NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Last season, the New England Patriots acquired cornerback Aqib Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchanged for a fourth-round pick, then re-signed him to a one-year contract in the offseason. Both decisions, particularly the latter, now appear to be brilliant moves, but the fact remains that the Patriots will now be forced to make a difficult decision about Talib this offseason, where they must choose between re-signing their top option to a massive contract extension or allowing him to depart in free agency. In this article, cases both for and against Talib will be made; leave a comment and let us know what you think should happen this offseason!
The case for Talib:
The case for Talib is relatively easy to make: this season, he has been one of the best man-coverage cornerback in the entire league. Talib is being targeted only once every seven coverage snaps, tied for 17th in the league, and allows just 0.81 yards per snap in coverage, a figure which is tied for ninth in the league. He surrenders a completion once every 17.7 snaps in coverage, ranking third in the league behind only Alterraun Verner and Darrelle Revis. All of these numbers reflect dramatically improved production from New England’s top cornerback, despite the fact that he has been frequently assigned to shadow an opponent’s best receiving option in man coverage on a weekly basis. Those opponents have included some of the league’s best receivers, including the likes of Stevie Johnson, Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Jimmy Graham. With Talib on the roster, the Patriots can feel comfortable about their ability to limit the production of an opponent’s best option in the passing game.
Talib’s arrival last season also benefited New England in 2012, when the team had previously been unsuccessfully experimenting with a variety of secondary configurations. After acquiring Talib, left cornerback Devin McCourty moved to free safety and became one of the league’s elite players at that position, right cornerback Kyle Arrington moved into the slot, where he has been more comfortable, and Alfonzo Dennard assumed right cornerback responsibilities, emerging as a quality starter in his rookie season. The arrival was particularly important because Bill Belichick and the Patriots had previously struggled to identify quality defensive backs in the draft, missing on cornerbacks such as Ras-I Dowling (second round, 2011), Darius Butler (second round, 2009), and Terrence Wheatley (second round, 2008.) If New England allows Talib to leave in free agency, they will likely have to try their luck again via free agency or the draft, whereas Talib represents more of a known quantity.
Financially, Talib will likely be seeking a deal which pays him among the league’s elite cornerbacks, but his performance in 2013 has justified that cost; should he maintain this level of production, he will be an expense well-worth paying. New England has also managed their salary cap well historically, without many poor investments or players still in need of a contract extension, the only exceptions being middle linebacker Brandon Spikes (whose contract expires at the end of this season) and four starters whose deals expire in 2015, those being running back Stevan Ridley, left tackle Nate Solder, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, and safety Devin McCourty. Essentially, New England could try to fit the brunt of Talib’s cap impact into the next two seasons of his deal, sidestepping the possibility of his contract negatively affecting their ability to extend any of the players listed above, with the exception of Spikes.
The case against Talib:
Over the course of his six-year NFL career, Talib has yet to play in a full season, due to some combination of injuries and time missed due to league-mandated suspensions. Last season, Talib missed six games in total, but also left early in three contests: versus Houston (35/70 snaps), at Jacksonville (eight of eighty snaps), and versus Baltimore in the conference championship (8/74 snaps.) Overall, according to ESPN Boston’s final participation figures, Talib appeared on the field for just 27.5% of New England’s snaps that season, although that number also fails to factor in Talib’s time with Tampa Bay. Those injury concerns have re-emerged this season, as the cornerback has missed the past three games with a hip injury sustained early in the team’s week six contest versus New Orleans.
Talib’s inconsistent play in 2012 also presents a cause for concern. The cornerback was credited with fixing New England’s previously porous secondary, but his metrics suggest that the real reasons for the team’s coverage improvements were a change in playcalling (emphasizing more blitzing and man coverage rather than conservative zone shells), the insertion of Alfonzo Dennard into the starting lineup, and the movement of Kyle Arrington into the slot and Devin McCourty to free safety. That reshuffling was made possible because of Talib, but could continue if the Patriots were to simply start 2012 third-round pick Logan Ryan at left cornerback, or acquire another starter via the draft or free agency. Talib was the tied for the 15th-most-frequently targeted cornerback as a Patriot in 2012, surrendering the fifth-most yards per snap in coverage and tying for the 13th-highest rate of completions per snap in coverage.
Re-signing Talib will likely force the Patriots to pay him a premium price given his physical tools and his level of play this season. However, it’s possible that Talib, who has never played so well before, will be unable to sustain his production into the future; this may well be an outlier which is not necessarily indicative of what to expect from him moving forwards. Whether due to declining effort, injury, or the unsustainability of his 2013 performances, it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the Patriots would be paying Talib for one unusual season which happened in a contract year. Teams have frequently been burned in the past by rewarding a one-year wonder with a contract which does not factor in previous struggles. Also, how will Talib’s work ethic be affected by the financial security a lucrative multi-year deal offers him?