Drafting Defensive Backs: A Patriots Case Study

Darius Butler Released

Believe it or not, Darius Butler was a prototypical Patriots defensive back draft pick.

NEPD Editor: Doug Kyed

Entering the 2012 NFL Draft, there seems to be one common sentiment among Patriots fans, “We need defensive backs!”

One of the chief reasons why the Patriots need defensive backs is their spotty history in the draft taking corners and safeties.

Throughout the twelve seasons Bill Belichick has been Head Coach, the Patriots have taken 21 defensive backs, four remain with the team.

I put together a spreadsheet containing all of those players vitals, hoping to come up with some patterns to possibly try to determine what the Patriots look for in a DB, and which players in the 2012 class they’ll potentially be looking at. (Thanks to NFLDraftScout.com and the Boston.com Draft Database for all combine results)

Here are some of the most interesting findings:


The Patriots like short defensive backs. Of the 21 players the Patriots have drafted, four have been 5’11” or taller: Hakim Akbar (potentially drafted as a linebacker), Christian Morton, Patrick Chung and Ras-I Dowling. Three of those players are 6’0” or over (Chung is 5’11” and only Dowling is 6’1”.

When I threw out this stat on Twitter, there were some people speculating that it was likely that taller players weren’t around when the Patriots were drafting. That’s simply not true. In 2003, Rashean Mathis, Ken Hamlin, Drayton Florence, Bryan Scott and Terrence Keal, all over 5’11”, were drafted soon after Eugene Wilson. In 2004, Will Allen was drafted between Guss Scott and Dexter Reid. In 2005, Domonique Foxworth and Travis Daniels were drafted after Ellis Hobbs. In 2007, Eric Weddle was drafted after Brandon Meriweather. In 2008, Terrell Thomas and Antwaun Molden were drafted after Terrence Wheatley, a major reach at 62… you get the point.

Now I’m definitely NOT saying that height is all that matters in the NFL for defensive backs. But, what I will say is that for twelve years, the Patriots were using one system that didn’t seem to be working and it took them twelve years to finally draft a defensive back over 6’0” early in Dowling. The sense is that the Patriots like smaller corners because they can turn and run better and have smoother hips.

Some other notes:
-Ellis Hobbs is the shortest at 5’9” flat.
-Seven players were 5’9”, ten were 5’10”, one was 5’11”, two were 6’0” and one was 6’1”
-Three of the 5’11”+ players were safeties.
-It’s still early, but the Patriots are 2/4 for players over 5’11”, as Chung has been a quality player and Dowling looked great before his injury.

Bill Belichick also likes his defensive backs fast. Of the 21 players drafted, 17 have ran sub 4.5 40s. Four ran 4.3 40s, thirteen ran 4.4 40s, one ran a 4.5 40 and two ran 4.6 40s (one being Hakim Akbar who was drafted as a linebacker). All of the players who ran 4.5+ 40s were safeties.

I don’t think anyone would have figured that Belichick drafts workout warriors, but he does like his speedy corners. The Patriots haven’t drafted a defensive back who ran a 4.5+ 40 since 2005, James Sanders, one of their most successful picks.

Obviously speed is important in the NFL, but it does seem like the Patriots restrict their potential players to sub 4.5 speed. With the relative success of James Sanders, it might be wise to step away from that once in a while.

Some other notes:
-Average speed is 4.47
-Fastest player was Antwan Harris
-Slowest player was Hakim Akbar

The Patriots only took one player in the second round or higher prior to 2007, Eugene Wilson. Since 2007, they’ve taken a defensive back in the first two rounds every year with varying success.

Brandon Meriweather was the earliest pick at 24, while Christian Morton (one of the 6’0” players) was the latest at 233. The average pick of all of these players is 116.7.

Seven players have totaled 20 starts or more in the NFL: Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty.

The average number of college starts for Patriots defensive back picks is 28. Patrick Chung has the most starts with a sky high 51, whereas Malcolm Williams had zero at TCU. If you don’t count Williams, a special teamer, Antwan Harris is next with 14. Harris was Belichick’s first drafted DB.

Other than Williams, the Pats haven’t drafted a DB with less than 23 starts since 2001.

From what I can tell, Eugene Wilson, Guss Scott, Hobbs, Chung, Butler, McCourty, Dowling were the only captains at college.

It’s worth noting that four of those players have been drafted in the last three years, so maybe thats a new system for Belichick and that Patriots.

Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, Guss Scott, Eugene Wilson, Brandon Meriweather, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty all participated in the Senior Bowl.

