For all of Patriots Nation right now, the cornerback position on their team is a touchy and sensitive subject. With the departures of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, and Alfonzo Dennard this past offseason, Bill Belichick is left with veteran cast-offs and unproven young players to work with this summer.
It is a scary thought for all fans that support the red, blue, and silver with cornerback arguably being the second most important position in the game. With the Patriots having so little experience in their defense with their corners, players such as Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan who have experience will be essential pieces in the secondary rebuild process. The only question now will be which player will take over the number one cornerback spot, Butler or Ryan?
Before February 1st, 2015 the casual fan had never heard of the name Malcolm Butler. Now he is making every social appearance he can to soak up his fifteen minutes of fame after his Super Bowl heroics. Nevertheless, Super Bowl XLIX is in the past and it is time to focus on how the Patriots can repeat, and Butler could be a key piece.
During the 2014 regular season, Malcolm Butler showed that he belongs in the National Football League. He was the surprise of training camp, and Bill Belichick was not afraid to put him in key veteran like situations.
For example, in week nine he spent significant time covering both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders of the Denver Broncos. Furthermore, he matched up against Mike Wallace in both contests against Miami. Every time he held his own ground, showing that pitbull like nastiness that earned himself a spot on the roster.
This year, the microscope will be focused in on Butler. The margin for error will be so small any little mistake will be criticized by Patriots fans and most importantly his head coach. However, based off what we’ve seen from Butler in his very short career, he will be ready to take on the challenge.
Logan Ryan has been the opposite of Malcolm Butler, a disappointment. In his rookie season he flashed at times intercepting five passes. However, the interceptions masked the fact that he was consistently getting beat by his receivers.
In his sophomore campaign, Ryan only digressed. Whenever he was on the field in 2014, the opposing quarterback attacked him and instantly and picked him apart. Most notably in week thirteen against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
So far this season, Ryan has received the most amount of reps due to Malcolm Butler’s absence from OTA’s. Players are in only shorts and t-shirts at OTA’s, but based off reports he impressed the most out of any of the cornerbacks.
Ryan has shown nothing yet that proves he can be a number one cornerback on a elite team. Although, he is the most experienced cornerback in the Patriots system so the job may be his for the taking. That should scare Patriots fans big time.
In the end, the battle for the number one cornerback spot on the Patriots roster this summer will most likely be won by Malcolm Butler.
He is far from a proven cornerback in the National Football League, but his ceiling seems to be higher than any of the players on the depth chart. Logan Ryan has only decreased as his career has gone on, leaving me with little hope that he can be an every down starting corner.
Before last year with Darrelle Revis and the early 2000s with Ty Law the Patriots pass defense has tended to struggle and lacked a true shutdown corner. With Revis leaving New England and returning to the New York Jets the Patriots may again go into the 2015 season without a shutdown corner. Last season, New England ranked 17th in pass defense but the numbers didn’t really show how good and effective the Patriots secondary and defense as a whole was in 2015, with the Patriots often leading early in games and by a good margin teams were forced to throw the ball the whole game. Lets take a look at the Patriots pass defense throughout the Belichick era both with and without a shutdown corner and what we could expect to see out of this years defense.
In Belichick’s first year as coach the team ranked 21st in pass defense allowing 220 passing yards per game. The league wasn’t as big of a passing league at the time compared to how it is now. The secondary was lead by cornerback Ty Law and safety Lawyer Milloy who each led the team in interceptions with two a piece during the teams disappointing 5-11 season. The team also ranked 21st in rush defense, which is a compelling reason why the team finished at 5-11 with a poor pass and rush defense.
The following season is one all pats fans will remember, the year the franchise won its first Super Bowl championship, the year our franchise quarterback took the realms and the dynasty in New England started. That year the Patriots ranked 24th in pass defense but allowed less yards per game than it did the year before allowing 218 yards per game. Again, the league was more run oriented compared to the way the NFL is today. The team was again lead in the secondary by Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy and despite the low ranking in pass defense allowed less yards than the year before and had 22 interceptions as a team, returning 5 for touchdowns. The high interception total showed how with a top safety and corner the team was able to be more aggressive in play making.
The Patriots suffered a Super Bowl hangover in the 2002 season missing the playoffs for one of the three times in the Belichick era. Despite not making the playoffs the teams pass defense increased tremendously improving to the 11th ranked pass defense in the league allowing 198 yards per game. Where the Patriots increased in pass defense they decreased in rush defense ranking 31st in the league allowing 137 yards per game.
