Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Strong Patriots' secondary should have trickle-down effect on entire defense - offense, too

“I don’t want the receiver coming at me comfortable. When a receiver is coming at you comfortable, they seem to get in and out of their breaks smooth and that’s when you see them catching balls. So I want to knock them off and disrupt those routes.” - Brandon Browner

Brandon Browner is a big dude.

He also carries a reputation on his 6' 4", 220 pound frame as a scrapper - some would say he's dirty player, and he says nothing to deny that moniker.  Matter of fact, the former Seattle Seahawks' cornerback doesn't say much of anything, preferring instead to let his play do the talking and leaving the cheap talk to the beat writers.

Sounds like he'll get along just fine in Foxborough.
Browner nailing Welker - so much the better

Heavily penalized early in his career, he's had to tone down his game outside of the five yard cushion that a similarly sized player with an equally brutal technique helped to create nearly four decades ago - but inside that 5-yard alley, a receiver is going to take as many shots as Browner can deliver.

The Oregon State product is a throwback to a time when a cornerback named Mel Blount teamed with Donnie Shell to physically shut down the opponent's passing game, and did so by brutalizing receivers to the point that the NFL developed the "Mel Blount Rule", essentially forbidding defensive backs from making contact with a receiver past a five yard cushion from the line of scrimmage.

Browner's style and aggressiveness are necessitated by his lack of straight-line speed - recently timed at a linebacker-ish 4.63 in the 40 yard dash - and where carrying a speedster down the sideline on a free release would be disastrous, he can win going toe-to-toe with them off the line and disrupting the timing of their routes...

...particularly playing to his strength of flowing with bigger receivers between the numbers on crossing routes, which is why there was some mention of him perhaps converting to safety when he was first signed - and he will surely get that type of assignment against more athletic tight ends and bigger slot receivers, but he will also get the call on the outside against the Brandon Marshall's and Megatron's of the league.

Why?  In Seattle, the Seahawks' coaching staff teach and insist on their corners fighting to gain inside position and force the receivers to the sideline, breaking the timing of routes and forcing the quarterback into a more difficult throw to the outside, which is something that All World shutdown corner Darrelle Revis has mastered as well, except that Revis has the wheels and the lateral agility to carry his receiver.

But let's get something straight here: Patriots' coach Bill Belichick is not trying to reinvent the Seattle Seahawks' secondary in New England, nor has he mortgaged the future of the franchise in order to win that illusive fourth Lombardi Trophy before quarterback Tom Brady retires, nor has he engaged in an "Arms Race" with the Denver Broncos - he's simply added a few pieces here and there and replaced departed players the best he could.

It just so happens that Seattle tossed Browner in the dumpster rather than deal with his at-the-time indefinite suspension and declining range, and that the new regime in Tampa Bay decided to release shutdown corner Darrelle Revis rather than pay him as the top cornerback in the league, and he was tired of losing.

So what Belichick has done is no more than sign the best replacement he could find for departed corner Aqib Talib - which even Talib will tell you is a significant upgrade over himself - at essentially a minimal amount over what the Broncos paid for Talib and his paper mache quad, then added Browner at close to the league minimum for his tenure.

The trickle down effect, to use an economic term since we're talking about money, is that not only do the Patriots now boast one of the best cornerback depth charts in the NFL, but also a pair of mentors for their young depth in the secondary, and a viable alternative to forcing their linebacking corps into exotic coverage schemes - freeing them up to stop the run and to easily account for backs circling out of the backfield.

But the benefits don't end there.  The secondary should be able to hold coverage longer, both with technique and timing disruption, affording the suddenly swift and violent New England pass rush an extra split second to get to the opposing quarterback...

...and one really can't put a price tag on the experience gained in each practice that the Patriots' young receivers get to go up against Revis and Browner, nor for Brady, who is always trying to step his game up to the next level.

But the greatest beneficiaries are young corners Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan, both of whom have the skill set to be starters in their own right as both are the versatile, total package that today's NFL begs for - and also Kyle Arrington, whose game mirrors that of Browner, just miniaturized.

Dennard is quietly solid, plays both man and zone with equal success and showed mad toughness in playing through a myriad of injuries last season - two of which required surgery to repair - returning to action after sitting out just one week after having his knee scoped for a torn meniscus and then playing the final three regular season games and two playoff games with a shoulder ailment that had him under the knife after the season.

His offseason has been a surrealistic nightmare, having to sit in the poke for five weeks and then having a scalpel plunged into his flesh from which he has not yet recovered, but he is expected to be ready for camp - same with slot corner Kyle Arrington, whom the team recently revealed had been playing all of last season with a torn groin muscle for which he underwent surgery in February.

Arrington is somewhat of a whipping boy for Patriots' fans and media, many calling for his trade or release despite consistently grading out as a top twenty corner - reason being is that just like Browner, he doesn't carry receivers down the field well and is at his best jamming the receiver in the slot, keeping the play in front of him and gaining inside position to deny the ball.

The seventh year veteran plays the run with violent intent as well and is truly just a stable presence in the slot, but Ryan may be even better.

Ryan had just about as good a rookie season as one could expect, and even earned himself the title "Instant offense", suggesting his penchant for causing turnovers and defending passes was deserving of a snappy nickname - and in truth, he owns it.

