The New England Patriots will look to defend their Super Bowl title in 2017. But first, they have some questions to answer.
Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off Tuesday in Indianapolis, marking the unofficial start of the NFL offseason, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2016, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.
Next up: the secondary.
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Malcolm Butler (restricted)
It’s tough to pick a winner here between Butler and McCourty, both of whom enjoyed excellent seasons. Butler led the team in pass breakups with 17, and McCourty was a rock at free safety, earning his first Pro Bowl selection since 2010 — back when he was a rookie cornerback.
Cyrus Jones was a major disappointment in his first NFL season, struggling both on defense and especially on special teams after the Patriots selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft. He twice was benched following lapses in judgment and was a healthy scratch for all three playoff games. Jones’ status as a high pick will afford him a second chance to prove himself in 2017, but he’ll have to show more than he did as a rookie if he hopes to stick around Foxboro.
BY THE NUMBERS
$2.41 million: The combined salary cap hit for Butler and Ryan — New England’s top two corners — this past season. Fifty-five NFL cornerbacks had higher cap hits by themselves, according to Spotrac.
92: The number of tackles Ryan recorded during the regular season, the most by a Patriots defensive back since 2010. Four of New England’s top five tacklers were D-backs, including each of its top three (Chung, 91; McCourty, 83).
One: The number of 100-yard receiving games the Patriots allowed after Week 7 (Quincy Enunwa, Week 12). They allowed four total, two of which came in their Week 2 win over the Miami Dolphins (Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker).
BIGGEST OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Will Butler be back? We ranked Butler, who earned second-team All-Pro honors this season, as the Patriots’ No. 2 priority in free agency behind linebacker Dont’a Hightower. He’s proved over the last two seasons he is one the NFL’s premier cornerbacks, and he surely will be paid like one soon. Butler is a restricted free agent, though, meaning any team wishing to sign him would have to hand over a draft pick to the Patriots. That’s certainly a possibility, but it makes it easier for New England to retain him.
2. How about Ryan? This one’s trickier. Ryan will be an unrestricted free agent, meaning the Pats won’t receive draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere. The Rutgers product is no superstar, but he’s a good cornerback, and solid players at his position often are able to ink big-money contracts in free agency. Unless one of them is willing to accept less than he’s worth to stick around, it’ll be very difficult for the Patriots to keep both Ryan and Butler.
3. Will safety be a position of need? The Patriots have both of their starting safeties under contract in McCourty and Chung, but they could lose Harmon, who saw a ton of playing time in New England’s dime and “big nickel” packages. Below him, the depth chart isn’t pretty: Richards and Ebner combined to play just 36 defensive snaps all season. If Harmon leaves, the Patriots could look to address this position via the draft. Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers has been mentioned as a potential option at pick No. 32.
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