Saturday, March 25, 2017

Slot Corner Becomes Need In Wake Of Ryan's Departure, Butler's Ambiguity

What makes an effective slot corner?

A better question may be, do the New England Patriots have one?

Also known as a nickel back, a slot corner is best described as a press-man cover who works best in tight spaces, plays the run like a linebacker, is more agile than fast with long arms and cat-quick reflexes and the instincts of a hammerhead shark. A slot corner must be dexterous enough to change direction in time to mirror shifty garden gnomes like Julian Edelman and T.Y. Hilton...
Jones' skill set makes him a viable slot candidate despite issues as rookie

...while being long enough to get their arms around taller men playing out of the slot to knock the ball away from them - it is truly a combination of athleticism and physical make up that is rare - and even more rare is the guy who can play inside out, pressing from the slot and playing trail technique, vertically, to the sidelines.

In many ways, a slot corner's job is more difficult than a traditional outside-the-numbers corner, and the 2014 post-season gives us decent example of how rare this cover corner truly is.

In the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, then-Patriots' slot corner Kyle Arrington shut down the Colts' speedy slot man T.Y. Hilton, allowing just one reception on six targets by jamming Hilton at the line and not allowing him to release to the inside where he could rub out Arrington by taking him through traffic.  Instead, Arrington man-handled to demure Hilton and took him to the outside where the sidelines and over-the-top safety help were available.

But in the Super Bowl two weeks later, Arrington was absolutely abused by Seattle Seahawks' depth receiver Chris Matthews, as Matthews had seven inches in height and nine inches in reach on Arrington, who again played inside technique, but got toasted by the much bigger Matthews when the Seahawks had him release to the sidelines where he easily won 50-50 balls on his sheer height advantage.

So badly burned was Arrington that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick removed his charred remains at halftime and inserted a little known undrafted free agent named Malcolm Butler in his stead.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In reality, Belichick switched things around after inserting Butler, and put uber-physical and much taller corner Brandon Browner on Matthews and lined Butler up with Jermaine Kearse on the outside where they both could match up better, though Browner and Butler would switch up on the last defensive play of the game, Browner jamming Kearse at the line of scrimmage to allow Butler to break on slot receiver Ricardo Lockette, intercepting the pass intended for Lockette and saving the Super Bowl for the Patriots.

Butler said in the weeks following that game that he didn't want to be remembered just for being the guy that made that play - that he didn't want to join the ranks of the "one hit wonders" that seem to make a play in the biggest of games, then fade in obscurity.  For sure, that has not been the case, as Butler has become one of the best corners in football, and is now embroiled in a contract dispute with New England.

Butler stands even shorter than Arrington, but has the fiestiness and competitiveness required of a press corner, and the requisite springs in his legs to challenge along the sidelines.  In that manner, Butler is the perfect slot corner, and it is that same nastiness and athleticism that makes him a pretty damn good wing corner as well - and maybe that's what Belichick was thinking when he brought in lengthy corner Stephon Gilmore from the Buffalo Bills.

Together with like-sized (6' 1") third-year man Eric Rowe, the Patriots suddenly have two big, capable fly corners, and having Butler play in the slot - the Patriots are primarily is a base nickel or Big Nickel about three-quarters of the time - would give New England one of the best, if not the best, corner tandems in the NFL.

Of course, having Butler in the slot plays right into his strengths, and would produce some eye-popping numbers insofar as passes defended, interceptions and tackles - he has the physicality, quick-twitch athleticism and jack-in-the-box springs to cover taller receivers without breaking stride, though many only look at his work on the outside as dismiss him as a capable - perhaps elite - slot corner.

Last season, the Patriots had Rowe and Butler on the outside with Logan Ryan in the slot to form one of the better secondaries in the league, but now that Ryan has gone on to play for the Tennessee Titans for $10 million a year, the cupboard is bare of proven slot corners.

The list of candidates that currently reside on the roster hardly causes opposing offensive coordinators sleepless nights, as names like Justin Coleman and Jonathan Jones are mainly special teamers and former second-round pick Cyrus Jones melted down like the wicked witch of the west in his rookie campaign, though his skill set matches exactly what New England looks for in their slot men.

And that may be the plan, as Butler's resistance to playing nice with his restricted free agent tender has cast some ambiguity on the depth chart, due to his insistence on getting paid big bucks now instead of waiting until 2018, when he could rake in millions on the open market.

Cyrus Jones started slowly at Alabama and gradually became one of the best shutdown corners in college ball, not to mention it's premier punt returner.  Patriots' fans will all tell you that Jones started very slowly in his professional career as well, particularly as a return man, fumbling away five of his 18 touches in the kicking game and eventually being benched by Belichick.

But if history holds, Jones should begin to display his wares in season two.  Jones' background in football was as a wide receiver, making the transition to cornerback in his sophomore year with the Crimson Tide and contributing in his Junior season after a frightful sophomore campaign, so a blueprint for Jones does exist.

