I'm sure you're aware of the process by now; unit-by-unit breakdowns, yada yada, ad nauseum. As you can see, this one's looking at the secondary (imagine that! Title and everything!). Everyone's favourite whipping boy when the defence fails, Football Outsiders ranks the Pats pass-defence (after opposition-strength adjustment) a so-so 16th overall. When ranked against Wide Receivers by type, the Pats were a pretty poor 26th against #1 wideouts and a surprisingly decent 8th against #2 receivers. Against 'other' wide receivers (3rd, 4th and 5th) they were a credible 10th.
Perhaps most troublingly, the Patriots pass-defence was the 3rd least consistent (behind the Jets at least consistent and Green Bay at second-least consistent). The Jets and Green Bay were both in the top 3 of pass defences, however, while the Pats lingered far further down the list. This suggests the Pats were particularly hit-and-miss over the course of the season, and when they were bad, they were really bad. This bears out in the performances - they destroyed the Titans (giving up negative total passing yardage!), and then got slaughtered in turn by the red-hot Saints. The mercurial nature even played out within games, being pretty good against the Colts for a significant stretch of their matchup, and then folding like a wet playing card at inopportune times.
For the purpose of this I'll evaluate only the players who saw time in their listed positions; there are also Safeties Matthew Slater and Bret Lockett and Cornerback Kyle Arrington on the roster, but who play primarily as special teamers. And so, onto the analysis, after the jump...
The Safety corps at the moment is likely the deepest and strongest of all the Pats position groups at the moment - there are three starting quality Safeties (Brandon Meriweather, Brandon McGowan, James Sanders) and a solid-looking backup Safety/Nickel-corner/Special teams contributor in Patrick Chung.
Brandon Meriweather, as we all know, made the Pro Bowl after a decent enough season, although questions still linger about his overall effectiveness as a go-to guy in the defensive backfield. He'll pop up for a game-winning play, but also suffer at the hands of good QB/WR combinations and good RBs, getting suckered by play-fakes in the passing game and shifty runners in the run game. His tackling technique isn't 100% and he's made baffling comments in the media about his mercurial defensive abilities (gangtackling? you high?), but his play ought to improve with age - there's a reason Belichick had traditionally only taken old/experienced Safeties before Meriweather.
Brandon McGowan was a situational starter: whenever a team had a top-line TE, be it Dallas Clark or Kellen Winslow, McGowan drew him in one-on-one coverage. While he faded down the stretch, he showed enough to suggest he'll be a valuable contributor, especially in shutting out those top TEs from being automatic safety valves/first-down machines. He also forced an impressive three fumbles, and was a force on special teams - versatility Belichick loves.
Patrick Chung played fairly well in certain packages - put on the field as a Nickel-back, often blitzing, he showed some pass-rushing talent and a nose for the ball on pass-defence. He didn't crack the lineup as a Safety per se, but then neither did Meriweather in his first year on the roster. Chung also showed pretty good nous as a special teamer, providing added value in the oft-neglected side of the ball.
James Sanders was the odd man out in the Pats Safety corps. Despite receiving praise from Belichick as a clubhouse leader, pre-season, Sanders slid from the depth chart almost immediately, and only played situationally with limited snaps over the course of the season. He might well be trade-bait as a solid-if-unspectacular option for a team willing to part with picks; he'd add great locker-room leadership to a team that may well need some bolstering. If so, the Pats may well pick up another Safety in the draft, or a free agent, or both. Otherwise, I don't expect another S addition to the roster, particularly with Matthew Slater and Bret Lockett providing depth at the position.
Again, a fairly deep stock already on the roster and signed up for the medium-term - 5 of them, plus Arrington, and Chung fits into Nickel cornerback situationally. By player...
Leigh Bodden was the standout cornerback, being very solid in a difficult position - no pass-rush and a pretty solid lineup of good WRs over the season. Although he showed glimpses of being a playmaker - he snaffled 5 picks - he impressed more as a solid run-stopper and trustworthy pass-defender (with emphasis on 'trustworthy' - unlike route-jumping, no-tackling Asante Samuel). He did particularly well considering the dearth of pass-rush; he rarely got beaten deep despite receivers often having forever to gain separation from his coverage. A keeper; I thought he was bound to walk in the off-season as he was one of the top available free agents in a coveted position.
