Patriots’ 2015 Secondary Isn’t Panic-Worthy Despite Rag-Tag Group


New England Patriots fans apparently have short memories.

All it took was one year of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner for Patriot Nation to forget all about years of success despite secondaries built off scrap heaps and the depths of free agency.

True: The Patriots lack a No. 1 cornerback.

True: The Patriots might struggle to play press-man coverage with their current secondary.

False: The Patriots’ defense will return to its terrible ways just because it lost an All-Pro cornerback.

Compare the projected version of the 2015 Patriots secondary to the team’s defensive backs of 2011, and it’s not even close. And that pieced-together group made it to a Super Bowl.

The 2015 version has an All-Pro free safety, youth, starting experience and upside. There were patches in time during the 2011 season when Bill Belichick legitimately believed Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman were better prospects to play safety and cornerback, respectively, than anyone else on the roster.

Once Revis walked in free agency, Patriots fans started badgering the team to sign a cornerback. Every free-agent signing was met with a facetious “can he play cornerback?”

Belichick never will be painted into a corner, though, and if he wasn’t willing to pay Revis $16 million annually, then he surely wasn’t going to hand out an exorbitant contract to the likes of Tramon Williams, Antonio Cromartie or Chris Culliver. Overspending on free agents has not proven to be a successful endeavor in the past. Just look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2014 signings.

Belichick waited, knowing he can start Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler — and he usually seems to know what he’s doing. He found value in Chimdi Chekwa, Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain, and he knows McCourty’s rangy skills at free safety can mask plenty of deficiencies by the cornerbacks. McCourty’s great in a Cover 1, and he might be even better in a Cover 2. Belichick also knows how to play to his players’ strengths, and he knows not to force a scheme without the correct pieces.

Arrington, despite being benched for his performance against 6-foot-5 Chris Matthews in Super Bowl XLIX, is one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL. And to call him a “slot” cornerback is a slight insult to his actual talents. Arrington is a matchup play. He can shut down smaller, shiftier and speedier receivers, like T.Y. Hilton, regardless of where they line up. No team is built purely on behemoths at receiver, so Arrington is around to limit those who typically put up catch-heavy stats.

Ryan looked like a rare cornerback draft-hit for Belichick, who usually struggles to select the position, after the Rutgers product’s rookie year. Ryan intercepted five passes and quickly became known as a playmaker on the field. A lessened role and a slight tweak in scheme made for an inconsistent sophomore season, but if the Patriots choose to go zone-heavy in 2015, Ryan could fit right in and flourish again.

Butler’s perceived potential might have been slightly inflated because of his Super Bowl heroics, but he absolutely showed enough potential as a rookie to be worthy of entering the 2015 offseason as the Patriots’ No. 3 option. He showed off other-worldly ball skills during his rookie season, and if he can fix some inconsistencies, he shouldn’t just be a one-play wonder.

Fletcher’s 2014 season earned him running-joke status in Philadelphia, as he gave up nine touchdowns to only one interception with the Eagles. Fletcher was a solid option and a physical player from 2009 to 2013, and his low-risk signing could pay off if it was just the Eagles’ Cover-3 scheme that gave him trouble. Looking at his career stats, that seems entirely possible. We’ll find out this summer.

McClain, like Arrington, mostly is known as a slot cornerback because of his short stature and excellent change of direction, but he showed late in the 2014 season that he also can play outside. He had his game of the season in Week 16 against the New Orleans Saints, and he gave up just 47 yards to a talented Pittsburgh Steelers receiving corps in Week 15. His solid tackling and short-area quickness could project well if the Patriots rely heavily on zone coverage.

The Patriots also have Chekwa, Alfonzo Dennard, Justin Green and Daxton Swanson to compete for roster spots.

This is a slightly rag-tag group of cornerbacks. There are no first-round picks or Pro Bowl selections in the bunch, but it’s not even close to 2011. There are no Sergio Browns, Antwaun Moldens or Nathan Jones in this secondary. Belichick won’t be forced to convert Danny Amendola to cornerback or Brandon Gibson to safety.

Patrick Chung had a bounce-back season as the Patriots’ starting strong safety in 2014 while playing to his strengths, and if a change in scheme forces struggles, then the team has Duron Harmon, who played well in his first two seasons.

Belichick might not be finished adding to this group either. The 2015 draft class is heavy on cornerbacks, and the Patriots could use an early round pick on a pass defender, many of whom fit the team’s measureables. Belichick has shown a willingness to start rookie cornerbacks in the past.

The 2014 Patriots relied on Revis and the rest of the secondary to shut down opposing teams in the fourth quarter. Belichick already has shown he’s willing to tweak his defense by adding pass rusher Jabaal Sheard, who will serve as a situational player, combined with starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. They might have the best group of starting linebackers in the NFL, and assuming they add a big nose tackle in free agency and/or the draft, their run defense should improve as well.

It’s amazing that even after 14 seasons of consistent success, Patriots fans still need to be told to calm down, but seriously: Calm. Down.

The 2015 Patriots will be all right. Their secondary will be serviceable, and that Belichick guy still knows what he’s doing.

Thumbnail photo via Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

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