The Patriots secondary had a new look to it in the 2003 season compared to the seasons before. Veteran safety Rodney Harrison and cornerback Tyrone Poole both signed with the team in the offseason, drafting safety Eugene Wilson in the second round, cornerback Asante Samuel in the 4th round and releasing veteran safety Lawyer Milloy prior to the start of the season. Milloy signed with division rival Buffalo Bills and started off the year by beating the Patriots 31-0, which I’m sure made the Patriots question their decision to release Milloy. The team ended up ranking 15th in pass defense at the end of the year allowing 202 yards per game. The teams run defense had a huge improvement from the year ranking 4th in rushing yards allowing only 86 yards per game. Behind the teams strong defense the team went on to win their second Super Bowl in three years.
2004 was a tough season for the Patriots secondary suffering many injuries, which forced wide receiver Troy Brown to the defensive side of the ball to play corner. Brown played well and better than I and I’m sure most people expected and was the model of the “Patriot Way”, doing anything you can to win. Brown ended up finishing tied second on the team in interceptions with 3, with his first coming against former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe. The only member of the secondary to play in all 16 regular season games was safety Rodney Harrison. The team ranked 17th in pass defense allowing 212 yards per game despite all the injuries and went on to win their third Super Bowl ring in four years and started the Patriots dynasty.
Veteran cornerback Ty Law left the team in free agency, which made the Patriots bolster a new look secondary for the 2005 season without Law. Without Law the teams secondary struggled ranking 31st in the league in pass defense allowing 231 yards per game. The teams rush defense also struggled in 2005 ranking 25th in run defense. With Law leaving in free agency the Patriots struggled with not having a true shutdown corner despite Asante Samuel playing well and molding into a future number one corner.
After the defensive struggle in 2005, the team improved in both pass and rush defense ranking 12th in pass defense and 5th in run defense in 2006. The defense was led by corner Asante Samuel who had 10 interceptions on the year and became a dangerous threat for opposing quarterbacks to throw at and taking away one side of the field. Injuries again hit the Patriots secondary in the 2006 season with a variety of injuries to multiple members of the defense.
The Patriots had their famous 16-0 Regular Season and rewriting the whole record book while doing so. With Tom Brady and the offense setting new records every week and gaining the majority of the attention, the Patriots defense had one of if not their best defense statistically in the Belichick era. The team ranked 6th in passing allowing 190 yards per game and the run defense ranking 10th allowing 98 yards per game. Harrison and Samuel were again leaders of the New England secondary. Sadly what this team will be remembered for will be for falling just short of the perfect season with their only loss coming against the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. As well as the defense played all year they struggled in the Super Bowl against the Giants. The defense as a whole struggled and the offense didn’t play as well as they did all year long. If it also wasn’t for a miracle helmet catch by Giants receiver David Tyree the Patriots may have ended up winning the Super Bowl and completing the “perfect season”.
Coming off a devastating loss in the Super Bowl the Patriots were looking to return and were the early season favorites to win the Super Bowl in 2008. Then quarterback Tom Brady went down in the first quarter of week 1 with a torn ACL and MCL. The offense was now set to look different without their MVP quarterback. In free agency that year cornerback Asante Samuel left New England to join the Philadelphia Eagles. Safety Rodney Harrison only played in 6 games before being injured and out for the year. The defense was now led by rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo and 2nd year safety Brandon Meriweather and cornerbacks Deltha O’Neil (who was terrible at this point in his career), the inconsistent Ellis Hobbs and Jonathan Wilhite. With all the injuries and lack of a true number one corner the Patriots defense was better than ultimately expected. The defense ranked 11th in passing allowing 201 yards per game and 15th in defense allowing 107 yards per game. Even with the multitude of injuries on both side of the ball the team still finished at 10-6 but missed the playoffs after the Jets lost in week 17 to the Dolphins, which sent Miami to the playoffs. This helped show how great of a coach Bill Belichick is, doing as good as he did with the amount of injuries the team had and after losing arguably its best defensive player in free agency and still play well.
Veterans Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison retired prior to the 2009 season, which left New England with a loss of leadership and two key members of the teams defense, as well as trading star defensive lineman Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders. The team was also playing with Leigh Bodden, Jonathan Wilhite and Shawn Springs at cornerback, which is not very good to say the least. Wilhite struggled since the time he was drafted and Springs and Bodden were older veterans that were past their prime and weren’t nearly as productive as the team was hoping they would be when signed in free agency. Despite the lack of star power, especially in the secondary the team wasn’t too bad as a whole on defense ranking 12th in passing allowing 210 yards per game and ranking 13th in run defense allowing 110 yards per game. Again this showed that Belichick doesn’t need a “star” corner to lead his team.
