Bill Belichick couldn’t convince Aqib Talib to delay retirement and come cover tight ends for the Patriots, but New England?s interest in the former NFL cornerback speaks volumes about their roster construction and upcoming schedule.
The Patriots face a formidable slew of tight ends this season with George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, Hunter Henry, Mark Andrews and Greg Olsen, among others, on their schedule. Talib didn?t want to deal with them. But now someone will have to take on the daunting role.
So, with Talib in the media and Patrick Chung opting out for the 2020 NFL season, who on the Patriots? roster can and will cover those tight ends?
We could get a hint in Week 1 when Mike Gesicki and the Miami Dolphins come to Gillette Stadium on Sunday. Gesicki isn?t quite as accomplished as some of the tight ends on that above list, but he has a similar combination of size and athleticism at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds with 4.5-second 40-yard-dash speed. Gesicki had a breakout season in 2019 when he caught 51 passes for 570 yards with five touchdowns in a part-time role.
The Patriots do have a couple of potential tight end stoppers on their 53-man roster in two of their previous second-round picks.
Cornerback-turned-safety Joejuan Williams, a 2019 second-round pick, might get the first crack at the job. At 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, few NFL defensive backs are better prepared to cover tight ends from a physical standpoint. Williams played just seven games on defense as a reserve cornerback last season, allowing three catches on six targets for 32 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions and a pass breakup while primarily covering wide receivers.
But Williams appears to have undergone a position switch this offseason, and he has the ideal size and strength to follow bigger pass-catchers. He?s certainly not the fastest defensive back on the Patriots? roster, but speed isn?t the most important attribute while tracking tight ends.
Another option would be 2020 second-round pick Kyle Dugger, who has an impressive combination of size and speed at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds with a 4.49-second 40-yard dash. Dugger looks more like a weakside linebacker than a typical NFL defensive back, and he showed promise while covering tight ends 1-on-1 during the 2020 Senior Bowl. Dugger was impressive before suffering a minor injury in training camp. He?s been back out on the practice field recently, and he could take on a significant role once fully up to speed.
Patriots strong safeties Terrence Brooks and Adrian Phillips also could see work against tight ends, but the last player who truly bears mentioning is cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who has had success against Kelce and Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz in the past.
Gilmore is typically a silent assassin, but some of his best post-game quotes have come after he?s covered tight ends. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year said he didn?t mind switching his coverage to Kelce during the Patriots? AFC Championship Game win over the Chiefs two seasons ago because it was ?easier? given the tight end?s lack of speed.
After Gilmore covered Ertz near the end of last season?s win over the Eagles, the star DB said he had to slow himself down to take on a tight end and that players at the position like to ?push off a lot.?
It might not make sense to deploy Gilmore against a tight end like Gesicki since the Patriots also have to worry about wide receiver DeVante Parker. But against a team like the 49ers, who don?t have a talented wide receiver corps, the Patriots? best course of action might be to have Gilmore follow Kittle since he?s San Francisco?s top pass-catcher.
The Patriots? interest in Talib is also notable because it could indicate that they don?t have full faith in Williams, Dugger or their strong safeties to take on tight ends. Williams and Dugger have upside, and the Patriots do know that they have a fallback plan in Gilmore if the going gets tough in-game.
Belichick clearly understands it won?t be easy to take on some of the NFL?s best tight ends this season. That?s why he went after Talib. So, he?ll just have to throw Williams or Dugger into the deep end to see if they can swim.
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