The Patriots have had a revolving door at the cornerback position in recent seasons. The turnover at the position from 2007 to 2008 to 2009 to 2010 to 2011 is laughable. Here's a list of the top three corners from season-to-season:
2008: Deltha O'Neal, Ellis Hobbs, Jonathan Wilhite
2009: Leigh Bodden, Jonathan Wilhite, Darius Butler
2010: Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler/Jonathan Wilhite [The Patriots opted to use a safety as the nickel back after Wilhite was injured, but were forced to use Butler after safety Pat Chung was unable to cover at a satisfactory level]
2011 Week 1: Devin McCourty, Ras-I Dowling, Leigh Bodden
2011 Week 3: Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Leigh Bodden
2011 Week 8: Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Antwaun Molden
2011 Week 11: Kyle Arrington, Antwaun Molden, Phillip Adams
Luckily, Devin McCourty should return in the next week or two to shore up one of the most injury-filled positions on the roster. It's clear that the Patriots have suffered from a lack of continuity at the cornerback position as the team has averaged only one carryover from the prior season. That means that out of the top three cornerbacks on the field, the Patriots have been shuffling two of them every season.
It also doesn't help that Devin McCourty is having a down season after a fantastic rookie year, nor does it help to lose their top corners every other week. On the other hand, it's impressive to see Kyle Arrington have a successful season after a mediocre 2010 campaign. It's also very interesting to compare the players.
So I did. I looked at the completion percentage, the yards per reception, the yards per attempt, and the yards after the catch in order to evaluate how well a player was covering. Of course, this doesn't match up to good old-fashioned film work, but it's a quick way to compare the results on the field. In addition to comparing this season's cornerbacks, I added a few historical numbers in order to see how these current players compare to players of the past. (All numbers courtesy of Pro Football Focus).
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Just by the dates of the players, it's clear that players are more likely to drop into coverage this season than in seasons past. While last year's defense was just as porous as this season's, it seems that teams are much more willing to challenge this year's secondary. This is more of a general conclusion than an individual conclusion.
We can see that Kyle Arrington is having a great season based on the completion rate in his direction. We can also appreciate how special Leigh Bodden's 2009 season truly was. There is plenty of struggle at the left cornerback slot as Wilhite, Molden, and McCourty have all had their tough times. McCourty is in the midst of the worst completion rate season of the past few years and that's definitely something that has to be taken into account. Also, the potential of Phillip Adams as a solid slot corner bears taking note in the future. The clear disparity in rates of McCourty and Arrington is startling and needs to be fixed.
These are the ranks of the yards against each cornerback, ranked from the average yards per reception. McCourty has experienced a drop off in his yards per reception by around 3 yards per reception as teams have exposed his coverage to Hitch routes and In routes. Also, his average yards per attempt has increased with the completion rate in his direction. When watching McCourty, it appears as if he's over-thinking and isn't allowing his instincts to take control and is getting beaten by the same routes every week.
On a similar spectrum, the drop between McCourty and 2010 McCourty is only rivaled by Bodden and 2009 Bodden. After Bodden's spectacular 2009 season, he dropped towards the end of the pack with his coverage, allowing the second-worst yards per reception.
Now looking at Arrington, it's surprising to see the yards/completion sitting at the same level as last season. The only difference is the yards per attempt. Whether that's due to Arrington defending more passes (it's not.) or to bad throws by opposing quarterbacks (much more likely), Arrington still has to improve on reducing the yards on throws in his direction. It's great to limit the receptions, now he must reduce the yardage.
Also of note, Dowling is bottom in both categories due to the three receptions of 20+ yards as the only three receptions in his direction. The drop off from McCourty to Molden has been very slight. Adams has been great in the slot. 2009 Wilhite was surprisingly mediocre (and not horribly horrible).
Yards After Catch
This is where 2009 Bodden truly shined. Even if a player made the catch, they weren't going anywhere with the ball. Compare that to this season, and you can see a reason why he was cut- he was unable to stop the receiver. Of course, Phillip Adams resides at the bottom of this list, which shows that despite all of his potential, he must learn to limit to the opposing receiver, or he'll get the Ventrone treatment.
Molden is making a good showing with solid tackling and has positioned himself in the number two spot in the rankings. Dare I say that he's outperformed McCourty with his snaps at cornerback? Possibly. McCourty will still have his spot, but it's nice to know there won't be drop off with Molden- or maybe that is cause for concern?
We also see some regressions from McCourty and Arrington in yards per reception, which is cause for concern as it's a universal decline. However, it's worth noting that their yards per attempt numbers basically reversed.
Looking at the slot, are you surprised that 2009 Wilhite was the most successful slot corner of the past few years? I am. It goes to show either how difficult the position is, or how poorly the Patriots evaluate the slot corner position.
Let's breakdown these numbers:
1. Bodden from 2009 had the best season for a Patriots cornerback over the past few years. He mixed great coverage with sound tackling and by never being out of position.
2. McCourty from 2010 had an excellent season. His coverage could have used some improvement as he allowed a few too many completions and, ultimately, the completion rate is why Bodden ranked higher.
3. This season's Arrington is playing excellent football and, while playing well, is still a stage below last season's McCourty. Despite his excellent completion rate, he is allowing far too many yards per pass and needs to find ways to limit yards in his direction.
4. Molden is a surprise and, while allowing a worrisome percentage of passes, is preventing yards after the catch like a fiend. That means he's close to the ball and close to making a play. If he continues to improve, maybe those yards will decrease.
5. Adams is the complete opposite of Molden. He's preventing yards and he's preventing completions- but he's allowing ridiculous yards after the catch. While that's the nature of the slot game, he still has to improve.
6. McCourty is showing up as extremely mediocre. Average yards against. Average yards after catch. Horrifying completion rate. For whatever reason, McCourty hasn't been able to prevent passes in his direction and, until he figures that out, he'll continue to be a worry.
7. Arrington from 2010 is the best comparison to this season's McCourty. Average play, with a high percentage of completions. Arrington has somehow prevented some of those completions this season and, as a result, has improved his ranking.
8. Dowling gets the raw end of the deal as his stats are extremely skewed. Three completions, at least one is a miracle, all for 20+ yards. Don't read too much into this one.
9. Bodden from this season was a worry. He had an average completion against rate. Beyond that, he was allowing yards left and right, most likely due to his injury. He was unable to fulfill his job.
10. Wilhite from 2009. There he is. The worst corner of the past few seasons. Do you remember watching him and saying to yourself, "For every good play he made, he ruined three others," or "He's not the worst I've seen, but he's definitely below average." Well, that basically sums him up. Below average in all aspects.
So where does this all leave us? We have some food for thought:
1. Antwaun Molden has potential as a cornerback in this league.
2. Devin McCourty is allowing an alarming amount of passes- and they seem to be the same passes each time.
3. Kyle Arrington's improvement may be a facade. Is he making plays to prevent the completions, or is he benefiting from terrible throws in his direction?
4. Leigh Bodden deserved the axe.
5. 2009 Leigh Bodden was the best corner of the past few seasons. 2010 Devin McCourty wasn't too far behind.
Hopefully Devin McCourty can find a way to prevent the completions coming in his direction (and that's where I'll start doing more film breakdowns). Hopefully Kyle Arrington can prevent more yards. Hopefully this secondary can fall into place.
After looking at all the pieces, they seem to be middle of the road as the #3, #4, #5, and #6 corners of the past three seasons. These young players have potential and plenty of room to improve. Let's see them make those improvements before the playoffs.