Coleman (5' 11", 185) is slightly under-sized for the slot on the professional level, but gets by on hand fighting underneath and touch tackling in run support, while Jonathan Jones is even smaller but with elite speed that makes him a core-four special teamer.

Neither of those guys are the long-term answer, and if Cyrus Jones doesn't lick it into high gear, he won't be either - but Patriots' fans needn't fret, as Belichick does have a couple of options, the first of which is to retain Butler by either matching any offer sheet that comes his way or to offer his a long-term contract themselves, though Belichick is not the kind of guy to surrender leverage to a player just for the sake of keeping him around...

...nor is he the kind of guy that signs someone in free agency out of desperation, which is what it would appear to be if he did something weird like offer a deal to apparently washed up fly corner Darrelle Revis, as media-generated rumors have been suggesting.

Revis has the size and the length to compete in the slot, and was thought of as a nickel back coming out of college and some even suggested that he would make a better safety due to his innate instinctual ability to visualize a play unfolding in front of him - but Belichick nixed that notion after the 2014 season when he told Revis that his skill set didn't translate to safety in the Patriots scheme.

That doesn't mean that his skill set wouldn't translate to safety elsewhere, just not in New England where the predominant defensive look is in the nickel package, usually with a third safety instead of a third cornerback - a scheme that calls for a box safety to become, essentially, a weakside linebacker, a free safety to become a slot corner and a combination safety to become the football equivalent of a centerfielder.

Of course, Belichick could have just been telling Revis that because he didn't want to re-sign him to a big-money contract just to convert him to safety when his value had always been as a shutdown, fly corner - so Revis went onto his original team in New York, who signed him to a five-year, $70 million contract only to watch his skills diminish to the point that there are now general managers around the league who claim that they wouldn't sign him for free.

The draft offers a few names that may help, such as Michigan's Jourdan Lewis, Florida's Quincey Lewis and Colorado's Chidobe Awusie, though Belichick is far more likely to draft a box safety like Louisville's Josh Harvey-Clemons to compete with the disappointing Jordan Richards or to prepare for the end of the line for long-time starter Patrick Chung.

So what would be the best scenario for the Patriots would be to get restricted free agent Butler to sign his first-round tender that will guarantee him $4 million for this season, then work towards a long-term deal during the season or prepare a rookie to take his place if he hits unrestricted free agency after the season.

Judging from the lack of movement towards a rumored deal with the New Orleans Saints for Butler - due to what can only be described as either a disagreement between the teams for compensation for the corner or a lack of salary cap space in New Orleans, or both - it appears that the Patriots will have the proper leverage to coax another year out of Butler...

...but wouldn't preclude a pre-draft or even a mid-season deal between the teams for Butler's services - but Patriots' fans can rest assured that Belichick won't leave his secondary devoid of a proper slot corner, whatever happens.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Butler, Agent Playing Hardball With Belichick A Losing Proposition

Thursday came and went.  So did Friday, and still, there was no deal in New Orleans for Malcolm Butler. Saturday and Sunday didn't look any different, either.

The Butler to the New Orleans Saints saga has been dragged out into a new week with the teams reportedly not even close to finalizing anything - which is to be expected since the teams can not legally discuss so much as what's for dinner as long as Butler is involved, since he hasn't signed his first-round tender in some sort of preternatural power play that can't be sitting well with Patriots' head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick.

Of course, Belichick has seen this before and took the appropriate measures to have himself covered in many ways long before the free agency period began - as Patriots' fans will remember another disgruntled employee by the name of Wes Welker whose monetary demands - not to mention his big mouth - leading up to the 2013 free agency period were met with disdain by Belichick, who opted out of the whole mess by signing Danny Amendola and closing the door on Welker.

But Welker was a soon-to-be 32 year old unrestricted free agent who over-estimated his value on the open market and burned every bridge he could find on his way out of New England, while Butler is a 27 year old restricted free agent entering the prime of his career - so like it or not, Belichick has been forced to deal with Butler and his weird, part-time agent, and it's been somewhat of a bumpy ride... fact, it's been a tangled, roundabout deal that has had all of the drama of a mid-afternoon soap opera mixed with a smattering of Jerry Maquire - and just the fact that the New England Patriots are involved made football fans across the globe crazy with intrigue, if not disgust.

Intrigue, because the Saints have been pulling all of the wrong strings on defense ever since winning their first title back in 2009, and have committed to addressing their deficiencies by trading away their top skill position player on offense to make it happen.  The disgust?  That comes from the Patriots maybe losing their top cornerback from their championship season, and still got stronger on both sides of the ball at the same time...

...and if the Butler to New Orleans deal somehow happens to go through, Belichick will have shiny, new draft capital to spend in Philadelphia in late April.

Originally, in the days leading up to the new league year, the Patriots placed a first-round tender on their restricted free agent cornerback, which mandated that any team that wished to sign Butler to an offer sheet had to do so with the knowledge that the Patriots had ten days to match the offer and keep Butler, or decline to match any offer and let Butler walk away, but at the price of his new team's first-round draft pick.

