Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Eric Rowe A Valuable Chess Piece In Patriots' Secondary

Lots of football players have been able to extend their careers by switching from one position to another.

For example, how many times have we seen a veteran cornerback switch to safety in the twilight of their careers?  In fact, you may recall that former shutdown corner Darrelle Revis this summer was offering to move to safety if that would entice them to sign him.  You may also recall that New England Patriots' head ball coach and general manager Bill Belichick opined that Revis' skill set didn't translate to safety.

Many in the National Football League feel the same as Belichick, apparently, because the artist formerly known as "Revis Island" is still looking for work.  Granted, some of that may be because of the exorbitant price tag that the former All Pro carries, but most of the issue with Revis is that he has displayed a genuine degradation of skill in the past two seasons, seasons in which he slipped down the stretch with a New England team that eventually won a Super Bowl in his 2014 season...

...in fact sliding so badly that he was no better than nickle corner in that game - a trend that carried over into 2015 and by the time last season was finished, so was Revis' career.

Which is neither here nor there for the purposes of switching to safety, as what Belichick really meant is that his skill had declined to the point that he couldn't be trusted on the back end of his defense - a defense that is already manned by three of the better players on the back end in the league, of which Devin McCourty is a Pro Bowl free safety, Patrick Chung is essentially a small weakside linebacker as a strong safety and Duron Harmon is the best centerfielder in the game in the Big Nickle alignment.

Harmon, however, had ankle surgery in the offseason and hasn't been seen since the first day of training camp, adding fuel to the speculation that he may not be ready for the start of the regular season.

Good thing the Patriots have a built-in centerfielder in Eric Rowe.

Rowe is listed as a cornerback and has played the position for his first two years in the National Football league, but he also spent the first three years in his college career as a free safety, and is still becoming acclimated as a corner and looked like a seasoned veteran in the Super Bowl with tight coverage on Atlanta Falcons' All Pro wide out Julio Jones.

It was a war between Jones and Rowe, and although Jones caught the only two balls thrown his way with Rowe in his hip pocket, both were fantastic toe-draggers and one was so improbable that it will forever live in Super Bowl lore as one of the best catches in the history of the game.

The problem facing Rowe, however, is the fact that Belichick went out in free agency and plucked cornerback Stephon Gilmore away from the Bills and still managed to keep Malcolm Butler in the fold despite a messy almost-divorce between he and the team that lingered throughout the summer, culminating when Butler signed his first-round, restricted free agent tender...

...leaving Rowe seemingly high and dry as a nickle corner, since the Patriots are in the three-safety, Big Nickle formation around sixty percent of the time, which is their response to the growing trend of their foes employing receivers who are bigger and faster than they were less than a decade ago.

Rowe tried to appear unfazed by the circumstances, even telling reporters that he thought he could play the slot - and Lord knows he's got the physical makeup to do so, and with Harmon on the mend with no known timetable for return to full strength, the opportunity for Rowe to make an impact as the nickle back is front and center.

In the slot, however, is where he will meet shorter and quicker pass catchers like he did in camp on Tuesday when he tried to cover new Patriots' deep threat Brandin Cooks, whose deep speed was actually almost matched by Rowe in coverage, but Cooks' separation ability off the line gave him a step on Rowe and backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett hit Cooks for what would have been a big gainer.

Which brings up another point.  Rowe runs a 4.39 forty-yard dash, and played the sideline-to-sideline role at the University of Utah for his first three seasons with the Utes - and when combined with his elite athleticism (he placed in the top three among defensive backs in every drill at the 2015 combine) and size (6' 1", 210), he is a very valuable chess piece for Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

As a corner, he does his best work in press-man, inside technique where he can force the receiver to the outside where the boundary acts as a safety over the top, taking away ninety degrees of catch radius from the receiver, and Rowe is big enough and has good hops to take away the other 270 - while as a safety, he is the aforementioned centerfielder whose range and hitting style compares favorably to Harmon's.

For those who are initiated into Rowe's skill set, Pro Football Focus set him apart from just about every other cornerback in the league by allowing just 49.8 percent of targets against him to be completed, second in the league only to Minnesota's Xavier Rhodes, also named in the top ten list of players who made the biggest second season jumps in 2016.

So how will Eric "Death" Rowe be used in 2017?  Probably mostly as a boundary corner, but with his experienced versatility, don't be surprised to see him patrolling the blue line every now and then if Harmon can't go.

He's too talented to keep stewing on the bench.

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