Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reloading the Musket - Part 8: Secondary Protocol

Logan Ryan has the talent to man the corner if Aqib Talib leaves
Aqib Talib is a goner.

A look at the top annual salaries for cornerbacks in the National Football league reads like a Forbes Magazine Top 20 list, and with the cap squeeze that the New England Patriots are under, the only way that they would be able to pay Talib what he is worth, comparatively, is to scrap their plans for - well - everything else.

The franchise tag is no help because that will be more on a one year deal than the team could probably sign him for per year on a long-term deal, and restructuring the contracts of players like Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins won't free up nearly enough money - even slashing the salaries of marginal players like Steve Gregory, Issac Sopoaga and Dan Connolly won't make the nut.

Because someone is going to pay him like a Top 10 corner, but it can't be New England - not unless Talib settles for whatever New England can scrape together for an annual salary with a truck full of money as a signing bonus - up front - and that is a dangerous game to play with cap dollars, for many reasons...

...not the least of which is the lesson learned by the team in extending the contracts of tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski two summers back, which will eat up $13 million annually right off the top of the Patriots' salary structure for a monstrous, oft-injured neanderthal of a pass catcher still on the roster and a nefarious monster who is not.

Add those to the handful of players who are signed for 2014 with a cap hit over $4 million and half of the projected salary cap is is lining the pockets of just seven players - and one brutal street thug, in abstentia.

Regardless of who did what to whom and how much the salary cap will actually end up being, there's not enough cap space to make another mistake, so it's a roll of the dice with Talib - even if he does the unthinkable and accepts a hometown discount to stay in Foxborough.

So working from the assumption that Talib is not in the picture, does that mean that the Patriots need to adjust their game plan in free agency or the draft?  Not necessarily.

I makes little sense to go after a player in free agency when a matter of a couple of million dollars would have made the difference between Talib going or staying, and anyone that you're going to get on the cheap - well, there's a reason why they come so cheap...

...and that leaves us with the draft.

In previous editions of this series, it has been suggested that quarterback Ryan Mallett be shipped off in order to realize a gain on the Patriots' third-round investment, and that a suitable replacement be drafted on the second day; a cap friendly move in free agency to pick up tight end Scott Chandler from the Buffalo Bills is in order, along with picking up a select "move" type tight end in the draft...

...that the team invested heavily in the receiver position in 2013 and will probably ride their class for 2014, picking up a mid-round talent in Jared Abbrederis from Wisconsin at some point on the second day or even the third; the talent in the backfield dictates that the team will just roll with what they have after resigning Blount and that there is enough overall talent along the offensive line that a late round guard would foot the bill.

But where things start to become desperate is on the defensive side of the ball, as identified needs suggest a high round pick for a nickle pass rusher and a second or third day selection going for a cover linebacker/hard-hitting nickle safety - so that leaves very little latitude for error, and coach Bill Belichick simply can not afford to miss with any of his picks.

So assuming that this makes the priority list look something like Defensive Tackle, Cover 'Backer/Strong Safety, Tight End, Wide Receiver, Quarterback, and Offensive Guard, what gets sacrificed in order to pick up a cover corner?

Perhaps nothing.

What the Patriots desire in a cover corner could be found anywhere from the first to the fourth round, and all are a mixture of multi-dimensional skill and attitude.

Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State possesses a skill set and a frame that makes him a virtual clone on last season's rookie corner Logan Ryan - aggressive - perhaps too much so, if there is such a thing - he is a pure man cover corner, but he is projected to be off the board way before New England selects at 29, and a first round pick is too much to spend on a corner when there are other more pressing needs...

...while potential early second day prospects Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech and  Florida State's Lemarcus Joyner still may be taken too early for New England to get the most bang for their buck, the third and 4th rounds have some very intriguing possibilities that feed into Belichick's needs in the secondary.

But get a load of Joyner - at 5' 8" and 190 pounds, the kid is a tank in the body of a Ferrari - Quick and instinctive, plays much bigger than his frame and hits like the aforementioned tank.  He played strong safety for the Seminoles as a sophomore and junior before moving to corner for his senior season.

So, is Joyner a safety or a corner?  Is it too much to ask for both?

And with versatility being key, is Joyner worth a second day pick?  Without a doubt, and despite his smallish frame, he could be the big hitting safety that is aesthetically pleasing to Patriots' fans while doubling up as a slot corner - either way, the nickle sub-package would never be the same.

But if size is what you're looking for, the third round should produce Keith McGill out of Utah.

McGill is a 6' 3", 215 pound cover corner that NFL Network's Mike Mayock recently commented was a mixture of Seahawks' defensive backs Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, with tape and draft profiles showing to be alert of his surroundings, very fluid out of the break with good straight line speed that played safety in Junior College and his first year at Utah before being switched to Corner.

Stanley-Jean Baptiste of Nebraska is nearly as big as McGill, just as physical and is perhaps a bit more seasoned in that he was asked to play many different techniques - a patient corner, he is adept at letting the receiver go into his break before moving in, and uses his length to make a play on the ball.  Like McGill, some think he would make a solid safety as well.

Pierre Desir of Linwood College is another name that could be found on the third day, as is Walt Aiken of Liberty - but the Patriots should boast enough draft currency in the third or fourth round to pluck McGill or Jean-Baptiste and get excellent value in a potential long corner.

If the Patriots end up looking for a pure safety in the draft instead or or in addition to a corner, names like Dion Bailey from USC or Tre Boston from North Carolina should be available in the third round or beyond.

Boston has elite deep speed and could actually play corner, which he did his first two years at North Carolina, but was moved to safety where his 4.43 speed, 6' 1" frame and ballhawking skills caused him to be both the leading tackler for the unit both as a Junior and Senior, as well as leading the team in interceptions...

...while Bailey played both safety and outside linebacker at Southern California, and while he's probably too small to play linebacker in the pros, he certainly has the intagibles to be a strong safety or nickle safety - perhaps one of the better underneath pass defenders in the entire draft.

So, is Talib actually a goner?  If so, Belichick has options in the draft to add versatile talent to the already talented - but very young - secondary.  Without Talib, the Patriots are looking at third year steal Alfonzo Dennard at one corner with second year talent Logan Ryan at the other, and a hopefully fully healed Kyle Arrington in the slot.

It was revealed recently that Arrington was dealing with a very painful torn groin muscle throughout the second half of the season which severely affected his effectiveness, that he needed to have surgery for - but if he's not healthy or the Patriots decide to go another direction in the slot, there are options above.

At safety, Devin McCourty is a second-team All Pro and Duron Harmon showed enough in his rookie season to think he could play either safety position, which gives the unit some flexibility.  Steve Gregory may be a goner too, given his cap number and erratic play at times - so it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see Belichick address the secondary in some manner through the draft.

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