Depending on how you look at it, that's either a steep price to pay - in that a first round draft pick it the top capital that any team possesses to select players coming out of college - or it's worth giving up that high in capital for a young, proven player that comes with little ambiguity, a view of the situation that comes straight from the Bill Belichick book of team building.

Belichick has long been the alpha scavenger, feeding on players that other teams have trained to be football players in the league - bringing them in, making them professionals, and adding their distinctiveness to the collective, which allows him to open up his playbook in a way that no other team can, and the results are impossible to argue with.

He's not used to other teams trying to pull the condor gambit on his own players, however, but just like with any negative scenario - whether on the field or off - has a plan in place to twist the advantage back around to his own team.

Just the fact that he tendered Butler at the first round level makes one wonder if Belichick had already caught wind that the grumblings from the Butler camp were going to cause waves, something made even more sensible considering that on the first day of free agency he went deep into the vault to bring in ex-Buffalo Bills' corner Stephon Gilmore...

...a move that many are claiming was the impetus for Butler's frustration, when in reality, Belichick was just covering his own ass in the event Butler did blow up in his face.

Ever the leverage junkie, Belichick now has Gilmore under contract to pair with 2016 pickup Eric Rowe, both softening the blow of potentially losing Butler as well as hammering home the idea that if Butler wanted to remain with New England, he was going to do so on Belichick's terms, not his own.

Nobody holds Belichick hostage, at least not without paying a price, but while Butler and his agent would like the appearance of having the upper hand over Belichick and the Patriots - what with their refusal to sign the first-round tender - it is really Belichick who holds the cards, and Team Butler is eventually going to have to submit to Belichick's will.

There are four things that can happen, and Butler controls none of the outcomes:

First, and most simplistic, Butler can sign an offer sheet from the Saints after signing his first round tender, and the Patriots can either match what is certain to be a long-term deal, or, second, they can decline to match the offer and let Butler walk in exchange for the Saints' original first round draft pick, which is 11th overall in the 2017 draft.

Third, Butler and the Saints can work out a contract and eschew protocol by working out a trade with New England which will almost certainly contain either the 32nd overall pick in the draft, or a combination of the Saints' second rounder (41st overall) and third rounder (76th overall).  The 32nd pick originally belonged to the Patriots, who sent it to New Orleans for wide receiver Brandin Cooks.

Fourth, Butler can continue to play hard ball and refuse to sign his tender while seeking a long-term contract, in which case Belichick would just leave him to stew in his own juices, secure in the knowledge that even though Butler is not under contract, his 2017 rights belong to the Patriots, meaning that he would have to sit out, which would destroy his market value, not to mention he wouldn't accrue a fourth league year and would be right back where he started at the beginning of this mess.

There are advantages to the first three scenarios, but nobody wins if the fourth plays out - except the Saints, that is, as they still would have two first round picks.

The second of those two first-rounders, incidentally, was the price that New England paid to acquire third-year speedster Brandin Cooks from the Saints, capital that Belichick really didn't want to part with, and wouldn't have had to had Butler played nice and signed his tender as the original plan was to send Butler and a third-round pick to New Orleans for Cooks...

...and there is still hope that the Patriots can recoup that pick, number 32 overall, but it's going to take Butler and his agent playing ball and agreeing to an offer sheet that the cap-starved Saints can work under their ceiling and still leave enough room to sign their draft picks, which under the current rookie wage scale is going to cost them around $4 million in 2017.

But where there's a will, there's a way - and Belichick's will is stronger than anyone else's in the league.

In the end, Belichick will either end up with Butler and Gilmore manning their starting cornerback spots or they will have fleeced the Saints into giving them a top-end deep threat for what amounts to a third round draft pick.

Either way, Belichick - and the Patriots - win.  Again.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

New England Patriots Mock Draft 1.0 - The "Make The Third-Rounder Count" Edition

The New England Patriots are absolutely loaded - and there is no lack of folks feeling some kind of way about that.

For Patriots' haters, they sit slack-jawed on bar stools, slobbering in mugs and complaining bitterly about the world champions constantly reloading, year after year, for title runs while every other team in the NFL is just hoping to be the ones who can beat the Patriots on any given Sunday.  They go so far as to accuse Belichick of somehow cheating the system to keep bringing in impact players, when in reality he is just very patient, knows what he wants and jumps when the time is right.
Ohio's Tarell Basham (93)

Patriots' fans know this all too well, but usually would be bitching and whining about having just six draft picks, and none in the first two rounds - not this time however, as even the most casual of Patriots' fans now recognize Belichick's style, and know that he gets his best value in the middle rounds.

And that's where we start.

In reality, Belichick could somehow finagle some earlier draft picks by the time the selection process starts in late April, but at this point, he has what he has, and with all things being equal - as in spotting the other 31 NFL teams two rounds worth of draft picks - the Dark Master will make his mid-round picks count.

