Bradley Fletcher (24) will have his chance to prove he belongs in New England’s secondary. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)
As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2015 Patriots. We started with the wide receivers and moved on to the tight ends, offensive line and quarterback. Now, we begin our look at the defense with the cornerbacks.
Depth chart: Tarell Brown, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Robert McClain, Bradley Fletcher, Darryl Roberts, Derek Cox, Justin Green
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. From veterans Brown, McClain and Fletcher to Butler, Ryan and even rookie Darryl Roberts, this figures to be the most competitive battle in some time in the secondary. Everyone knows the secondary won’t be the same without Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner back there. But let’s not forget the impact and stability slot corner Kyle Arrington provided. He was not someone you would put on an island but he also did a fine job within the system of playing to leverage and being sure that his guy on the inside routes were covered. As for Revis, the Patriots realize they’re losing one of the best ever to play the position but Bill Belichick has accounted for that in the past.
2. Malcolm Butler will have a chance to step up. Ever since Revis said goodbye to New England and returned to the Jets, everyone has wondered if the cornerback who saved Super Bowl XLIX was ready to step onto the scene and become a starting cornerback. There was the silly melodrama of OTAs when Butler missed his flight back to Boston the night before OTAs in March and was deemed “not ready” to participate in practice. He was with the team at film sessions This move by the team was a message (within their rights) to Butler that come regular season, make sure you’re where you need to be the night before.
3. The corners will have plenty of help. One thing is for sure with the Patriots secondary: Devin McCourty is the quarterback. He will call out all coverages and direct players to their proper spots. This is why the Patriots committed $47.5 million ($28.5 million guaranteed) over the next five seasons. The new faces in the secondary would be wise to listen to McCourty, tap his understanding of the Patriots defensive schemes and keep asking questions. Revis said this was one of the things that provided a great deal of comfort early on in his time with the Patriots.
1. Will Tarell Brown, Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain be enough? All three defensive backs come to New England with starting experience in the NFL. But all three are are a crossroads in their respective careers. All three signed one-year deals in New England, with a chance to prove they deserve more. Traditionally, Belichick loves this kind of motivation. He even did it with one of the best in the game, Darrelle Revis, last season before letting him go after the Super Bowl. Brown is 30, Fletcher is 29 and McClain is 27. All three have the chance to work for that next (and maybe last) big NFL contract.
2. Who is the No. 1 corner? This is only important in so far as Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had the luxury last year, with Revis, to play their defense to one side or the other. They could give Brandon Browner help if they felt he needed it. Will they have that ability this year?
3. How will Belichick and Patricia scheme the defense? There are many ways the Patriots could go here. If a No. 1 corner doesn’t emerge, could the Patriots go more with a nickel package as their base? Could they show some variation of the “Tampa 2″ by dropping a linebacker like Jamie Collins into coverage?
By the numbers: 2 — Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are the only two returning defensive backs from the 2014 team. Will the turnover in the secondary be that big of a deal?
Key new player: Robert McClain. This is a player that is made for Belichick. He’s played inside and outside and has done so for a number of years. Belichick said this about McClain during minicamp: “We’ve used him at a lot of different spots, inside, outside, the nickel spot, special teams. He’s a smart kid, works really hard. He’s one of our hardest workers. He needs to be versatile and he is.” That should tell you all you need to know about how much the Patriots plan to use the 27-year-old defensive back they signed to a one-year deal after playing his last three seasons with the Falcons.
The skinny: Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington are gone, replaced by Tarell Brown, Robert McClain and Bradley Fletcher. It’s anyone’s guess how that will turn out for the Patriots. Before the arrival of Aqib Talib in 2012, the Patriots didn’t have a lot of success stopping the long ball over the top. Now, without a true No. 1 corner coming into camp, the critics think the Patriots are back where they started in 2011. But let’s remember the 2011 team came within a miraculous grab by Mario Manningham on a fourth quarter drive of winning Super Bowl XLVI with Devin McCourty and Arrington as their starting corners. Sterling Moore, Antwaun Molden and Malcolm Williams came off the bench. Julian Edelman even played defensive back midway through that season and in the AFC championship. The point is, Belichick has made do without superstar corners before and gotten to the big game. He’s willing to see if he can do it again.