The Patriots 2010 defense was ugly to say the least. The team ranked 30th in pass defense allowing 259 yards per game. One bright spot was rookie cornerback Devin McCourty, who had 7 interceptions on the year and looked like he could be the shut down corner New England was missing the past few seasons. Despite the terrible pass defense the team played fairly well against the run ranking 11th in the league allowing 108 yards per game.
New year, same problems, the 2011 Patriots were again TERRIBLE against the pass ranking 31st in the league allowing 293 yards per game. It was ugly to watch, I remember watching the game against the Peyton Manningless Indianapolis Colts and Dan Orloksky was at quarterback and they just kept driving up the field and scoring. I remember my dad and I yelling at the TV and asking each other “are we really going to lose to the f***ing Colts?” before he threw the TV remote at the ground and broke it out of anger. The lone bright spot from the year before, Devin McCourty had a huge sophomore slump and couldn’t have covered me if I was out on the field. The defense was so bad andlacked depth that wide receivers Julian Edelman and matthew Slater were both playing in the secondary, and were playing better than just about all the other members of the secondary. New England played in way too many shoot-outs and close games this season. The offense would get up big to start the game and then the defense would play a prevent zone and just couldn’t stop anybody, it was painful to watch. Despite the terrible defense the Patriots still made it to the Super Bowl after a heroic pass deflection by Sterling Moore and a shanked Billy Cundiff field goal in the AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens. New England again went onto lose to the Giants in the Super Bowl after a Wes Welker drop that would have sealed the victory for New England and another lucky pass by Eli Manning where his receiver again made an amazing catch bailing out Manning.
Yet again New England’s secondary struggled against the pass in 2012. Devin McCourty continued to struggle at cornerback, which prompted the team to move him to safety, where he has played great since, and make a mid-season trade for cornerback Aqib Talib. Adding Talib was huge for New England giving them a true number one cornerback and someone who could take away an opposing teams top receiver. Despite the acquisition of Talib the Patriots still ranked 29th in pass defense allowing 271 yards per game. If Talib was never acquired the rankings surely would have been lower. Talib was good during his time in New England besides constantly being banged up, especially in the big games. The Patriots ended up losing to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship after a Talib injury sidelined him and forced Devin McCourty back to corner halfway through the game and forcing Kyle Arrington, a slot corner, to cover wide receiver Torrey Smith, a speedy deep threat.
With having a full season of Aqib Talib the Patriots pass defense improved drastically ranking 18th in the league allowing 239 yards per game. With Talib at corner allowed McCourty to play the center fielder role and roam around the secondary. Talib played like the top corner in the NFL for most of the 2013 season. Another bright spot for New England’s defense was rookie cornerback Logan Ryan. Ryan led the team with 5 interceptions and showed a lot of promise for the future as a playmaker and potentially improving into a number one corner for the Patriots. Talib was again injured during the AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos and the Patriots went on to lose to the Broncos and be eliminated from the playoffs.
And lastly we have last years 2014 pass defense. Last years pass defense was great and the best that I have seen and can remember the Patriots having. Darrelle Revis was, well Darrelle Revis, he shut down any receiver he was matched up against. Brandon Browner provided the physicality and swagger that the defense needed, always giving big hits and being physical with the receiver he was matched up against even if it would draw the occasional pass interference call. Kyle Arrington played a key role as the teams slot corner and did it very well most of the year. Second year rookie Logan Ryan, like Devin McCourty, had a sophomore slump and didn’t play nearly as well as he did during his rookie year. He was constantly getting beat by receivers and didn’t play the ball as well as he did the year before. Then there was Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler who played well when he was on the field and was a good depth player. Butler is now most popular for his Super Bowl interception, throughout the year Butler was impressive in limited action and showed very good man coverage skills. And with this secondary with the shut down corner in Revis and great complimentary number two corner in Browner the Patriots went on to win their 4th Super Bowl.
