Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reloading the Musket - Part 9: Patriots open The Revis Island School for Defensive Backs

Who will the obscure defensive back be that Bill Belichick shocks Mel Kiper with this year?

In 2012, it was safety Tavon Wilson, who hasn't developed into the strong side presence that Bill envisioned, but is a "Core four" special teams demon; and last year it was safety Duron Harmon, a versatile and skilled back ender who is in line to start next to free safety Devin McCourty this upcoming season...

...and it seems that only criteria for being the infamous pick is that they have to be a safety and they must be so obscure that Kiper stammers in frustration, shuffling nervously through his notes while trying to find something - anything - to say to the millions of TV viewers watching the draft on ESPN.
Revis can only help players like Dobson become all he can be...

But while seeing Kiper suffering through a dead-air moment is as riveting as it is funny - must-see TV, as they say - the fact remains that while Kiper didn't see those picks coming, neither did anyone else, so trying to determine what Belichick is thinking in regard to defensive backs available in the draft is an exercise in futility...

...but we can try, and the most logical place to start with assessing the needs in the secondary is with who is currently on the depth chart - which is overflowing with talent and potential, to the point that many feel that the Patriots don't need to "waste" draft capital in selecting a cornerback.

At the beginning of free agency, New England lost Aqib Talib to the Denver Broncos, and for many dollars - at the time causing a shit-storm of negativity toward the team as Talib's defection was viewed more as a symptom of New England somehow being "cheap", not opening their wallets for the only true shutdown corner on the team.

It wasn't very long, however, that the same folks were singing the praises of Bob Kraft for opening his wallet for the uber-talented Darrelle Revis, who will slide right into Talib's spot on the left while the gargantuan former Seattle Seahawks' right corner, Brandon Browner, signed on with the team shortly thereafter - instantly transforming a Patriots' secondary that was in flux into perhaps the best in the NFL.

That includes the Safety positions, where Pro Bowl and second-team All Pro Devin McCourty holds down the free safety position and Bill's obscure 2013 draft pick Duron Harmon showed enough as a rookie to be able to pencil him in opposite McCourty on the back end.

Depth isn't an issue whatsoever, as the team re-signed strong safety Patrick Chung after a one-year sabbatical from New England to Philadelphia where he bombed in the same capacity he held down for the Patriots while special teamers Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner hold down safety spots pretty much in name only...

...while Revis and Browner have a talented duo backing them up in 2012 seventh round steal Alfonzo Dennard and 2013 third rounder Logan Ryan, who earned the nickname "Instant Offense" by his teammates for his ball-hawking ways while playing a limited role with the team last season.  Veteran Kyle Arrington will again man the slot, unless he can't hold off Ryan, who shined replacing Arrington last season.

Taking inventory, that's a combined seven Pro Bowls, five All Pro honors, three Canadian Football League All Star selections and an AFC Defensive Player of the Year award, not to mention a Super Bowl Title and a CFL Championship, and not one player on the depth chart has reached the age of 30.

So, many may question when Belichick selects both a corner and a safety in next month's NFL Draft, but it has to be remembered that Revis is on what is essentially a one-year, $12 million contract with two team option years for massive bucks, meaning there is a distinct possibility that Revis turns into a one-year rental of sorts, so the Patriots must plan for the future...

...not just for depth, but for enrollment in the Revis Island School for Defensive Backs, as excellent backups like Dennard and Ryan will have the opportunity to be mentored by arguably the best corner in the game, and the team would do well to bring in a prospect with a huge upside and is ultimately coachable who could learn from the master as well.

But the Revis factor isn't limited just to shutting down the opposition's best receiver, and not only to the improvement in the efficiency of the pass rush because the quarterback can't find a receiver, but also to the Patriots' young stable of receivers who will have the opportunity to practice against him every day.

Those are the types of things that you can't put a price tag on - but since there is a hefty one, prudence dictates that Belichick should get full value out of every dollar his boss his doling out for Revis.