James Sanders and Hakim Akbar were the only juniors that left early for the Draft.

-Average arm length is 31”, high 32.875, low 29.5
-Average hand size is 8.95, high 9.5, low 8.13
-Average 20 yard split is 2.58, high 2.7, low 2.47
-Average 10 yard split is 1.53, high 1.64, low 1.43
-Average vertical is 37.65, high 43.5, low 31
-Average 20 shuttle is 4.15, high 4.39, low 4.01
-Average 3 cone is 6.87, high 7.21, low 6.27
-Average bench is 15.56, high 25, low 7
-Average wonderlic is 18.75, high 28, low 10

Overall, James Sanders seems to be the real outlier in the group. He was the standard height, but slower, heavier, stronger, had the second worst broad jump, was an underclassmen and wasn’t invited to the combine. The one thing that fit was that he excelled in the 20 shuttle.

Players like Ellis Hobbs, Brandon Meriweather, Darius Butler and Eugene Wilson seem to be the prototype for a Patriots defensive back.

Two things the Patriots really seem to look for is a better than average 40 time, better than average vertical and better than average 3 cone. They seem to worry less about height and the 20 yard shuttle.

The addition of Ras-I Dowling last year throws some of the things we learned off, but if I had to guess what DBs the Patriots were looking for, I’d expect a cornerback under 5’11” with a 4.4 40 time and a sub 7 3 cone who started more than 20 college games. If the player is a captain, it’s an added luxury.

We’ll find out all of those measureables after the NFL Combine and I’ll be revisiting this research then to go through which DBs the Patriots might be interested in.

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16 Responses to “Drafting Defensive Backs: A Patriots Case Study”

  1. AM says:

    Very thorough work, and an interesting analysis in terms of looking for patterns of measurables. It may be a bit of a stretch, however, to say that “for twelve years, the Patriots were using one system that didn’t seem to be working,” at least to the extent that you are correlating height with failure rates in the draft. (I understand that you are not suggesting exclusivity, but the phrasing implies that you think there is at least some relationship.) To begin with, it is worth noting that just over half of the picks listed were selected after pick 100 (an informal benchmark for “later” in the draft). We would expect to see a greater failure rate with those players, as with any position–more talented and skilled players are on the whole drafted earlier, and fewer success stories come out of the later rounds. The fact that Leonard Myers, for example, did not develop into a quality corner or a contributor may be an indictment of his talent or his skill, or of the team’s ability to find a “diamond in the rough” at this position, but it seems a reach to suggest that an equivalent player who were three inches taller would have necessarily been a better selection.

    Second, there have been success stories amongst the physical type that the Patriots have drafted. In the top half of the draft, Wilson and Chung were good performers, and Hobbs (while hardly an all-pro) was serviceable. Meriweather provided some quality production, for all his flaws, and his shortcomings were entirely a function of his mental makeup, and not his physical ability. McCourty, of course, had a stellar first year, followed by an abysmal second season, but these again appear to be mental and not physical issues. In the bottom half, Samuel was a great performer, and Sanders was solid for quite some time. Also, Kyle Arrington is 5’11”–hardly a lockdown corner, but a decent player, and another data point. (Ty Law was the same height, for what it’s worth.)

    Third, while Dowling definitely flashed some potential, and appears to represent a bit of a shift in the type of corner the Patriots prefer (although maybe not–his speed numbers are excellent), it is still too early to say if the deviation is successful. He may very well end up a bust, although I would certainly hope not. And as poorly as Wheatley performed, I’m not sure that the team would have been better off with Moulden instead (his performance this year was hardly something to write home about).

    What I would really love to see is an evaluation of college performance for the DBs that the Pats have drafted, much like the WR case study you did previously. While keeping in mind that DB stats are significantly different than WR stats, I wonder if the Patriots are drafting based on speed and height at the expense of college production (not just starts, but passes defended and the like). It would probably be prohibitively difficult to come by this level of data, but if it shows that the Patriots are once again falling into that pattern, it would be a real indictment of their drafting philosophy.

    Again, thanks for the analysis.

    • Doug Kyed says:

      Just briefly on your last point, I wanted to do that, but it’s just too hard to base college performance of defensive backs off of statistics. Until a website like Pro Football Focus exists for the college ranks, the only way to judge a college CB is from the tape.

      • AM says:

        I presumed as much–I imagine it would be really difficult to get that data together. Even were it available, I imagine it is not as readily translatable without film study (e.g., if a CB has a lot of tackles, is it because of strong run support or giving up too many receptions?). But great analysis working with what was available.