His needs are few, though some would argue that a lead running back would be nice, and others will say that depth along the defensive line - especially at defensive end - is lacking, and they would be right, so those things are sure to be addressed in the draft.  But in my mind, there is a need for a hybrid strong safety / coverage linebacker who can stick with tight ends...

...and also for a developmental left tackle who can plug-and-play in the event Nate Solder gets hurt or leaves in free agency after next season - and a team can never have enough cover corners.

Those things being said and ultimately true, here is our initial mock draft of the 2017 season:

3rd Round (72nd Overall ) - Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming

For the Patriots' purposes, one would be hard-pressed to find a better fit as a lead runner than Hill, especially considering their draft position.

At 6' 1" and 220 pounds, Hill is a slashing downhill runner who possesses tremendous balance and a powerful lower body to keep piles moving, yet is lithe and deft in the pass patterns and a willing blocker in pass protection.  If there is a downside, it would be that he has a tendency to bounce outside if the running lanes are clogged instead of taking what's there, but his lateral movement and explosion through the hole - not to mention a dose of subtle elusiveness - makes Hill a great fit for New England's running game.

4th Round (131st Overall)  - Josh Harvey-Clemons, SS, Louisville

It was no secret that both Jordan Richards and starting strong safety Patrick Chung declined in production last season, so the Patriots should be prioritizing box safeties.  But Harvey-Clemons is no ordinary box safety.

Of course, he checks all the boxes as a strong safety, but he is also a natural at diagnosing plays from the box, taking on tight ends and using his huge wingspan to shield them from the ball, and plays downhill with violent intent in run support.

5th Round (163rd Overall) - Tarell Basham, DE, Ohio

A three-down defensive end that is a better edge-setter than pass rusher, but his high-motor and relentlessness as a pass rusher will do exactly what Belichick likes from his rush ends, and that is to collapse the pocket and get the quarterback off his mark.

In the running game, he is a stack-and-shed edge-setter with the lateral agility to get to the sidelines, if need be - and seems to genuinely dislike tackles and tight ends, and makes sure they know it on the field.

5th Round (183rd Overall) - Howard Wilson, CB, Houston

A project corner who could contribute immediately and really surprise despite having only one season as a full-time college starter.  Checks the boxes on height, versatility in different techniques and in violent run support, but not in weight or experience.

At 6' 1" and only 185 pounds, Wilson plays without fear but is liable to incur injury with his reckless playing style.  A year in the system and with a strength and conditioning staff, and Wilson could force his way into a starting role.

6th Round (200th Overall) - Jylan Ware, OT, Alabama State

Huge, powerful hands and excellent placement define Ware.  Has a decent slide step to mirror speedy defensive ends but will struggle with elite ends that can convert speed to power - but then again, who doesn't?

Possesses the height that the Patriots prefer in their bookends at 6' 8", but played in college at less than 300 pounds and needs some time in the weight room under the tutelage of a professional strength coach - that said, Ware is a natural left tackle and could work his way into being a major contributor as a draft-and-stash project for Dante Scharnecchia.

7th - 239th -  Weston Steelhammer, FS, Air Force

Belichick is a sucker for military academy guys and for safeties over all, so he should love Steelhammer.

Known as a route-breaker, Steelhammer's game is cutting off receivers routes by reading the quarterback's eyes and getting to the point of the reception before the receiver.  Not particularly fast, and relatively skinny (6' 2", 200), he nevertheless is worth a seventh-round flyer, particularly because he has a four-year commitment to the Air Force, and with proper weight room instruction could become a stashed force.

New England Patriots' Big Board - First Peek...

The New England Patriots' Big Board for the 2017 NFL draft has an obvious mid-round tilt to it - and for good reason, as the Patriots first pick in the draft is not until the top of the third round.

Head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick used his first and second round draft capital to acquire a speedy wide receiver (Brandin Cooks from New Orleans) and a potentially impactful edge rusher (Kony Ealy from Carolina) - and then in free agency kept his Big Nickel defense together by re-signing Dont'a Hightower, Duron Harmon and Alan Branch while bringing in cornerback Stephon Gilmore and edge setter Lawrence Guy.
Michigan's Jourdan Lewis is ready to contribute right away

Those moves more than offset any losses incurred by New England in free agency, leaving the team with fewest draft picks they've had in the Belichick era wanting for very little.

So the focal point of the draft for the Patriots should be with an eye to the future, as they have just as many expiring contracts at the end of the 2017 season as they did after winning their fifth trophy in February, though the impact of the players whose contracts are up is not as wide-spread as the 2016 class.

Still, Patriots' fans probably shudder every time they look at the list.  For example, all three of their primary running backs - Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead - are in the final years of their respective contracts.  Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Ealy are as well.  Nate Solder and Cam Fleming are in line for new contracts after the season, as are wide receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

The luxury that the Patriots enjoy is that they can draft with their eye to the future while still enjoying a championship caliber team ready to defend their title.