With Revis and Browner - and also Ryan and Dennard - the Patriots have four physical press corners with the collective ability to shut down their opponent's passing game, and with the trend in the NFL pointing toward that end, it makes sense that Belichick would be looking for a like-skilled corner as well as a violent safety that causes any receiver who does manage to gain separation from one of corners to develop a chronic case of alligator arms.

Selecting at number 29 in the 2014 draft, Belichick can be assured that names like Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert  Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller will likely be gone, but it is highly unlikely that he would select a corner with his top pick anyway - in fact, it will likely be into the middle rounds before he even thinks about addressing the depth in the secondary.

Ohio State corner Bradley Roby may still be on the board early on the second day, and although he has scheme versatility playing zone and man with equal result, Roby was beaten regularly by bigger receivers, most notably Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and may be nothing more than a number two corner or slot man, which isn't really enough upside to spend 2nd round draft capital on.

Projected third rounder Keith McGill of Utah may be more along the lines of what the Patriots are thinking - a big, rangy corner with a safety background and a heart full of ill-intent toward his foes.  McGill doesn't always make the best decisions - neither on the field or off - so he needs to go to a team that has the veteran leadership to bring out the best in him...

...same with TCU's Jason Verrett, who is a smaller corner, but plays like he's ten feet tall and bullet proof.  An agitator not unlike Cortland Finnegan, but has speed to burn and treats the football like it's his, as does Marqueston Huff, a cornerback/free safety hybrid out of the University of Wyoming who has absolutely insane closing speed, which prompted his coaches at Wyoming to try him at safety for his senior year.

Although Huff is projected to be a fourth rounder, his is just the type of all-around skill set that makes him a favorite to be Belichick's early round surprise.

Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste leads a group of middle round prospects that fall right into Belichick's wheelhouse, where third or fourth round draft capital should yield a better return.  Jean-Baptiste is another big corner with lots of strength but not a whole lot of speed, while Virginia Tech's Antone Exum, whose size and confidence are very appealing, would be good value so long as he's fully recovered from off-season knee surgery.  At six-foot-even and 220 pounds, Exum is an excellent physical specimen for both corner and safety duty.

Not every excellent press corner in this draft is big and physical, as some, like Oregon State's Rashaad Reynolds, make up for what some would consider a lack of size at 5' 10" and 190 pounds with great instinctiveness and athleticism.

Reynolds may be the most natural man cover corner in the class, and is considered a steal if a team can pick him up at his projected third round grade - obviously shorter than the trend toward taller corners would be able to satisfy, Reynolds still does everything well and would benefit from New England's luxury of being able to bring him along at his own pace rather than just be thrown into the fire, but from the looks of it, he would be able to handle that anyway...

...which is pretty much the book on similarly sized Bashaud Breeland out of Clemson, who shows some of the same stickiness in coverage that Reynolds does and is a better overall athlete, but has pedestrian speed at best, which would limit him to zone or short area man, such as the slot.


Safeties are the bane of Bill Belichick's existence.

Actually, Belichick's misfortune with selecting any defensive backs in the NFL draft is well documented - and there is simply no way around it, but the safety position has been particularly frustrating as the head coach of the New England Patriots has tried in vain to redefine the position to match his vision for what it should be.

Blame Rodney Harrison.

Ever since Harrison started down the winding and painful road to retirement following the last of New England's three NFL Titles, missing all of 2005 and half of the 2006 season with injuries, the first part of 2007 due to suspension and nearly all of 2008 with a torn femoris muscle that ultimately prompted his retirement just before training camp in 2009.

Belichick is on record as stating multiple times that he considers Harrison one of the best players he has ever coached which, if you follow the Patriots with any regularity, is something that Belichick just doesn't blurt out on a whim - and it seems as if the Hoodie has been trying to find a reasonable facsimile since it became obvious that Harrison was on the way out seven years ago.

