The New England Patriots parted ways with four of their top five cornerbacks this off-season, as Darrelle Revis (Jets), Brandon Browner (Saints), Kyle Arrington (Ravens), and Alfonzo Dennard (Cardinals) shipped off in different directions. Third-year cornerback Logan Ryan is the top returning corner on the roster, along with rising sophomore Malcolm Butler.
This is not ideal.
As a counter to all of these losses, the Patriots were a heavy favorite to take a cornerback early in the draft. Instead, they invested in their defensive line and brought in a pair of veterans in free agency: Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain. McClain is expected to take over in the slot for Arrington. Fletcher's role might be bigger than you would expect.
Fletcher made headlines last season for allowing the most passing yards in the entire league, and setting the record high for Pro Football Focus' post-2007 archives. He was viewed as one of the worst cornerbacks in the league by most scouting reports, and the idea of Fletcher taking over for Revis made more than a few Patriots fans sick to their stomachs.
However, according to Football Outsiders, Fletcher might be a hidden gem out of free agency. They had him ranked 36th overall out of all cornerbacks in the league- not quite a CB1, but a more-than-viable CB2. Fletcher posted five games against top ten wide receivers (Dez Bryant, DeSean Jackson, Jordy Nelson), which hurt his numbers, but he was an otherwise positive impact player.
Fletcher is the victim of two excuses that I've rolled out for players who struggled on the Patriots.
First, he's similar to Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, who really struggled early on in the season. Solder's production was sub-par when he lined up with Marcus Cannon, Jordan Devey, and Josh Kline, yet he regained most of his cornerstone form when aligned with Dan Connolly. Solder's play fell when he was surrounded by the weakest starting guards in the league.
Fletcher was playing in a 2011-Patriots-esque secondary, where he had no help at safety. He couldn't trust the players lined up behind him, and it resulted in numerous plays over the top of the coverage. With All Pro safety Devin McCourty at free safety, Fletcher will have a better support network, and some of those big gains he allowed will evaporate.
Second, he's also similar to the aforementioned Josh Kline. Kline had to act as a spot starter for a few games last season, and he was often the focus of the defense's attack. This isn't to say that Kline was bad- it's just that the talent he faced was absurd. Over his career, Kline has faced top players like Randy Starks, Haloti Ngata, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Kyle Williams, and Marcell Dareus- and then he helped pave a road against the Colts.
That's not an exaggeration- Kline's only lined up against Pro Bowl or All Pro talent, and then the Colts. That's his body of work, and he's looked serviceable- which means that he's probably an above average talent.
Fletcher faced a gauntlet of receivers in T.Y. Hilton, DeSean Jackson, Odell Beckham Jr., Michael Floyd, Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, and Dez Bryant. That's ten games against top 20 receivers and an obvious reason for why Fletcher posted terrible numbers.
Along with Ryan and Butler, Fletcher offers the Patriots a chance to have three CB2s on the roster, which might be good enough with the revamped New England front. Maybe Butler can take a step forward in his consistency and become that CB1 that fans are clambering for. But whatever you do, don't count out Fletcher just yet.