Naturally, the Patriots are not in line for any of the talent at the top of the standard big board unless they make deals between now and late-April to gain some more capital on the second day, or even in the first round - but until that happens, this Big Board will contain only players whom I expect could slide into the third round and beyond, and consist mostly of players who are depth candidates or are developmental projects...

...which is not to say that none of them could contribute immediately, but that's not the mindset going into the selection process, as the Patriots should be looking at defensive ends, running backs, offensive tackles and - as always - safeties (as Jordan Richards and Pat Chung took back-steps last season) as well as coverage linebackers and developmental corners:

Second Day

DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida State 6' 4" 280
    Powerful edge setter with versatility to rush QB from three-technique as part of rotation
Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech 6' 7" 255
    Athletic and fast receiver who is more of a tall wideout than bulky tight end
Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan, 5' 10" 190
    Tough and physical press-man slot corner that could start immediately
Josh Harvey-Clemons, FS/OLB, Louisville 6' 4" 220
    Huge box safety with range and speed, elite tight end coverage
Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma 5' 11" 235
    Creative power runner with violent finish, will not be denied in short yardage
Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy 6' 6" 300
    Scrappy, athletic former hoops star who could handle blind side with a little coaching
Obi Melifonwu, FS, Connecticut 6' 4" 225
    Coverage "linebacker" who handles tight ends and contributes in run support
Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State, 6' 7" 300
    Athletic, long-limbed blindsider that is already tough run blocker and adequate pass blocker
Quincey Wilson, CB/S, Florida 6' 1" 215
    Press-man corner with plus-skill in run support - may be better safety or slot man
Chidobe Awusie, CB, Colorado, 6' 0" 200
    Versatile with deep speed, could hold off veteran for nickel back or even challenge for outside starter
Jeremy McNichols, RB, Boise State 5' 9" 214
    Committee power back that can contribute on all three downs
Marcus Williams, FS, Utah 6' 1" 200
    Intriguing centerfielder who could become a Big Nickel man
Tarell Basham, DE, Ohio 6' 4" 270 (Rush end)
    4-3 base end who sets a mean edge and can collapse pocket with pass rush
Derek Rivers, DE, Youngstown State, 6' 4" 250 (Rush end)
    Cat-quick rush end who could find a spot as a rotational rusher
Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson 6' 1" 200
    Tall corner at his best blanketing tight ends and taller receivers
Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo 5' 11" 215
    Big, decisive but plodding back with outstanding vision 
Rasul Douglas, CB, West Virginia 6' 2" 209
    Zone corner who plays like a safety in coverage
Avery Gennesy, OT, Texas A&M 6' 3" 318
    Project tackle with exceptional feet to both mirror and pull
Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE, Villanova 6' 7" 290
    Edge defender with potential in pass rush - excellent on special teams blocking kicks
Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson 6' 0" 215
    Intriguing potential as lead back, has nose for chains and end zone
Bryan Cox Jr, DE, Florida 6' 3" 265
    Strong fighter as an edge defender with potential as interior pass rusher
Howard Wilson, CB, Houston 6' 1" 190
    Project ball hawk that could surprise with immediate contribution
James Connor, RB, Pitt 6' 1" 233
    Short yardage specialist that could double as hback
Shaquill Griffin, CB, Central Florida 6' 0" 195
    Speedy press corner who is a bit of a project but with great upside

Third Day:

Julie'n Davenport, OT, Bucknell 6' 7" 320
    Draft-and-stash athletic tackle who could challenge for starting position in 2018
Aviante Collins, OT/OG, TCU 6' 4" 295
    Another draft-and-stash players who needs coaching up on technique, but is very athletic
Nate Hairston, CB, Temple 6' 0" 200
    Project corner that could play in zone fit now, but needs coaching in press-man
Christopher Carson, RB, Oklahoma State 6' 0" 220
    One-speed hammer back who never fumbles but does find end zone
Jylan Ware, OT, Alabama State 6' 8" 295
    Lengthy project that may have more upside than most projects, and may be ready to contribute
Dare Ogunbowale, RB, Wisconsin 5' 11" 215
    Passing back with upside, good, willing pass protector
Channing Stribling, CB, Michigan 6' 0" 200
    Project corner who contributes in run support and has upside at deep cover
Brian Allen, CB, Utah 6' 3" 220
    Draft-and-stash corner who looks like Brandon Browner, but with speed
Weston Steelhammer, S, Air Force 6' 2" 200
    Great football name and a ballhawk as a cover safety, needs a couple of years but worth the wait

This list is subject to change, and will be updated frequently...

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Butler, Agent's Impatience Could Mean Patriots' Secondary Looking Much Different

Malcolm Butler was Pro Football Focus's number three-rated coverage cornerback in the entire National Football League last season, and with him in the lineup, the New England Patriots' secondary was rated the third-best in the National Football League.

