NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Much has been made of New England’s defensive back signings thus far in the free agent period; the Patriots re-signed slot cornerback Kyle Arrington to a four-year, $16 million contract, left cornerback Aqib Talib to a one-year, $5 million deal, and added former Arizona Cardinals strong safety Adrian Wilson on a three-year pact to solidify the defensive backfield. However, although these three signings do provide the team with a measure of certainty relative to their pre-free agency defensive backfield, their long-term stability at cornerback and safety is still a concern.
Although New England paid too much for Kyle Arrington’s services, his addition is the most encouraging from a long-term perspective. Among New England’s most durable, physical defenders, Arrington played 947 snaps with the team last year, struggling at right cornerback but sliding into the slot later in the season, where he looked much more comfortable. An effective run supporter, Arrington’s presence should offer the Patriots with an above-average slot cornerback for the foreseeable future, rendering early-round slot options such as Tyrann Mathieu irrelevant to the team’s draft plans.
However, outside of Arrington, New England’s other signings are short-term fixes if anything. Aqib Talib’s one-year, $5 million contract has drawn plenty of praise, and while the Patriots were wise to avoid committing to Talib on a long-term contract, that’s primarily because he was not very effective for the Patriots last season. Talib, a player who has run into plenty of trouble off-the-field during his career (including a 2012 suspension for Adderall), struggled to get onto the field in New England and ranked among the bottom of the league in cover snaps per target, yards per cover snap, and cover snaps per reception, where he finished 97th, 112th, and 102nd among 116 qualifying cornerbacks during his time with New England, respectively.
As for Wilson, it remains to be seen whether or not he has anything left in the tank after his skills appeared to suffer significant erosion in 2012. While his signing has been celebrated for providing New England with a physical enforcer in the secondary, the truth is that his run support was lacking last season. In fact, he finished 48th among 55 qualifying safeties in Pro Football Focus’ “stop percentage” within eight yards of the line of scrimmage, signifying that only 2.7% of his snaps as an in-the-box player were negative plays for the opposing offense.
Wilson’s struggles in run support were magnified by his losses in coverage, where he finished below much-maligned Patriots starter Steve Gregory in terms of coverage snaps per target and per reception, with only a slight advantage over Gregory in terms of yards per coverage snap. Arizona attempted to compensate for Wilson’s decline by removing him on obvious passing downs last season, resulting in Wilson finishing 54th among 59 qualifying safeties in the amount of snaps spent in coverage despite playing in fifteen games. In other words, Wilson’s statistics hardly indicate either a forceful run defender or an upgrade in pass coverage.
To compound matters, New England signed a three-year deal with Wilson despite these concerns, and there may not be much cause for optimism, as Wilson is currently 33 years old; he turns 34 in October. While contract terms have not been revealed thus far, by offering any sort of guaranteed money beyond 2012, the Patriots would be assuming a financial risk unwarranted by what Wilson showed while on the field in 2012.
While the Patriots may have done themselves a favor by making additions in the secondary, offering their roster more flexibility in the 2013 NFL Draft, they likely have not done much to improve their secondary despite the significant financial commitments they made during the free agent period. If next season resembles 2012, they could very well find themselves attempting to replace Talib and/or Wilson. Based on their financial investments, the Patriots appear to be comfortable with their personnel in the secondary, but this looks like an average unit at best based on their 2012 numbers.