Based on the past teams during the Belichick era the team has won their Super Bowls with a top, shutdown corner. After losing Revis, Browner, and Arrington in free agency the secondary is set to look a lot different than it did in 2014. The current cornerbacks on the Patriots roster who are expected to make the roster and potentially play key roles for New England’s defense this upcoming year are Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, free agent signee Bradley Fletcher, Robert McClain and Derek Cox, as well as safety Devin McCourty who some have suspected could make the switch back to corner with the current cornerback depth.
Ryan and Butler have spent time in New England and are expected to be the team’s two starting cornerbacks to start the 2015 season. Ryan is looking to bounce back after struggling last year and go back to the form he showed as a promising rookie in 2013 when he recorded 5 interceptions and played a big part of the teams defense. Butler will look to continue to shine after his game-winning interception in the Super Bowl. Butler already has high expectations heading into the 2015 season and time will tell if he will live up to the hype that has surrounded him since the Super Bowl.
Bradley Fletcher spent the 2013 and 2014 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles after spending his first 4 seasons in the league with the St. Louis Rams. Fletcher was inconsistent last season with the Eagles, with not much safety help over the top and would occasionally be beat on the deep ball with a lack of safety help. With safety Devin McCourty giving hep over the top to corners Darrelle Revis and Aqib Talib the past few seasons, McCourty could also look to help Fletcher and transition Fletcher to potentially be a number one corner for New England. The Patriots are hoping that with the help of McCourty he could transition into that and not be the corner who was beat repeatedly by Dez Bryant and was seen crying on the sidelines at one point after constantly being targeted by Romo and beat by Bryant.
Robert McClain is a smaller corner at 5’9 and has primarily been a special teamer throughout his career. He played more defensively last year after injuries to Falcons corners. McClain could be used as a slot corner to replace Kyle Arrington, who was released by the Patriots this offseason and signed with the Baltimore Ravens. With McClain’s experience at both corner and special teams gives him a better chance to make the Patriots roster with Bill Belichick’s love for versatile players.
Derek Cox has been a journeyman throughout his NFL career playing for the Jaguars, Chargers and brief stints with the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens. Cox was a member of the Ravens briefly last year and didn’t see the field before being released by the time. Cox is a bigger corner like Fletcher (Cox 6’1, Fletcher 6’0) and has been inconsistent throughout his career, like Fletcher. Cox is said to be more of a zone coverage defender than a man defender off the line of scrimmage. Cox role in New England is still unknown and isn’t a roster lock by any means but could provide nice veteran depth to the Patriots secondary.
Without a true number one corner to start the year the Patriots defense will look to rely more on their pass rush then the team has the past few seasons. The team is also expected by many people to switch to a zone defensive scheme rather than a man scheme like they have the past few seasons when they had a top corner.
Over the past fifteen seasons in New England, Patriots fans have gone into each season knowing that their team has a reliable pass-catching running back on the roster. Whether it was Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, or Shane Vereen,Tom Brady has always had the luxury of having a solid running back that he can dump the ball off to. Heading into the 2015 season, Tom Brady and the Patriots do not have the same luxury with Shane Vereen signing with the New York Giants this past offseason.
There is a multitude of running backs on the roster that seem to have the ability to take over the role, but they are all for the most part unproven. Two players that will be competing for the role are veteran free agent Travaris Cadet, and second-year back James White.
Travaris Cadet has spent his first three seasons in the league with the New Orleans Saints, catching passes from Drew Brees. Cadet was basically irrelevant in his first two seasons, catching only seven passes, for 49 yards, and one touchdown. In year three Cadet took a miniature jump onto the NFL scene finishing with 38 receptions, for 296 yards, and one touchdown.
Much like Shane Vereen, Travaris Cadet spends a lot of his time playing in the slot. At 6-1, 210 pounds Cadet is built like a running back-slot receiver hybrid. Also, with his size and physicality Cadet is able to pass protect for the quarterback, which is huge when playing for Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick. Cadet just doesn’t seem to have that burst potential. His spot on the roster is fairly safe, barring injury, and his ability to digest the playbook will determine whether or not he will earn a starting job.
James White was one of the more interesting players in training camp last season. Throughout July and August, White received first team reps and performed well during practice. However, when the bright lights came on he couldn’t deliver.
White was mediocre at best in preseason games. He never flashed in the passing game like he was labeled, and in the run game there was not much physicality or burst. His lack of production in the summer lead to his limited game action during the regular season.
Going into training camp this year, White needs to show that he can really be a playmaker like Shane Vereen was at times during his tenure. He needs to play in the slot and also pass block, two essentials for a running back in the Patriots offense as fans have learned over the past couple of seasons.
