For New England Patriots third-year defensive back Devin McCourty, it's been a tale of two different players in his NFL career thus far.
With the Patriots secondary in disarray, McCourty expoloded onto the NFL scene during his rookie season, earning a Pro-Bowl selection and a second-team All-Pro selection. With such early success as a rookie, McCourty seemed to be ready to give the Patriots what they haven't had since Ty Law and Asante Samuel were here: An elite cornerback.
However, with the heightened bar of expectations, he took a giant step backwards in 2011. McCourty was asked by his coaches to get in more one-on-one coverage situations with opposing receivers, and he struggled tremendously with the task.
With his clear struggles at corner, Bill Belichick and his defensive staff moved McCourty to safety, another position of concern, to see if he'd do any better there. He wasn't. Instead of looking like guys like Law and Samuel, McCourty began to look more like Jonathan Wilhite or Darius Butler 2.0.
As I fan of McCourty since his days at Rutgers, his 2011 campaign was very difficult to watch. But luckily enough, the customary "sophomore slump" can happen to almost any talented player. We all know what kind of potential McCourty has, and he's got to prove to Patriots fans that last season was truly a fluke.
When looking at game tape and comparing his rookie and sophomore years, one thing that seems to stand out to me is the presence of fear. I know it all sounds cliche or something Jon Gruden would say on ESPN, but it's true.
During his rookie campaign, I saw a rookie who clearly had things figured out and wasn't afraid to go for the big play. He wasn't afraid to stay right with some of the leagues best, most physical receivers the NFL has to offer, and make a play. Whether it getting one hand to deflect a pass away, or going up and snagging the intended pass in mid air. Because of his fearless mentality, McCourty exceeded expectations and came up with a team-high seven interceptions, putting his name in the pot of some of the best cover-corners in the NFL.
Last season, I saw a more tentative McCourty. He flashed some of his rookie brilliance at times, but that fearless swagger was in absentia for most of the season. He was more fearful of blowing a coverage, that it seemed like he was over thinking himself out there. Because of it, he got burnt, and he got burnt often. McCourty's interception total went from seven to two, and he got scored on almost twice as much as the year before.
On top of all of this, McCourty was thrown for a loop when his coaches decided to play him as an emergency safety. I'm not the one to second guess Bill Belichick's judgement, but I thought that sort of move doesn't help a players search for confidence at all. It actually hurts it, because it shows a clear lack of trust.
With the 2012 season vastly approaching, we're not even sure were McCourty will be playing. Heck, I don't even think he knows. The Patriots appear set to start an incumbent in Pat Chung and free agent acquisition Steve Gregory at safety along rookie second-round pick Tavon Wilson. So my guess is that he'll be sliding back to corner. But things can change.
If McCourty is moved back to his natural position, he's gonna be under a lot of heat. Veteran Kyle Arrington, who is coming off his seven interception year, will likely be McCourty's counterpart at corner. Second-year corner Ras-I Dowling, who was injured most of last season, will likely also be in the mix for playing time.
At a position of weakness in 2011, the cornerback position could be substantially upgraded with a solid year from McCourty in 2012. He's got all of the intangibles, talent and rookie success to become an elite cornerback in this league. But the fate of the position lies with him, and he knows that. Whether or not McCourty finds his rookie mojo will be one of the biggest questions facing the team with the new season just months away.