I want to apologize again for my lack of posting lately. I make the move down to Raleigh, NC this Friday, so I've had to spend the majority of my time getting boxes packed and saying goodbye to family. I'll try and make amends by putting up my cornerback preview today! Thank you all for reading again, it means a lot! -Jared
Last year was quite a strange year for the Patriots secondary.
Statistically, they weren't bad. Actually, not bad at all. The Patriots defense as a whole ranked sixteenth in the NFL in points allowed--not a terrible number by any means. Meanwhile, Kyle Arrington, their primary slot cornerback, had the season of his life--leading the NFL in interceptions with eight. Sounds like a good year, right? Well, it wasn't. Not even close.
The Patriots were dealt a low blow early, with second-round pick Ras-I Dowling being knocked out early with a torn tendon in Week One. He was forced to miss the rest of the season with this injury.
This cast of guys in the secondary seemed to have several opportune turnovers chances. A 'guys were in the right place at the right time' sort of thing. The best example was Sterling Moore blowing a coverage in the AFC Championship, but having just enough time to knock the ball out of Lee Evans' hands to save a game-winning touchdown. I myself voted that as the top Patriots moment of 2011, but Lady Luck had a lot to do with it.
For starters, starting cornerback Devin McCourty had an awful season, following a pro bowl rookie season. McCourty was burnt left and right by opposing receivers. He just looked lost out there. The coaches had to move him to safety to see if he could find his game there. But he looked even worse there.
To reconcile, the Patriots had to bring aboard young, inexperienced players Antwaun Molden and Nate Jones and were forced to give them significant action in the secondary. Not only that, but they used wide receiver Julian Edelman as a cornerback, in the PLAYOFFS. That's just a recipe for disaster. And saying it was a disaster was an understatement.
But as Bill Belichick says "that was last year, it's time to move forward".
Even though the Patriots are bringing back most of the 2011 guys, they now have a full offseason to prepare for the upcoming season. The Patriots did make a few changes--the most notable was the drafting of a high-ceiling cornerback in Alfonzo Dennard in the seventh round. They brought in special teamer Marquice Cole and practice squad member Malcolm Williams to replace the departing Molden and Jones.
Let's take a look at how each guy stacks up in the race for a roster spot:
Roster Locks: Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Sterling Moore
Even though he had an atrocious 2011 campaign, McCourty is by no means a lost cause. We've just to hope he can keep up with some of the best receivers in the NFL, as he did in his rookie season. With a full offseason to work to fix some things in his game, McCourty should be a better player in his third NFL season. Sometimes, the best players need to be knocked down a few times too. Helps them get right back up, and claim what is theirs.
Complimenting the primary cover-corner McCourty, I've got Dowling and Arrington as starters. Dowling, I have working as the right cornerback, while I've got the reigning NFL interception leader back in the slot. If Dowling can get 100% healthy, and Arrington can avoid the expected significant drop off from 2011, they will be in good shape.
I have Moore as a lock because I believe the Bill Belichick likes him a lot, and he's got versatility as a safety in addition to being a cornerback. If the former UDFA can continue making steps of improvement, he could once again come and handy for the Patriots, as he did in the AFC Championship.
On The Bubble: Alfonzo Dennard, Marquice Cole, Malcolm Williams
This is where it gets interesting. In my projections, I have the Patriots carrying five cornerbacks, with the versatile safety/corner Will Allen as insurance as a sixth. These three guys have their chances to sneak in and get that fifth spot.
Currently, the rookie Dennard is nursing a sore hamstring, and hasn't seen action since early in Training Camp. I had him as an absolute lock to begin camp, but this injury may take more time than expected to heal. If it continues to nag and prove a problem, putting him on PUP or IR may not be a bad idea. Give him time to heal, and sort out all of his legal troubles--and have him back in 2013. But if the injury isn't a big issue, he should get the final spot. Hands down.
If Dennard's injury continues to be a problem, this opens up the door for either Cole or Williams to make it. Cole, the savoy special teamer formerly of the Jets, could be an intriguing addition to the unit. Williams, meanwhile played two games last season for New England. If they needed a familiar face, he's their guy. He's also got practice squad eligibility, if that's the route they want to take.