Coincidence?  Hardly, but one also has to take into account that free safety Devin McCourty earned the title of top coverage safety in the league, while centerfielder Duron Harmon ranks second only to Seattle's Earl Thomas as the best single-high safety in professional football - not to mention that erstwhile slot corner Logan Ryan graded out as a top-ten coverage man at that spot.

But while Ryan has moved on to play with McCourty's twin brother in Tennessee, the remainder of the aforementioned top-three secondary is intact, with former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore adding his press-man ability to that mix, a move that was underwhelming Patriots' fans, given the money he was offered and the potential backlash in the locker room.

That backlash comes in the form of Butler, who has been rumored by one source to be terribly frustrated by the Gilmore contract, and said to be looking forward to working with Gilmore by another.  It all has all the sounds of either a megalo-maniacal agent gone rogue or a collective of mother hen beat writers trying to generate page views - or both.

At the center of all of the madness is Huntsville, Alabama attorney Derek Simpson, who considers being a sports agent a hobby and a part-time job and whose only client is Butler.  The two have formed a fast friendship, which is fortunate for Simpson, because if he didn't have Butler as a client, he would have lost his certification as an agent this coming summer as NFL rules specify that an agent must have at least one client in the NFL for three consecutive years.

Simpson once gave Butler some advice, telling him to take two post-it notes and fix them to his bathroom mirror - one had the number "3" written on it to represent the average length, in years, of an NFL career, and the other had the floating decimal "78.8", which represents the percentage of former NFL players who eventually file for bankruptcy.

Sage advice to be sure, but Butler's path to the big time dictated that he had to start small, as in rookie minimum salary, and work his way into a bigger contract that could be the start of life-long financial security, a start that began with the Patriots placing a first-round tender on the restricted free agent, a marker that was scheduled to pay him just shy of $4 million in 2017.

That may have been enough for Butler had the Patriots not opened the vault for Gilmore, who earned his bones through five years in Buffalo as a first-round draft pick who had to wait for the Bills to pick up his fifth-year option in 2016 before he made any heavy money.

And that's the rub.  Rookie salaries are capped in the NFL, and depending on where a player is drafted, the cap is either higher or lower - and as the tenth overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Gilmore was capped at a four-year total of $12 million, fully guaranteed, with most of that ($7.2 million) locked up in a signing bonus which made him an instant millionaire.

Last season on the fifth-year option, which is available only to players who were selected in the first round of the draft, Gilmore made transition tag money, totaling just over $11 million, all the while holding out of OTA's in protest of not being signed to a long-term extension by the Bills.  As it turns out, the Bills offered Gilmore a five-year deal worth $10.5 million per season, but he turned it down, wanting "Josh Norman" money...

...and while he fell short of Josh Norman's contract, what he got from New England was close enough to what the Bills offered him to wonder if Gilmore didn't just want to get out of the losing culture in Bufalo.

Lesson being, although he bitched and railed about money, Gilmore had to wait to get the contract he desired, while Butler and his agent seem to not want to take things as they come - which is unfortunate, as a Butler-Gilmore-Rowe trifecta in the standard nickle package probably would have been the top unit in all of football.

But pending a trade being worked out between the Patriots and Saints, the question looms: what's next for the Patriots' secondary?

Assuming that Butler will be gone and knowing that Ryan already is, the top two corner spots will go to Gilmore and Eric Rowe, twin 6' 1" press-man corners with deep speed - though Rowe, a former college safety,  is equally impressive in zone and is better in run support than Gilmore.  Who plays in the single slot is up in the air, but after a disastrous rookie campaign, Cyrus Jones could be the man.

Jones had his issues with ball security and decision making in the return game, fumbling four times and inexplicably failing to dodge a bouncing punt that hit him in the leg - but early trouble seems to be a staple of Jones' game, as are miraculous recoveries.  He's been a cornerback for just three years - his last two seasons in college after making the transition from wide receiver and his rookie season in Foxborough - and has always embraced adversity...

...and lord knows he had plenty of that last season, so Patriots' fans are about to witness either a complete turnaround as a slot corner or a colossal bust.  Beyond Jones is his college nemesis from Auburn, Jonathan Jones, who has blazing speed (4.33) and specializes in -you guessed it - press-man coverage and does his best work in a phone booth, making him a perfect slot man despite his demure (5' 8") frame.

There's also Justin Coleman who has shown promise in limited action, but if none of these three make the nut, the Patriots could spend mid-round draft capital on a corner in the draft.  Free agency?  Well, three of the top corners remaining have played for the Patriots in the recent past as there's no reason to believe the team is interested in bringing any of them back.

The Patriots spent a second round pick on Darius Butler back in 2009, but was waived tow seasons later and after an initial stop in Carolina eventually found a home in Indianapolis.  Sterling Moore had his 15 minutes of fame as a safety, stripping a potential game-winning touchdown out of Baltimore's Lee Evan's hands, helping to send New England to a Super Bowl...

...and Darrelle Revis won a Super Bowl with the Patriots in 2014 - but while many Patriots' fans are ecstatic about Revis beating the rap and becoming available on the open market, the fact of the matter remains that both Malcolm Butler and Brandon Browner had more success in Matt Patricia's  defense down the stretch than the fading Revis did.

