice to have his depth, though, when Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went down. Grissom had some impressive moments in camp.

8. Armond Armstead and Mark Harrison aren’t practicing – Wednesday marked the first day the rookies on NFI could have practiced. They didn’t, which means the clock hasn’t started on their return. Armstead and Harrison have three weeks to start practicing now that it’s after Week 6. Once they practice, they have three weeks to be activate to the 53-man roster. If they don’t practice within the three weeks or play within the three weeks, they’ll be placed on season-ending NFI.

9. Harrison could serve as valuable depth for now – Harrison is fully healthy, according to Mike Loyko of The Patriots may just be waiting to send him out at practice until they’re in dire need for an outside receiver. Harrison isn’t what the Patriots typically look for in a slot receiver, so he won’t help much with Danny Amendola sidelined.

Harrison has been in the system now for months. He hasn’t practiced, but if he’s been studying, he likely knows the offense pretty well. Now it’s about translating that to the field.

10. Harrison won’t be playing tight end – I’ve received many tweets asking if the team will use Harrison at tight end. He’s listed at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, so the rationale is that he would only have to gain a few pounds to get up to Aaron Hernandez‘s weight. It takes more than that, though, and Harrison hasn’t been at practice, so it’s not like he’s been able to practice blocking. He also looks right around his college playing weight.

11. Armstead could be boost to defense – Before Armstead’s heart issues, he could have been a second- or third-round pick. But he had to spend a year in the CFL before coming to the Patriots. If he’s able to play this year, he could be an improvement over Vellano or Chris Jones. He certainly looked dominant at times with the Argonauts.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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