Thursday, April 16, 2015

Reloading The Musket - Part 3: Karma smiles on secondary

The Patriots almost lost that game, you know.

The reason that they didn't is because of some great individual effort by rookie free agent cornerback Malcolm Butler and by veteran press corner Brandon Browner down the stretch and clutch teamwork between the two on the fateful, Championship winning interception by Butler to seal the Patriots' fourth World Title in eight tries.

Now, Butler will forever be a hero and his legacy is cemented in Patriots' lore, certainly showing that he was ready for the Prime Time slot, but....

Is Malcolm Butler ready for the daily grind?
Butler has earned his shot at being the number one corner

Is Butler ready not just to show up and make plays in the clutch - though that is always nice - but also to do the little things, to grind away in camp and at practice, to jibe with a different game plan each and every week, to match up with the opposition's top receiver on a weekly basis?

According to everything we know about him, he is - and it's a great story filled with delicious Popeye's Chicken and solicited testimonials, telling of his wonderful personality and never-say-die attitude, telling of hard work that cut into his homework time in order to help his mother make ends meet - he has the proper attitude and work ethic.

Recently, Rodney Harrison gave some insight on just how high head ball coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots really are on Butler, stating that "(Belichick) really likes the kid, and thinks he is going to be a very good football player."

It's a rags-to-riches story that we've heard a hundred times and he deserves every bit of good Ju Ju that comes his way, deserving of all of the plaudits and deserving of all of the vehicles that All Pro quarterbacks and starry-eyed car dealerships offer up...

...but he works for a man named Bill Belichick, a man who respects the past and uses past performances as gauges to future potential, and it is this cross-evaluation between the past and future potential that drives Belichick's personnel decisions, so the fact that Butler was the best player on the field during that epic fourth quarter of the Super Bowl means little more than game film to him.

Because history is replete with athletes that step up in the most crucial of spots, only to never be heard from again, so it is fair for folks to wonder if Malcolm Butler will be among the long line of players that fit the flash-in-the-pan profile - yet there was also an edge to Butler's performance when his number was called in the second half of Super Bowl XLIX, particularly down the stretch in the fourth quarter, when he was the best cornerback on the field.

That's right, Butler's impact on the final 30 minutes of last month's Super Bowl went far beyond getting his finger tips on a ball intended for Kearse, and even transcends perhaps the most clutch play in the title game's rich history - because that play was just the culmination of perhaps the most karmic series of plays in the history of football.

Karmic in the sense that had Revis and Browner not been on the roster, Butler would have probably played far more than he did during the regular season, and after biding his time and putting in the dirty work during the regular season, he had a very appropriate coming out party under the brightest lights that there are in the world of football.

It would be a little far-fetched for Belichick to claim that things unfolded for his team and for Butler just the way he drew it up, because the truth is that had slot corner Kyle Arrington not been taken advantage of by the Seahawks' play calling and huge matchup differential, Butler may never have seen the field on that fateful afternoon.

But what Belichick can claim, as he can with so many players under his charge, is that Butler did his job - and you will not hear any higher praise come out of the Dark Master's mouth.

Browner is gone, a casualty of Bill Belichick re-focusing the emphasis of the defense on the front seven, leaving the junior member of the New England secondary the one corner that has really flashed a potential that should have Patriots' fans optimistic for the future, and it's not as if the cupboard is bare behind him on the depth chart...

...but while it is full of players that have shown flashes of potential, that potential is limited in a mix of youthful inexperience and some unknown entities - and, of course, the presence of Revis and Browner.

So, while keeping in mind that when it comes to winning a Super Bowl, questioning the decisions made in personnel hardly seems worth the effort, the 2015 defense enters camp with a depth chart full of question marks, it is safe to say that players like Dennard and Ryan and Butler would be much further along in their development had the Patriots not dipped into free agency.

Instead, what the team is left with is three players whom have performed at starter-quality levels at times in their brief careers, but whose limited body of work makes them relative unknowns at this point - which promises to have Patriots' fans clamoring for a top cornerback in the draft, since the market offered up mostly camp fodder.

In addition to Dennard, Ryan, Arrington and Butler, the team has made those very minor free agency moves for players that don't really project to be any better than those four, the only one that has a reasonable chance of sticking being former 7th round draft pick Robert McClain, who is feisty and aggressive in man coverage, the result of a serious Napoleon complex.

Former Falcon McClain's size and relative lack thereof has been an albatross around his neck since being drafted as an afterthought in the 2010 draft- but was outstanding from both slots, the flank and on the outside, though he had his share of issues with taller receivers.  McClain even logged significant reps as the "Big Nickle" safety in Atlanta and was solid in the role as he's excellent in run support and tight in a phone booth.

Chimdi Chekwa, a restricted free agent who was a 4th round pick of the Raiders back in 2011who has been burned repeatedly in press coverage ever since, was declined a tender by Oakland.  Blazing fast but because of limitations playing with his back to the ball and giving up outside position, Chekwa is more of a zone read-and-react corner.  Same with Bradley Fletcher, who New England picked up by way of Philadelphia.

All three of these guys had scouting reports coming out of college that favored their success as safeties more than corner on the professional level - yet McClain is the only one who has seen time as a box safety, a position that he could fill at times as a kind of a Swiss Army Knife in the secondary.

