NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Speaking with reporters on Monday, July 8th regarding Aaron Hernandez’s ongoing murder trial, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft indicated that he was, at the very least, considering a revision of New England’s player-vetting process, reassuring reporters from the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and ESPN Boston that “you can be sure we’ll be looking at our procedures and auditing how we do things”, reiterating that the Patriots will “renew efforts and look at procedures” in what is ostensibly an effort to rehabilitate the club’s public image in light of recent events.
Early on Tuesday, July 9th, less than a day after Kraft’s comments, starting right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence in Lincoln, Nebraska, having been stopped by police and subsequently refusing to take a breath test. Although the Hernandez trial will undoubtedly continue to control center stage, the charges against Dennard should be considered more relevant from a football perspective at this point, as how the organization opts to deal with his situation should provide onlookers with some level of insight into the impact Hernandez’s arrest will have on New England’s team-building philosophy moving forwards.
Make no mistake about it: despite being drafted in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL Draft, Dennard is a valuable member of the Patriots, having started nine games last season (including two in the playoffs) and providing New England with a reliable option at right cornerback. His play on the boundary, which included limiting opposing targets to just 36/72 receiving for 516 yards, stabilized the position and allowed Kyle Arrington to slide inside to the slot, where he was much more effective. Therefore, by opting to release him, the Patriots would indicate that they are willing to venture into the unknown by shifting a sizable portion of playing time (Dennard was on the field for 751 snaps in 2012) to one of their reserves.
Fortunately, New England should be able to make a substantially more informed decision should Kraft refrain from immediately intervening in an effort to protect the Patriots brand; unfortunately, it’s because at this point, a suspension is possible for Dennard, given that this is his second encounter with police. Even should Dennard ultimately find himself exonerated, his situation may very well draw the interest of the league office, which has never been shy about handing down punishments for legal issues under commissioner Roger Goodell, meaning that head coach Bill Belichick should begin to proactively implement some contingency plans.
At this point, New England would have three realistic options given their current personnel at cornerback: move Arrington back outside, where four of the five touchdowns he allowed in 2012 were surrendered, hope that 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling can stay healthy throughout an entire season, or try their luck with rookie third-round pick Logan Ryan, a two-year starter at Rutgers who opted to forego his senior season in order to declare for the draft. Thus, depth and talent remain at the position even without Dennard, but the potential certainly exists for the team’s pass defense to suffer in his absence, as the three aforementioned candidates have yet to prove their reliability.
Should none of those avenues appeal to Belichick, he may be able to offset Dennard’s absence by getting creative in his deployment of the team’s safety options. Although he graded out as an elite safety last season, Devin McCourty could reclaim the starting left cornerback spot if necessary, relegating Aqib Talib to the right side, or New England could employ more three-safety formations, which would lessen the need for a third cornerback’s presence on the field by favoring a larger personnel grouping featuring a player such as 2012 second-round pick Tavon Wilson or free-agent signing Adrian Wilson.
Continuity in the defensive backfield was clearly a priority to the Patriots this past offseason, as the organization was presented with the opportunity to rebuild at cornerback but chose to retain their top options instead, re-signing Talib to a one-year, $5 million deal and agreeing to terms with Arrington on a four-year, $16 million extension, both moves combining to indicate the team’s desire to field a similar unit in 2013. One major consequence of releasing Dennard would be disrupting the secondary’s chemistry.
Whether or not Kraft is willing to retain Dennard remains unknown at this point, but New England would be wise to deal with this situation by considering it on an individual basis, dictated by the organization’s overall procedures and philosophy but otherwise isolated from Aaron Hernandez’s recent arrest. As unfortunate as this arrest’s proximity is to Hernandez’s murder trial, the team should proceed with as dispassionate a cost-benefit analysis as possible, weighing potential media and locker-room distractions against Dennard’s youth, talent, and production. Even though the gamble taken on Hernandez eventually backfired, the Patriots could very well regret cutting ties with a valuable commodity while receiving only the benefit of media leniency in return.