Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Struggling Corners Find Takers In Patriots

Bradley Fletcher is one of the worst cornerbacks in the National Football league.

At least that's what Philadelphia Eagles fans will tell you, as the 6' 1", 200 pound defensive back out of Iowa became the whipping boy for the struggles of the entire Eagles' secondary last season, an abysmal collection of has-beens and never-will-be's...
Burned thrice by Bryant, Fletcher earned a spot on the bench...

Beaten relentlessly on double moves and endlessly lost on outside-in slants, ugly performances against Green Bay's Jordy Nelson, Dallas' Dez Bryant and Washington's DeSean Jackson epitomized the struggles, and were partially the result of the collective lack of talent in the Eagles' secondary - and partially the result of the coaching staff's failure to game plan to put their defensive backs in the best position to succeed.

And partially because he was being utilized improperly.

The straight poop on Fletcher coming out of college was almost universal in that he would have a much better success rate in the pros as a safety, as he consistently demonstrated that he was a far better defensive back having the play unfold in front of him where he could read-and-react, and was a potential detriment if forced to play with his back to the play...

...which is something that has manifested itself time and again in his time with first the Rams and then the Eagles, but for lack of a better option in either camp, he always came away a cornerback.  Not surprisingly, every secondary that he played in were loathsome to the fan base.

The Eagles have dumped both of their starting corners and versatile safety Nate Allen, with Allen landing with a multi-year deal in Oakland, cornerback Cary Williams emerging in Seattle to fill the void left by free agent Byron Maxwell and now the lightning rod for the passionate Philadelphia media and fans signing on with the Patriots.
McClain was just a bad fit in Atlanta's Big Nickle

Maxwell is now a well-paid member of the Eagles secondary, as is his oft-injured former Seahawks teammate Walter Thurmond, with a replacement for Allen most likely coming via the 2015 NFL Draft. 

It will be interesting to see how the new-look secondary works in Philadelphia with the same coaching staff, but it will be more interesting to see how New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick integrates his newly signed cornerback into a secondary that will have a decidedly new look as well.

Bradley signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Patriots on Wednesday, the initial winner of a four-man competition to add veteran depth to the Patriots' secondary - but to hear the experts tell it, New England just wasted valuable cap capital on a guy who got burnt like so many unattended hot dogs on the grill last season.

Belichick doesn't see it that way.

Sure, Bradley could just be camp fodder, though teams normally don't give that kind of scratch to a camp body - but the smart money has Belichick platooning Bradley with his former Eagles teammate Patrick Chung, who performed well in his role as the Patriots strong safety last season, using Bradley the way God intended, as a box safety.

This notion feeds into the thought that the Patriots are preparing to flip the script from their philosophy with the now departed Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, who could provide blanket coverage on the top two weapons in the pattern and, in theory at least, should have provided the pass rush with an extra second or two to get to the quarterback.

It didn't really turn out that way, mostly because the Patriots were so bad at covering the running backs and tight ends coming underneath that an extra defensive back was still employed, sacrificing at least one pass rusher.  The result was still abysmal and sometimes embarrassing, as the opposing quarterback would stand  upright in the pocket and wait for someone to break free, which always happens eventually.

So the Patriots appear to be working toward resolution toward that end, signing rush linebacker Jaball Sheard while at the same time dumping the immovable yet seldom-penetrating nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was rarely impactful in rushing the quarterback other than tying up double teams to allow a linebacker to shoot the gap that was created, but, again, underneath coverage woes precluded much blitzing...

...appearing set to enter the season with like-sized, yet able-penetrator Sealver Siliga at the nose, surrounded by rush tackles like Alan Branch, Chris Jones and Dominique Easley and ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.  With linebackers Sheard, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo flying around on the second level, the Patriots' front seven appears to have the personnel they need to maintain a thick front seven.

Can they get to the quarterback?  That remains the big question in Foxborough, and the answer really lies in health, as both Easley and Mayo had their seasons cut short, landing on the team's Injured Reserved list.

That, however, does not solve the mystery as to why the Patriots can't cover a tight end or a running back to save their lives, and perhaps the primary reason why we're seeing retread corners coming in via free agency - with Fletcher a good candidate as a nickle safety, where he can read and react facing the quarterback, using his good coverage skills on tight ends and running backs.

Joining Fletcher on Wednesday is former Atlanta Falcon slot corner Robert McClain, who was also in for a workout earlier in the week - a 5' 9", 195 pound press corner that has been relegated to the nickle in Atlanta, which in terms of the Big Nickle defense that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan ran for the past two seasons, meant an increase in responsibility and playing time in a formation that calls for three safeties.

The nickle back in the Big Nickle that Atlanta ran has the role of playing in the box, handling the tight ends or flankers - and in almost every case the opponent had a distinct size advantage over the minuscule McClain, who was miscast as soon as Nolan set foot in the Falcons' facilities two years ago.

McClain is not big enough to handle the Big Nickle, but Fletcher is.  McClain is greased lightning, however, and an aggressive man corner whose only real drawback is his size - strong and relentless in sticking to his man, McClain could find himself a niche in the Patriots secondary and his experience as a starter in the league could win him a starting role on the outside.

Of course, this is pure speculation, but Belichick has a proven track record of bringing in other teams' scapegoats and turning them into scheme-specific professionals, and there's no reason to believe that he's going to abandon that winning formula now.

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