In the end, James White will most likely come out on top in this training camp battle, given his familiarity with the Patriots system. Nevertheless, in time Travaris Cadet will become more acclimated to the offense and take over the position.
In addition, a change will be necessary due to that fact that at 5-10, 194 pounds James White will easily get exposed pass blocking and will get knocked down easily when running the ball. Cadet is better equipped physically to take over the job. The only way James White remains a starter is if he really flashes and becomes an essential piece to the offense. It is tough to imagine that happening in 2015.
Looking over the eight divisions in the NFL, the AFC East division has had a great deal of success over the past 15 years. Don’t remind any Bills, Jets and Dolphins fans about this though, for all twelve division titles, six Conference Championships and four Super Bowls won over this time belong to just one team – the New England Patriots.
But the reigning Super Bowl champs have had an offseason that has casted some reasonable doubt for fans ahead of the upcoming season. With the anchor to their defense and their two starting cornerbacks gone and an impending ruling yet to be handed down by the Ginger Hammer (#exonerateBrady), the rest of the AFC East has made moves to improve their teams with some key acquisitions. Is that enough to sink the tight ship run by Bill Belichick and Co.? Let’s take a look at how the three other teams stack up against the Kings of the AFC East:
Jets – Aside from the big (*cough* robbery *cough*) free agency signing of Darrelle Revis, the Jets also brought back Antonio Cromartie to the secondary to beef up an already tough and talented defense who will have Sheldon Richardson back by the time they face the Patriots in their Week 7 showdown. To complement the defense, the Jets improved their receiving corps by acquiring Brandon Marshall in free agency and drafting Devin Smith in this year’s draft. The bad news? The Jets may be in a better position to expose a weaker Patriots secondary by forcing them to put more cornerbacks on the field against a stronger set of wide receivers. The good news? The Jets don’t have Rex Ryan. Or a QB that can lead them to a division title. And while the Jets will have Sheldon Richardson back, the Patriots will have Tom Brady ready to go too, so I’ll be placing my bets on the Brady Bunch.
Dolphins – Ndamukong Suh decided to bring his talents to South Beach and that is huge for a franchise whose fans have been left with a sour taste in their mouths from watching teams full of hope and promise disintegrate the past two seasons. Having Suh join Earl Mitchell in the interior while Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon rush the edges will be the cause of many headaches for offensive coordinators in the division and across the league. The Dolphins also did a pretty good job of getting quarterback Ryan Tannehill (a massive contract and) some new weapons by signing Greg Jennings and drafting DeVante Parker with the 14th pick of the draft to join a balanced run game for the offense. But are these improvements enough to overcome the major holes this team has at guard, linebacker and at the cornerback position? Or will Dolphins fans face another tumultuous season that will end in more heartbreak for their fans? Too soon to tell. One thing that is certain – Bill Belichick’s bread and butter is taking away what every team does best and making them beat his team without their strengths. If the offensive line for the Dolphins struggle to create openings for their running backs and keep Ryan Tannehill upright, their secondary won’t be able to save them from the Patriots’ elusive passing attack.
Bills – No other team in this division (or in the league for that matter) had quite the offseason the Bills had. No other team in this division will have the pleasure of potentially facing a Brady-less Patriots offense (*knocks on wood*) this season and that is quite the advantage to have on your side, especially with an elite defense led by Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. These three ended the season with double-digit sacks on a team that racked up 54 sacks in 2014. It only gets better for this team because guess who’s at the helm for this Bills this year? Rex Ryan, defensive mastermind. But, said defensive mastermind is no offensive mastermind, and he’s going from one quarterback debacle with Geno Smith and the Jets to another with E.J. Manuel and the Bills. His other options at quarterback (Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor and Jeff Tuel) don’t seem to represent the long term answer to lead a good running combo in Fred Jackson and LeSean McCoy and a good wide receiving corps that includes Sammy Watkins, who is coming off a stellar rookie season. It’ll be quite the chess match when these two teams meet up in Week 2 and in primetime on Week 11. Rex will focus on disguising his defense with intricate blitzing schemes to faze the Patriots quarterback while Bill will squash the running game and force the Bills quarterback to beat the defense with his arm. There is no doubt that the Bills have the biggest chance to dethrone the Patriots for the AFC East throne, but their biggest hole is at the most important position on the team. With that said, I will give Bill Belichick and Co. the benefit of the doubt and another division title for the 2015-16 NFL season.
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