He has since put on about 25 pounds and at age 32 is looking for a switch to safety to try and revive and extend his career, but the price tag is too steep even if he was still the owner of the mythical "Revis Island', and he's made a direct pitch to play for his hometown Steelers, putting the Rooney's on the spot.

In short, there are no decent options on the open market other than Gilmore's battery mate in Buffalo, slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, who was recently released by the Bills.  Familiarity between Gilmore and Robey-Coleman wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, and would give the Patriots a young (25), coachable slot corner with four years of experience in a phone booth.

But, of course, this is all dependent on Butler leaving for New Orleans as seems destined to happen - whether it does or not, Patriots' fans should know better than to doubt the team building skills of Belichick.

"T-Rex" Joins "Sweet Feet" and "Little Dirty" To Form Intriguing Backfield For Patriots

"Sweet feet", "Little Dirty" and now "T-Rex" - It seems you can't be a New England Patriots' running back without having some sort of cheesy nickname.

Sweet Feet is, of course, fourth-year passing back James White, who absolutely abused the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 - while Little Dirty is Dion Lewis, an all purpose back with video game moves in the open field.  Hell, Patriots' fans may even see "Blount Force Trauma", aka LeGarrette Blount, back in uniform before the spring is out.

One never knows, but if there is one thing that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick values in a player, it is versatility - and while Blount's skill set isn't what one would necessarily call versatile, there is still something to be said for being able to line up and run the ball directly into the teeth of a defense.

To many, few things are more satisfying than the ability to run the football with success when the defense knows it is coming, but is powerless to stop it - and with the Patriots' offensive line's collective skill set being more in tune with the running game than the passing game, one would think that New England would be able to move the chains on the ground with more ease than their 3.9 yards per carry average would indicate...

...but versatile backs with the ability to haul the mail in the running game and to contribute in the passing game have eluded the Patriots for the most part and have had to rely on passing backs mixing it up in the ground game to keep defenses guessing.

Lewis is the closest the Patriots have to an every down back, while White showed enormous flashes in short yardage situations in the Super Bowl, but at 5' 8" and 195 pounds.  There are those who doubt Lewis can manage 20-plus carries per game over a full season - and White has never had to, splitting duties all the way through high school and college.

Blount has carried the load, for the most part, during the past three seasons and is certainly the default candidate in the event of injury, though he is one-dimensional which puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line to open holes when the defense is stacking the box to stop Blount.

That is where "T-Rex" comes in.

Rex Burkhead rode the pine as a Cincinnati Bengal the past four seasons waiting for an opportunity behind the likes of Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill, playing mostly special teams but on sparse occasions - such as the 2016 season finale - he grasped the opportunity to show what he can do, and all he did against the Baltimore Ravens and their league-best run defense was hammer out 119 yards on the ground.

On the surface, Burkhead appears to be a redundant talent on a team that already has White and Lewis, but what makes the Nebraska product more of a dynamic weapon is his running style.  Where Lewis is a sneaky runner with controlled moves that gain yards by bursting out from behind his linemen and White a balanced runner featuring a subtle elusiveness with hesitation and a wicked stutter step, Burkhead is more of a helter-skelter, knees-and-elbows back...

...his manic running style looking more like a newborn fawn trying out its legs for the first time - that is until just before contact with a defender, when the pads go down and he finishes the play by punishing the tackler.

And just the fact that Burkhead becomes the Patriots' highest-paid running back in nearly a decade - what with his one-year, $3.15 million contract - suggests that he is coming into New England not just to play special teams (he was a regular on the Bengals' core-four), and not to become a clone of White or Lewis, but to compete for the Patriots' lead back duties.

He will be competing for that spot with Lewis - whose ACL tear in late 2015 sapped some of his open field maneuverability - and with perpetual practice squad entity Tyler Gaffney, who hasn't had a regular season NFL carry in his three seasons.  Blount appears to be the odd man out in this scenario, and his series of one-year, incentive-laden deals appears to over.

But signing Burkhead for just one season put the Patriots' backfield in flux, as it makes him an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, joining both White and Lewis in that capacity.  Of course, the Patriots could negotiate extensions for one or all during the season, but the feeling is that Belichick is waiting to see if Burkhead is indeed the underrated lead back he apparently envisions...

...and if Lewis regains his repertoire of moves and if White can build upon his 2016 season when he was second in targets and receptions only to wide receiver Julian Edelman, he could sign all three, relatively inexpensively, but it would appear that because Burkhead has been signed for just one season, that Belichick may not be done collecting running backs.

Pending the outcome of any deals involving the New Orleans Saints and Patriots' cornerback Malcolm Butler, New England is devoid of top draft capital - their first pick currently isn't until the third round - so a mid-round running back could be in the offing.