  2. Bruschi54 says:

    Great job putting that study together. Looking at this years draft group I like the DB’ everyone has projected in the 2nd & 3rd rounds to be good fit’s for the Pats. The safeties from Boise, Oklahoma State & Notre Dame could all be on the board at the end of rd2 and into the 3rd, and are solid players.

  3. AJ says:

    Great work as always. These in-depth studies are really excellent. I guess you need something difficult that you can really commit yourself to to keep your mind off the game.

  4. Dan says:

    I’ve heard several times that BB holds the 3-cone drill as a great indicator of a players quickness. I would gather, on average, the smaller the player the more quick they are.

    On that note, the Pats, like the rest of the league, are in an arms race…an ever-evolving league, and for years one of the main teams they had to compete against was the Colts. Think Marvin Harrison…then Harrison and Wayne; obviously, Manning throwing to them with great timing. The Pats had to find players to deal with this…they went with quick dudes because they were in a competition.

    Lastly, this only grew to new heights after the Colts changed the rules and didn’t allow any contact. I think the following year(s) is when we saw the Pats draft Hobbs, then Weatley & Wilhite.

    I think we see them changing with the times…Harrison is off shooting people and Manning was out this year…hopefully Wayne is catching 1,500 yards in offense from Brady next year. Dowling was a good indication of this evolution…keeping up with the Jets big receivers, and others around the league. It’s really just common sense…you have to find players that you feel can defend the trends of the day.

    • Dan says:

      Think also of our offensive line for years being built to deal with the blitzing Steelers, and the the rushing ends of the Colts. We had to have smart players, that maybe lacked some size, to deal with these blitz packages from our main competition.
      We’ve changed a bit with the times and have gone bigger…as D-lineman have gone bigger.
      The safety position, now that I think of it (stating the obvious), has changed as much as any position over the past 5-10 years. They have to have much more speed…have to be able to cover; while not lacking in toughness and run defense. The Pats were stuck this year trying to find a FS and they couldn’t do it….really over the past several years. I’m guessing BB’s infatuation with Ed Reed may stem from not having anyone close to him on his own team. He was really hoping it was Merriweather, but he was just a stiff with great measurables…no brains. I would guess he’s reaching to turn McCourty into something close…maybe get lucky because he does have the speed, body, and desire…a good kid who tries hard, and did show some good ball skills last year (2010).
      We will see…

    • TD says:

      It wasn’t so much an individual matchup issue against certain guys or teams, he needed guys with quickness to recover when playing in a zone and as always high football IQ and dedication. It seems now he does need a little bigger guys to play the tall WR’s that are 5-6 inches taller than our CB’s.

  5. Kostya says:

    I think this height issue may be overrated. By Pro Football Focus, the heights of the top 10 CBs from last year:


    and the top 10 safeties:


    These guys tend to be taller than the guys Belichick has been taking, but it’s not a particularly strong trend. Even a lot of the safeties are 5’10.

    • Doug Kyed says:

      Nine out of those 20 players were 5’11” or taller, four of the 21 the Patriots have drafted have been. That’s pretty significant.

      Also, Pro Football Focus benefits slot corners, so a 5’10” guy like Williams Middleton hardly counts, and no. 11 is the 6’0″ Carlos Rogers.

      • DWE 2012 says:

        I hear that Mark Barron has double Hernia to contend with….? What’s your take on realistic Safeties and a “SHUT DOWN” Corner for the Pat’s to take in the upcoming draft since finding this out?
        Barron was a guy I’d have like to have seen them go for, but a double hernia doesn’t make for a good sign. WHo’s left that’s realistic at current possition or that they should now target In your opinion?

  6. Jim R says:

    Lot of work went into that. Nice job. Ijust hope they get a new DB coach.I hate the fact that they teach the trail technique. Turning your back on the ball usually never works out.

  7. Simon says:

    This is awesome Doug! Great breakdown of the DBs taken under BB. I think that drafting captains is definitely something they are trending towards, the team wants mature leaders to carry on “the patriot way” and they want that in guys like Mayo, Mccourty, Chung. I remember reading in War Room the book about how BB drafts that Bruschi and Mcginest used to get on guys who were late to the facility or not in their playbooks and would hold guys accountable. I think this is a huge trait that the pats look for.

  8. Ryan says:

    Lets hope for the sake of the defense that Bill has figured out that his drafting of CB’s is terrible and that he needs to try something different. Perhaps he needs to rely on the expertise of someone else, and a new DB/CB coach or some additional help would be nice as well.

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