FOXBORO, Mass. — Bill Belichick might value versatility more than any professional coach in any sport.
The New England Patriots head coach likes wide receivers who can play cornerback, defensive ends who can drop back in coverage, running backs who can split out at wide receiver and defensive backs that can play all over the field. That kind of versatility allows Belichick to put the best 11 players on the field for any given situation, and that’s why cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan were playing safety in Friday night’s preseason win over the Eagles.
Arrington and Ryan are similar players, and both defensive backs have a similar skill set to Devin McCourty, who already made a successful transition from cornerback to safety. Arrington, Ryan and McCourty are smart, instinctual players who have a knack for making big plays. All three players also are strong against the run, and they’re all good tacklers. They also have limitations. None are very strong when their back is to the football, which means that they can excel in the slot — or at safety.
“It’s interchangeable parts, and you gotta be versatile in our scheme, and our team,” Ryan said Friday night at Gillette Stadium after the Patriots’ 42-35 win over the Eagles. “It makes you more valuable. It definitely — they all play off each other.”
Arrington and Ryan each played safety in the Patriots’ base defense before moving down to the slot in nickel. Then, another safety would come onto the field to play back deep.
Similar players can excel at safety and in the slot, but the two positions aren’t identical. A free safety and strong safety have to be more vocal out on the field, and they have to communicate with the whole team, not just their fellow defensive backs.
“There’s a lot more responsibility,” Arrington, who started the game at free safety, said Friday night. “You have to be in tune with the corner on your side and the linebackers. You have to be a little more vocal, but most guys know a lot of the positions on the field.”
Arrington and Ryan proved last year that they’re good enough to start at cornerback on the Patriots, but after the team acquired Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, the position is a little crowded. Last year’s starting strong safety Steve Gregory was released by the Patriots before recently retiring, and now Belichick is holding an open competition to start next to McCourty.
Ryan and Arrington will fight it out with Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Patrick Chung and Nate Ebner, and Belichick is willing to pick the best player, even if he might not necessarily be the best safety.
It’s helpful for Arrington and Ryan to be playing next to a player who has already made the transition to safety — a very successful one, at that. McCourty, a defensive captain, was named a second-team All-Pro in 2013.
“Devin is the ultimate teacher and one of our leaders on the team,” Arrington said. “He does a great job of getting everyone in position, so he’s definitely someone you can learn from.”
Photo via Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports Images
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