The brash rookie led the team with five thefts plus a sack and a share, just short of 50 tackles with 10 passes defended in seven starts - and seeing significant playing time in the other nine.  He returned one of the picks for a crotch-grabbing touchdown against the Jets and paid the price for his conspicuous package check with a fine and a first-half benching the following week, but his overall solid play had him out of Belichick's dog house quickly.

No one has to tell the aggressive and physical Ryan to punch the receiver in the chicklets, but Browner's presence could help him refine the technique, while Revis' influence can do nothing but help make the second-year corner a more complete defensive back and a future star.

It has been rumored, however, that both Ryan and Browner could be used in the capacity of safety, and while that's not beyond the realm of possibility, the back end is well-manned already and Ryan is about to enter training camp in line to start at the corner opposite Revis while Dennard heals and Browner serves a four-game suspension.

And if the depth chart does indeed shake out that way, the starting Patriots' secondary could look like a Rutgers University reunion - with former Pittsburgh Panther and fellow Big East Conference corner Revis as the guest of honor.

Devin McCourty  is an undisputed All Pro free safety going into his third full year after starting his career as a Pro Bowl corner, and having Revis locking down one side of the field should only boost his numbers - which is fortunate as the Rutgers' product is coming into a contract year and could command top money...
Harmon and McCourty represent Rutgers well

...while the presence of fellow Rutgers alum Duron Harmon at strong safety could give the team a bit of leverage when it comes to talking money at the negotiating table across from McCourty.

Harmon was a surprise second day pick of Belichick's in the 2013 draft, but his vision was validated when the virtual unknown burst onto the scene with impressive sideline-to-sideline play in relief of the now-departed Steve Gregory while Gregory nursed a broken thumb midway through the season.

With a notable size (6' 1", 210 pounds), speed (4.48) combination, Harmon can play either traditional safety position - showing natural range and an uncanny feel for angles, and is a load in run support.  It is possible that Harmon's skill set will allow McCourty some autonomy and enable the Patriots to disguise coverages by playing the former corner anywhere he's needed, trusting Harmon as the last line of defense...

...but not necessarily the intimidating presence that the Patriots have been missing since Rodney Harrison hung up his brass knuckles in 2009, as his game revolves around his instincts and technique - though the man that Belichick did draft to succeed Harrison, Patrick Chung, has returned to the team after a brief hiatis in Philadelphia.

Drafted in the second round in 2009, the hard-hitting Chung had his moments as the enforcer for the Patriots in his previous four years with the team, but his complete disregard for his body and coverage deficiencies rendered him healthy enough to play in only 20 of a possible 32 games with New England in 2011 and 2012, numbers that caused Belichick to allow the former Oregon Duck to team up with his college coach with the Eagles.

But Chip Kelly released him at the end of the season and Belichick scooped him up, which caused a bit of rude dissention amongst media members, but when taking a step back to see the big picture, Chung's style will fit in perfectly with aggressive press scheme that Belichick is sure to employ with Browner and Revis joining Ryan, Arrington and Dennard as corners...

...combined with the starting safety positions well accounted for, Chung can ply his violent trade on a part-time basis as a box safety - his stalking whereabouts certain to cause opposing receivers a bit of trepidation when crossing over the middle of the field.

The presence of so much starting-quality talent should not only have the desired trickle-down effect on the rest of the defense, but also cause intense competition among the remainder of the depth chart for perhaps one open spot each among the corners and safeties.

RCB:  Brandon Browner  Alfonzo Dennard  Kyle Arrington  Justin Green
LCB:  Darrelle Revis  Logan Ryan  Travis Hawkins  Malcolm Butler  Daxton Swanson  
SS:     Duron Harmon  Patrick Chung  Jemea Thomas  Shamiel Gary  Nate Ebner               
FS:     Devin McCourty  Tavon Wilson   Kanorris Davis     

Green was active for just two games in 2013, but is already familiar with the terminology on defense, which should give him a slight leg up to make the roster as a corner, though both second-year player Swanson and rookie Butler have shown up on the radar during OTAs and minicamp - and sixth round draft pick Jemea Thomas should have something to say about it as a corner/safety hybrid.

The competition at safety should be even more fierce, as Wilson and Ebner have a history with the team as core-four special team players and will be difficult to unseat.  Thomas will compete, as will Gary, but both will need to have a spectacular camp to remain.

The good news is that all of the players vying to unseat incumbents have practice squad eligibility, so at least a couple of them should land on the list - but the talent-laden secondary is going to be difficult for any of the long-shots to breach.

This is part 9 of 9 wrapping up the Patriots' offseason. Parts 1 - 8 and any addendums can be accessed through the links below:

Part 1 of 9: New England Patriots' philosophies morphing back to a simpler time
Part 2 of 9: New England Patriots' offensive philosophy - Heavy on substance, not sexy style
Part 3 of 9: Patriots surround Brady with talent, just not how most envisioned
Part 4 of 9: Patriots' incumbent backs no roster locks as rookies ready to compete
Part 5 of 9: Belichick takes a mulligan with Patriots' pass catchers
Part 6 of 9: Belichick in the spirit (of 76) in regard to offensive line
Part 7 of 9: Defensive line status up in the air while injuries mend
Part 8 of 9: Patriots' linebackers better through attrition, deft acquisitions
Addendum 1: Projected 53 man roster

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