FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots have suffered from a serious lack of certainty in their secondary this season.

Malcolm Butler has been a constant as the Patriots No. 1 cornerback, but the No. 2 and 3 roles recently have been in flux. Logan Ryan started the Patriots’ first six games before being demoted to the No. 3 role in Week 7 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Eric Rowe started Weeks 7 and 8 but committed too many penalties and was inactive altogether in Week 10 following the Patriots’ bye.

Justin Coleman has been the Patriots’ primary No. 3 cornerback, but he was inactive in Weeks 5 and 6. Rookie Cyrus Jones has played just 73 snaps on defense this season, including none since Week 5. Fellow rookie Jonathan Jones has played 32 defensive snaps this season, all of which came in Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns.

Ryan seemed to regain his starting role in Week 8 against the Buffalo Bills but struggled in Week 10 against the Seattle Seahawks, so the Patriots could be starting from scratch against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. It’s anyone’s guess who will be the No. 2 or 3 options behind Butler.

Head coach Bill Belichick discussed at length what goes into the process of deciding on his top cornerbacks Wednesday.

“Game planning is a complicated process,” Belichick said. “I don’t want to overdo it, but we spend all Tuesday and a good part of Monday going through all of that. There are a lot of things to take into consideration. Your team is probably the number one priority. How you match up against your opponent is part of the equation, and then there are a lot of other factors that can come in as well. I would say there are a lot of different situations within a game. So, even though you have a game, you have first down, second down, third down, red area, two minute and so forth, and sometimes those situations vary. What might be best for one situation might not be best for another. Maybe do the same thing in all of them. There are a lot of different options there, so in the end, you just try to put it all together in a pot, make a decision and figure what you feel is best. …

“I don’t think there’s any textbook answer on that. You look at the issues, you try to decide the best way to handle them, and sometimes you just go in with that approach.”

Belichick compared the decision to a game of roulette.

“You’re trying to do what you think’s best; sometimes one is good in one area but not as good in another, or vice versa,” Belichick said. “If one thing was good on everything, then it would probably be an easy decision. It would be a pretty short conversation, you’d just do that. But when you’re weighing two or three different things; trying to stop this, trying to stop that, this matchup, that matchup, sometimes it’s just a little bit of a juggling act. You have to try to decide where you want to put your chips, what number you want to put them on, and go with it.”

Here’s how the Patriots’ defenders have fared in coverage this season.

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-3-32-19-pmRyan has allowed more yards per target and snap than Rowe and Coleman, but if you factor in penalties, it becomes another story. The Patriots will have to determine if the risk of more penalties is worth the more consistent — albeit at a smaller sample size — coverage.

Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images