NEPD Staff Writer: Ken Vetrano
Christmas came early this year when Lovie Smith gift wrapped #24 under the tree for Patriot fans. In the span of about 48 hours New England went from losing Aqib Talib to their main AFC competition the Denver Broncos, to signing one of the hand full of players that would be considered an upgrade to him.
Darrelle Revis may not have been 100% last year, but he still manged to play at an above average level for most of the season in Tampa Bay. I fully expect a healthy Revis to rediscover his All Pro status, and be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year by season’s end.
The problem with Revis however is the uncertainty regarding his future after 2014. Many have speculated the Patriots plan to use the increased cap space they gained unloading Logan Mankins contract to Tampa in order to sign Revis long term. I just don’t see that happening, not because New England isn’t pursuing that possibility, but because Revis always bets on himself, and usually wins. If he can have the type of season many in the media are predicting, there’s no reason he won’t be able to shop a blank check around to 31 other teams. This doesn’t mean New England won’t eventually be able to resign him, but the degree of uncertainty that exists with his contract after the season is something worth acknowledging.
Fortunately for the Patriots they have one of the youngest and deepest pools of defensive backs in recent memory. A lot of attention will be paid each week to who Revis defends, but my focus will be on who New England pairs him with. Because the odds are in favor whoever sticks opposite Revis, will eventually become New England’s number one corner down the line.
Before Training camp I had Logan Ryan pegged as New England’s #2 CB, but Malcolm Butler has been a revelation this preseason. Butler’s nose for the ball, and knack for big plays makes him a candidate to become Robin to Revis’s Batman. He’s susceptible to speed at times, but adjusts so well in coverage that he’s rarely beaten down field. He knows how to control his body while running with receivers, and keeps his eyes on the ball until the last moment. The question now going into the regular season is; Is he more ‘Studfeld’ than Sudfeld? Come Sunday afternoon we’ll find out and see if this undrafted diamond still shines when the lights are at their brightest.
If they go with Butler on the other side of Revis, that means Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard may be rotated a nickel back. Truth is, Belichick probably feels comfortable with Butler, Ryan or Dennard lining up at the #2 corner spot, as long as that means Kyle Arrington remains in the slot where he excels. The last thing they want to do is place Arrington outside on a regular basis.
Fans should be excited for Logan Ryan’s sophomore year. His 5 interceptions last season had him tied for third most in the NFL. Ryan always seems to be around the ball at crucial times, and that type of football magnetism is something New England has missed over the past couple seasons on defense. He gets his hands dirty in the run game, and knows how to get physical with wide outs underneath. When Ryan, Butler and Revis are on the field together, expect coverage sacks and turnovers to become routine. I feel the same about Dennard as long as he can stay healthy, but durability has become a concern for the third year corner.
The addition of Brandon Browner has been over hyped a lot this offseason. I’m a fan of the acquisition for what it is, which is the Patriots bringing in a veteran presence who will solidify a more physical tone among the secondary. But there’s a reason he lost his starting job to a 6th round pick in Seattle. Byron Maxwell beat him out for that position primarily due to Browner’s inability to cover in space. Leaving him alone in zone coverage is not the best idea, but rather at the line where he can jam receivers. By the time his four game suspension is over I have a feeling Ryan, Butler or Dennard will have played themselves into the starting role next to Revis.
The real intrigue however begins at Safety. After Devin Mccoutry the picture starts to become a bit cloudy. It’s clear the team likes Duron Harmon, who flashed toward the tail end of last year, and has looked good this preseason. It also helps that he already has an established rapport with McCourty that extends back to their college days at Rutgers, but it’s still unclear whether or not he can perform consistently for 16 games.
Tavon Wilson has gotten a much longer leash than I feel was warranted, but an improved training camp and preseason was enough for Belichick to keep him around.
On a side note, what I found amusing about people calling for Josh Boyce’s head going into final roster cuts, is that they had no problem with New England giving Wilson, a massive second round reach, over two years worth of slack after accomplishing nothing, but a talented fourth round receiver who was set back after injuries in his first year deserved to be let go? Makes very little sense to me. Not saying Boyce hadn’t underwhelmed, but cutting bait after one year is just too soon. Glad he found his way to the practice squad and will be given a chance to develop.
Anyways, I digress. If Wilson can carry those offseason improvements into the regular season, then maybe he can become a key contributor on some downs. His size is definitely an asset New England could use against larger bodies. Although, Wilson may lose some snaps to Patrick Chung who returned to the Patriots in free agency. Surprisingly, Chung has not looked terrible this preseason, and provides depth and experience behind a young safety corps.
Sunday versus Miami will be this secondary’s first exam, and the course schedule doesn’t get any easier with quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Aaron Rogers and Philip Rivers on deck. Not to mention the difficult task of having to defend targets such as Demaryius Thomas, Kennan Allen and Jordy Nelson. But this year’s group of defensive backs are ready, and for once actually possess the ability to defend top tier talent.
Darrelle Revis is the Red Ryder BB Gun Patriot fans have yearned over for years, but perhaps the best gift they’ll receive heading into Sunday is the assurance they won’t need to Google names like Atwaun Modlen, Sterling Moore or Phillip Adams ever again.