In six months, the defending World Champion New England Patriots will open the 2015 NFL season. We do not know who their opponent will be. We do not know who will play for the Patriots either. One of the only things we know is that the defense – especially on the back end – will look different.
With All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis agreeing on a 5-year, $70 million contract with the New York Jets and Brandon Browner's free agency status up in the air, the Patriots secondary will see some changes in 2015 – not only in terms of personnel, but probably also in terms of scheme.
With Revis and Browner in the fold, the Patriots were able to play tight man-to-man coverage, using hybrid cover 1 and cover 3 looks with free safety Devin McCourty as the deep presence. The scheme perfectly fit the strengths of the players: Revis and Browner were asked to lock down the outside, while McCourty could patrol the deep middle of the field.
Outside of McCourty, however, the Patriots simply do not have the players to employ this scheme in 2015. What will they therefore do? The keyword is "adjust".
A look at the current Patriots secondary (which will definitely look different in six months) shows us that the Patriots have players, who can play different styles of defense.
Cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington as well as safety Duron Harmon are best suited to play in space and when the play evolves in front of them.
Alfonzo Dennard, Tavon Wilson and Patrick Chung, on the other hand, are physical players, not shying away from contact near the line of scrimmage. Dennard – a solid press-man corner – has previously been a two year starter prior to Browner's arrival.
Malcolm Butler – he of recording the Super Bowl clinching interception – displayed an ability to play man-to-man coverage during limited snaps last season, while the recently re-signed McCourty is versatile and good enough to line up as both a cornerback and a safety; he has shown an ability to play in both man-coverage as well as in zone schemes.
One thing that historically makes the Bill Belichick Patriots as good as they are, is the coaching staff's willingness to adapt its scheme, depending on the personnel. With Revis and Browner in the fold, the team ran more man-coverage because it suited the players best. Without those two, New England, as pointed out by NESN's Doug Kyed, might switch to more of a cover 2 zone-approach, like the one they played prior to acquiring Aqib Talib in 2012.
The majority of currently employed secondary players look best suited to play in such a zone-based scheme as they either already have experience in doing so (Arrington, McCourty) or are projected to fit well due to their skill set (Ryan, Harmon). Therefore, it would put them in the best position to be successful; something Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will definitely consider when implementing and working on this year's defensive schemes.
A player of Revis' caliber cannot be replaced easily; it is a team effort that ranges from changing the coverage schemes to shoring up the pass rush (the Patriots might address this via Nick Fairley and Jabaal Sheard, who were both linked to the team at one point during free agency). By looking at the current secondary depth, a change from man to zone coverage seems like the way to go in order to get the best out of the different talents on the roster.
Darrelle Revis has left but all is not lost because the Patriots will continue to do what they have always done: adjust.