Patriots Secondary Preview: Malcolm Butler Must Play Like No. 1 Cornerback

The world found out Malcolm Butler can perform well under pressure for a single play. Now let’s see how he fares for an entire season.

The Patriots’ defensive success might rest on the West Alabama product’s shoulders this season. If Butler can play like a No. 1 cornerback, the Patriots’ patchwork secondary will be fine, but if he sputters, it will feel a lot like 2011 all over again for New Englanders (Julian Edelman is probably a little busy for another cameo in the slot, however).

Butler certainly has his coach’s confidence. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound second-year pro came into the spring and summer handed a role in the Patriots’ defense after playing just 187 snaps last regular season. When the Patriots allowed Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to walk in free agency, they were expected to make a bigger splash in free agency or the draft. They responded by adding three low-cost veterans, Robert McClain, Bradley Fletcher, and later, Tarell Brown, and drafting Darryl Roberts in the seventh round.

After cutting Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard, it was time to be suspicious. Were the Patriots planning on trading for a No. 1 corner? Nope. They just love Butler.

There’s a lot to like in the young cornerback’s game. He’s special at playing the football — something in which many Patriots cornerbacks of yore had trouble — and he has speed, quickness and instincts. Add in Butler ability to haul in an interception on the last meaningful play of Super Bowl XLIX, and that checks off every box Belichick looks for in a cornerback.

He has the traits, but now, as the Patriots enter 2015 with Butler as the No. 1 corner, it’s time to find out if he has the mental toughness to bounce back when he inevitably gives up a play or two, and the confidence to match up with talented No. 1 or 2 wide receivers.

It helps that Butler has McCourty to bail him out at free safety, of course. Butler has the upside of a No. 1 cornerback, while McCourty already very much is one of the best centerfielders in the NFL. That’s why the Patriots were willing to pay him $47.5 million over five years when he hit free agency this offseason.

Butler might not need to match up with No. 1 wideouts because McCourty is patrolling the deep half of the field. The Patriots can use Butler on No. 2s, allowing Brown, Fletcher or Ryan to take on the No. 1s with help from McCourty. It’s a system that has worked in the past for the Patriots.

Butler is expected to start at left cornerback this season, with Brown across the field in the “regular” defense. When the Patriots go into nickel sets, Brown will slip over to the slot, and Fletcher is expected to enter the field on the right side. Ryan has the versatility to play outside and in the slot and could replace Fletcher dependent upon matchups.

Patrick Chung will start at strong safety, as he did last year, and as long as he plays near the line of scrimmage, he should flourish. Safety Duron Harmon will enter the field in obvious passing situations, either replacing or playing alongside Chung, while Tavon Wilson and Jordan Richards likely will play a hybrid-linebacker role in dime.

The Patriots signed cornerback Justin Coleman off the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad Wednesday. Coleman and safety Nate Ebner provide additional depth to the secondary.

There’s reason to be confident in the play of McCourty and Chung, and Butler, Brown and Fletcher played well during the preseason. Optimism abounds regarding New England’s defensive backfield after questions surrounded the unit all offseason, but Butler will dictate the secondary’s success moving forward.

Week in review:
Monday: Quarterbacks and offensive line preview
Tuesday: Offensive skill position preview
Wednesday: Front-seven preview
Thursday: Secondary preview

Thumbnail photo via Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports Images

Thumbnail photo via Aug 22, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New England Patriots strong safety Malcolm Butler (21) against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of a preseason game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

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