Darius Butler. The 'dynamic' to Bodden's 'solid', Butler showed real flashes of why he had been projected as a first-round talent in the 2009 draft. While he got limited opportunities, he shined against the weaker opposition teams (where he was promoted to starter, uncoincidentally), in particular the Titans and Bucs, where he picked up his first two interceptions. He took on additional duties through the year, being trusted again with the CB position against the pass-happy Texans, where he nabbed a 91-yard pick-6. Having Belichick's faith when playing against Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub suggests Hoodie liked what he saw in Butler's first year, so I wouldn't be surprised if he's a genuine starter in 2010.
Shawn Springs. The elder statesmen of the secondary, Springs started the first and last four games at CB, with a 4-game injury period in the middle. Springs signed a 3-year deal for reasonable money, so he could've been viewed as a disappointment with his small-ish total of 40 tackles, 1 pick, and 4 passes defensed. However, he does add a certain amount of positional flexibility (he can play Free Safety), and he is an old head among a pretty young unit, especially if James Sanders is indeed trade-bait. I'd expect him to be back again in 2010, and with another year in the system, he might well improve. He's also got good size - 6'0", 204lbs - meaning he's got a point of difference over Wilhite and Wheatley.
Jonathan Wilhite. Although he started eight games, Wilhite was a tad underwhelming with 45 tackles, 2 picks and 5 passes defensed. Partly because he was a mismatch - he was a bit too small at 5'11" and 185lbs to muscle up to bigger WRs for long enough to allow the anaemic pass-rush time to work. Partly, though, it was a lack of finishing ability - a number of plays had Wilhite basically escorting a Wide Receiver over the first-down mark or end-zone instead of being able to tackle or break up the pass. He showed enough ability I don't think he'll be a casualty, but without a significant upgrade of the pass-rush I wouldn't quite want him matching up to Reggie Wayne or Marques Colston again any time soon.
Terrence Wheatley. An enigma; he showed a lot of promise in his rookie season, playing six of the first 8 games of 2008, and being particularly eye-catching in his first start against the Colts. He seemed to haveManning's number and was sat on Reggie Wayne, et al, pretty effectively. He had a trio of pass-breakups in quick succession, but whilst completing one he had the misfortune of injuring his wrist, getting himself on IR in the process. His 2009 was a washout; only turning up for 5 games and managing a total of 2 tackles. Again, I believe part of it was that Wheatley was a mis-match given the anaemic pass-rush; he's even smaller than Wilhite at only 5'9" and 183lbs, meaning big receivers that have plenty of time (ie - any the Pats played last year) will find a way to break off a small CB and get open. The other thing to remember about Wheatley is his very chequered injury history - as a sophomore in 2004 he had groin, hamstring, and (red flag!) wrist injuries. In 2005 as a junior he had wrist surgery (red flag! red flag!), the wrist bothered him so much his season was a wash; in 2007 as a senior he had a hairline fracture and missed everything past his first 10 games (red flag!!!!). He adds in the kick return capacity, but can the guy stay healthy and/or get on the field? When he does, he's shown he's dynamic. But dynamism means very little when it's on the Injured Reserve list.
So is there a pressing need to upgrade corners? While it's always a possibility (especially if a top corner slips down the draft to a place he's not meant to be), I don't quite buy it. I don't really see the Pats targeting a top corner, especially with Bodden and Butler looking pretty good as prospects and Springs providing a sure hand and experience. Any new corner would probably be competing for a Nickel-corner spot, and would be head to head with Wilhite, Wheatley and Pat Chung. I suspect that the corners would benefit a lot more from an upgraded pass-rush than the pass-rush would benefit from an upgrade at nickel CB. If the Pats were blitz-heavy, then they'd need an on-an-island Darrell Revis-type; he has to be a shutdown corner because everyone else can/will blitz. The Pats are about coverages and getting Safeties into positions to make plays, so a stud CB is less of a concern.
Given that, it's likely they'll soldier on with a Bodden/Butler starting pair and a Springs/Wilhite/Wheatley rotation lower in the depth chart. Also factor in the dark horse in Kyle Arrington; he was a standout in special teams with his speed and tackling, and he might push for an increased role on defence, too. He also masses more than Wilhite and Wheatley, meaning he'll get thumped around less by the bigger WRs.