Fletcher will have to have an epic camp to stick, while Chekwa will need a miracle (like finally learning how to tackle) - particularly if the Patriots spend some draft capital on a cornerback, and even then the answer may already be on the roster as Butler and Dennard should be considered the wings, while Arrington will be given a run for his money from McClain to hold onto his slot position.  McClain could also be in the mix with Logan Ryan to ascend if Dennard doesn't recover from his series of setbacks.

The depth chart as it stands negates that common perception that the Patriots are now laden with a multitude of zone corners, though it's not too far of a stretch to imagine that we'll see the Patriots in a variety of Cover-2 looks - and while zone variations will always have their place in accordance with the game plan, there are enough aggressive press corners (unproven as they are) to run man packages, either as part of a Tampa 2 scheme or flat Cover 1.

Most of what will determine what's happening with the game plan in the secondary will depend on the quality of play in the front seven, which is where the majority of focus should be on the defensive side of the ball in the draft, but that is for another time and in another article - the topic we've chosen for today is the state of the Patriots secondary and how it may impact the upcoming draft.

How could it not?  Well, the Patriots have gotten to the promised land with far less talent in their secondary than they have right now, and a couple of times had to press a couple of receivers into service just to have enough warm bodies to compete.  That said, does Belichick even possess such a thought as having a position of need?

We can always just assume that he knows that we, as fans, expect that he is cognizant of our thoughts, wants and desires - but as for anything that involves the Dark Master, especially when it comes to the draft, there is an intersection where talent and draft value meet for every single player and, seemingly, need be damned.

It doesn't necessarily fit into a generic "best available athlete" mode either, because he seeks a little bit more than athletic ability - so knowing what's important to Belichick, drawn from a purely historical trend, is the key to trying to figure out what he's going to do...

...which is bullshit, of course, but history does offer us a little perspective on Belichick and drafting corners - and that perspective dictates that if he doesn't select a corner with his first round selection he should probably wait until the end of the second day or even into the beginning of the final day of the draft to pick over the remains.

In fifteen drafts that Belichick has presided over, he has selected a corner in the first round just once, which was Devin McCourty in 2010 - and he's now a second-team All Pro free safety.  His second rounders have been a disaster, with names like Ras-I Dowling, Darius Butler and Terrence Wheatley stinking up the joint. But the key, it seems, is that he seems to find the most value in the middle rounds, and that history is tough to argue with...

...what with names like Ellis Hobbs, Logan Ryan and Asante Samuel being name-picks that turned out ok, at least for a little while - and of course there was Dennard, a projected 2nd - 3rd rounder who dropped all the way to the seventh round due to legal problems, and plays with confidence when he's actually on the field, which has been precious little.

The bookends between the third and fourth rounds are like him defering to the second half of an actual game, trying to score to end the first half, building momentum to take the second half kickoff and put the game away.  It's the same philosophy in the draft, which means that only a few good corners are really in play for the Patriots in this draft.

P.J. Williams - CB - Florida State 
His DUI arrest may drop him down some draft boards, but there may not be a more NFL ready cornerback.  A polished bump and run defender, he lacks only desire to play every down.  Will be an island defender if his attitude ever matches his athletic gifts.  He was originally projected to be as high as a top 15 pick, and would have been a long shot for the Patriots in that scenario - and he probably still is.

Quentin Rollins - CB - Miami (Ohio)
A video game quality press corner who rarely gives a receiver room to breathe, though he will experience a vastly superior talent level going to the NFL from the MAC - has only one year of college football experience and has been a corner only for that one season, so his learning curve is steep and receivers in the NFL will be able to take him outside in until he gains some playing experience -  but once that happens with good coaching, he has every trait desired for a shutdown corner.

Rose steadily up draft boards after a good Senior Bowl week, but his ascension has leveled off into the late 2nd, early third round area.

Ronald Darby - CB - Florida State
Another late 2nd, early 3rd rounder, Darby is speed, speed and more speed.  Darby has world-class sprinter's speed and uses it to keep the top on the receiver.  In his desire to keep the top on, however, he can be beaten underneath if the receiver breaks off the route.  Susceptible to the outside-in move but plays press and off-man with equal success. He might have a little trouble at the professional level if he can't break his habit of latching onto receivers.

Marcus Peters - CB - Washington
A tantrum waiting to happen, Peters has everything a coach could want in a press corner and can outright stuff and intimidate the opposing receiver, but is emotionally immature and was constantly in the doghouse in college.  Would be a perfect on the wings if he takes to coaching.

The book is all over the place on Peters, but most projections seem to have him as a late 1st round talent with a 3rd round discipline problem.

Shaq Thompson - OLB/RB - Washington
Thompson is included here because he is an excellent prospect at the box safety position.  That said, his college coach sees his best fit as a running back, while many draft experts see him as either a 4-3 outside linebacker or as a strong safety.

He's a classic tweener with excellent hands and a dogged pursuit artist who can cover running backs wheeling out into the pattern - in effect, the perfect Big Nickle safety/linebacker  hybrid who could double up as an emergency third running back or even as a Vereen-like passing back.  That type of versatility could land him on the team, and give Belichick more options on his game-day roster.

Byron Jones - CB/FS - Connecticut
Highly intelligent and instinctive defensive back who has a bit of a combination of Ras-I Dowling and Kyle Arrington in his DNA.  Dowling for his fragility and lack of physicality and Arrington for his ability to lose his man in vertical coverage.  Early mock drafts seemed to have Jones trending to New England, but the athletic freak is now projected in Belichick's real wheel house.

That said, Free safety seems to be his natural position and if the Patriots were to draft him, it might signal a move for Devin McCourty back to corner, where he started his career - but that seems unlikely.

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