First he drafted Brandon Meriweather in 2007, then Chung in 2009, followed by Wilson, Ebner and Harmon and bringing in Steve Gregory and then Adrian Wilson in free agency - but Merriweather turned out to be nothing more than a thug, Chung had talent but broke like cheap glass, Wilson and Ebner are special teamers, Gregory never figured out how to tackle properly and Adrian Wilson never saw the field, spending his one season in New England on the IR...

...things got so bad that Belichick pegged 2010 first round cornerback McCourty to take over at free safety to lend some semblance of continuity while the strong spot remained a turnstile - but Harmon appears to be the best all around safety the team has had in nearly a decade and Chung is back for a second tour of duty, picked up by Belichick when Philadelphia showed him the door after just one season.

The need for a safety was tempered somewhat by the re-acquisition of Chung, and also trumped by the greater need at nickle linebacker, but if there is a way to get both at the same time, that lies in the person of Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier , who has sub 4.4 speed and safety size in an explosive weak-side linebacker.

Shazier could become the all-coveted Big Nickle, eliminating the need for a strong safety in the draft, particularly combined with the fact that the Patriots already have a fine set of back-enders and quality depth in Chung - a part-time role that should help the injury prone big hitter remain fresh and healthy.

Worst case, however, is that if Shazier is not available, neither will Louisville strong safety Calvin Pryor be, nor will Alabama free safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix , as they are projected top 20 selections, leaving the best value for their draft capital on the second day of the draft.

Clinton-Dix probably wasn't in the picture to begin with as the Patriots are looking to get heavier in the box, not necessarily more speedy at the position, though he offers true Day One starter potential with instincts and technique - which also may preclude Shane Vereen's kid brother, Minnesota's Brock Vereen, from plying his trade in New England.

The more heavy types who can contribute in both the box as well as in pass coverage should start coming off the board with Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward at the head of the line.

Ward is actually a combination between the free and strong varieties - like Harmon, but a more violent striker in the mold of Chung, going for the knockout blow when making contact, but whiffing on occasion. Like Chung, unfortunately, Ward is injury prone so he would also benefit from a part-time role. His speed in coverage is undeniable and would make a good backup for either Harmon or McCourty.

Should New England miss out on Shazier, Washington State's Deone Bucannon possesses the size to handle the nickle safety duties, and may be the most violent striker in the draft - delivering the nasty hit, but is choppy in coverage, which relegates him to the box in the pro game.

If New England fails to move on any safeties in the early rounds, the middle rounds hold good value for the position, which is the case for most positions in this draft.

Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner is much smaller than the position calls for, but has all of the intelligence, toughness and skill that would be tough to pass on in the fourth round.  Many say he's got a little Honey Badger in him, but Joyner is a much more physical tackler and hits like he means it.

LSU's Craig Loston  is a box defender with good size and a big mouth, and while he's not the fastest guy on the field, his upside as a more raw prospect is intriguing and he could be groomed to be an impact difference-maker on the back side.

The draft's third day offers intrigue and versatility was some 'tweeners that could be the nickle presence that the Patriots desire, with names like USC's Dion Bailey, Utah State's Maurice Alexander and Baylor's Ahmad Dixon all possessing the desired traits and experience as a nickle 'backer but lacking in the size to become a successful starting linebacker in the NFL...

...while Memphis safety Lonnie Ballentine, Alabama's Vinnie Sunseri and Jerry Gates out of Bowling Green are all projects that could stick with an emphasis on special teams and an eye on development.

As mentioned before, the Patriots are well-manned and very deep in the secondary, but with Revis possibly being just a one-year rental and McCourty coming up on a contract year, the forward thinking Belichick most likely will pluck a targeted defensive back or two if the guys that he covets fall into his wheelhouse...

...and if Revis does turn out to be just that, you can be certain that Belichick isn't paying the guy $12 million just to blanket receivers for one season, he's going to give him the title of "Professor Revis", with an honorary Doctorate in smothering receivers, filling his classroom with corners, safeties and receivers.

After all, if he's going to be paid like a top-shelf doctor and educator, the Patriots should take advantage of all he has to offer, both on the field and in the film room.

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