Leading that pack is an immature but fully capable and talented Joe Williams.  Blessed with blazing speed and a ripped torso, he wasted his first couple of years in college on suspension from Connecticut for a theft charge, spent a year at the JC level, then signed with Utah and played behind Devonte Booker in 2015, briefly 'retiring" from the game early in 2016 before returning and blowing up the PAC-12 with his elite running skills.

But he is far from a complete back and with ball security and pass protection being issues, Belichick would have his hands full making a pro player out of him - so perhaps he would feel more comfortable with a kid like Samaje Perine out of Oklahoma, who is nothing but a bulldozer that could complement the style of any of the Patriots current backs.

There are other names, and it could be that Belichick is happy with what he has, particularly knowing that he has Blount on speed dial.

Besides, neither of those college kids have cheesy nicknames.

Patriots' Prodigal Son Returns - Hightower Re-signing Example Of Belichick Letting Market Set Price

"He arose and went to his father. But when he was still far off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion, and ran towards him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." - Luke 15:20

Bill Belichick may be a fatherly figure to some players on his team - and a harsh taskmaster, to be sure - as he genuinely cares about his charges, but when prodigal son Dont'a Hightower returned to Foxborough from his free agency tour, it's hard to imagine that Belichick ran to him, and even harder to imagine him falling on his neck.

For certain there was no kissing involved.

What was involved was $43.5 million - $19 million guaranteed - that will keep the heart and soul of the Patriots' defense in New England for the next four seasons and, at the same time, solidified the middle of a unit that led the league in scoring defense in 2016 and has, by all accounts, become even better while he was being wined and cupcaked by potential suitors.

But to assess how happy Belichick should be to have Hightower back in the fold, one only has to entertain the thought that the Dark Master eshewed the franchise tag for his defensive signal caller and told him to go see what he could find on the open market.  He did the same thing for Julian Edelman a few years back and, to a different degree, Wes Welker a few years earlier than that.

Letting the market set the price for players has long been a tactic utilized by Belichick, as he puts into play advanced metrics, gaining objective knowledge of a player's productivity, multiplying that by age and experience and injury history to form an estimation of that player's future production - then he factors in outside elements such as what the player's fit is in other programs.

Almost always, a player that is in the Patriots' program is there because it is his best fit, as Belichick's philosophy in regard to team building is to bring in players who can expand his options in the playbook rather than players whom he can mold into it.  It's not a subtle difference, but at times players become enamored with the notion that they can take their talent anywhere and be successful...

...and while that has been true for a handful of former-Patriots, it is the extreme exception rather than the rule.  Hightower probably could have gone to some other team - particularly one that runs a 3-4 base defense - and put up huge numbers in that the formation actually takes advantage of the downhill playmaking skills like his.

But so does the Patriots' philosophy in their 4-2-5 approach, a philosophy that helped Hightower to be recognized as the best blitzing linebacker in the NFL.

In the 4-2-5, also known as the Big Nickel, Hightower becomes a chess piece that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can move around to present matchup problems for the opposing offense.  He can do this because both of his defensive tackles demand double teams which occupy four of the five offensive linemen, allowing Hightower to reduce down to what amounts to a stand-up defensive end with no one but a strong-side tackle to contend with.

The results are often game-changing plays, such as his strip sack of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl, when neither the tackle nor the running back who stayed in for pass protection knew what to do with him lined up on the edge.

And that, as much as anything else, was due to the Patriots utilizing Hightower's skill set to open up plays in the defensive philosophy - and anyone who doesn't think the Big Nickel is such a big deal only has to look at the deals given to both defensive tackle Alan Branch and centerfield-safety Duron Harmon to know exactly how crucial the formation - and Hightower - is to the scheme.

Other teams realize this as well, but other teams didn't spend top draft capital collecting college players known to be "marginal" talents by expert evaluators in a general sense, but possessed the skill sets to implement a defensive philosophy not seen in the league in almost five decades, and never with the success in which Belichick has run it.

Part of that included Hightower, who was seen as a perfect fit as a "Will" linebacker in a 3-4 due to his ability to scrape off of blocks taken on by the "Mike" and quickly get to the ball, but what was so intriguing about Hightower was that he was just as successful with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end, and had the lateral range to set the edge in the running game and blow up screen plays in the passing game.

So, in reality, there really isn't a linebacker quite like Hightower anywhere else in the league, as evidenced by his market forming slowly, and only the dysfunctional, cupcake-wielding Jets and the desperate "we-can-never-stop-the-Patriots-offense" Steelers showed interest, both of whom recognized - like every other team in the league - that he wasn't going anywhere but back to where he truly fit...

...and also evidenced by the fact that the deal Hightower eventually ended up signing was essentially the same one that Belichick offered him at the start of last season, tacking on an extra $750,000 a year to show his appreciation for a man that had done so much for the success of the New England Patriots - and this after showing Hightower the ultimate respect of allowing the market dictate what his worth was, and where he should be.

After all, in professional football, prodigal sons of Hightower's talent don't always return home - but Belichick knew this one would.