Everyone understands the contract extension difficulties facing the Patriots front office this season. We've all read about the necessary new deals for incredibly deserving candidates like Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower. Malcolm Butler's spot is slightly different because of his restricted-free-agent status at the end of the year, thus giving him less leverage than his linebacker cohorts. Even so, Butler's expiring contract has garnered significant attention.
But what about another member of Butler's secondary unit that has seemingly been passed over in various panicked salary cap conversations? That is to say, what about Logan Ryan?
Ryan was a third round pick in 2013 out of (where else?) Rutgers. His rookie season was a good one, leading the team with five interceptions. Then, in his sophomore season, the team featured a secondary that included Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. As such, Ryan was relegated to a rotation of nickel corners that included Kyle Arrington and, to a lesser degree, Butler. And, of course, the season culminated with Ryan's now-Pro-Bowler teammate ending the Super Bowl with an interception.
The offseason that followed saw the Patriots shed what seemed like all of the cornerbacks that exist. Revis back to the Jets. Browner to the Saints. Arrington to the Ravens. All of a sudden, the undrafted free agent and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler was the default number-one corner for the defending champions. And he played like it, earning a Pro Bowl nod in the process.
So, Logan Ryan has been just a little bit overshadowed by his secondary compatriots in the past couple years. But while Butler deserved the praise and acclaim he received in his first season as a full-time starter, Ryan played very well in his own right. And Ryan is the one who is an unrestricted free agent following this season.
Ryan had the best season of his young career in 2015, earning a starting spot alongside Butler in the secondary. Ryan was the team's third-leading tackler with 74, including a team-best 58 solo tackles. He also led the team in interceptions with four. Butler's 15 passes defended narrowly beat out Ryan's 14. Ryan passed the eye test time and time again, being matched up with and absolutely blanketing dynamic receivers like Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked the Patriots secondary a season ago as the best in the NFL, and one of only two teams with four defensive backs with an 80-plus net rating (Ryan, Butler, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty). Of those four, Ryan's net rating was the highest. PFF also rated Ryan as the 11th-best corner in all of football. For the sake of comparison, Butler was ranked 22, Revis was 26 and Browner was dead last at 119.
Ryan was targeted 97 times and allowed 55 completions (56.7 percent) for 788 yards and four scores. That was good for a quarterbacking rating against of 79.9, best among Patriots cornerbacks. In his first preseason action of the season against the Panthers, he recorded an interception.
Butler deserved to make the Pro Bowl and will always be a New England legend and the provider of perhaps the most exciting moment of my life. (I know that's lame -- I'm only 21.) But Logan Ryan might have been the team's best corner last year, and he may be the best one on the roster as this season gets underway. And yet, when it comes to discussions of the expiring contracts on the Patriots defense, Ryan's name has been little more than an afterthought.
Something tells me Ryan's performance didn't escape the notice of Bill Belichick- and it won't escape the notice of executives around the league if he performs as well in 2016 as he did a year ago. Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower are likely to be the number one and two priorities for the Patriots to resign. And they should be, as much of the versatility of what the Patriots do defensively is derived from the incredibly diverse skillsets of the two linebackers. It seems reasonable to expect the team to do whatever they can to keep them both, which will likely mean using the franchise tag on one of the two of them.
When it comes to the cornerbacks, there is a good deal more uncertainty. If the Patriots are reluctant to extend Butler long-term given the leverage they have over the restricted free agent to be, they can likely retain him at least for another year using the first round tender valued around $4 million. If that's the case, they may be more inclined to use some extra space to sign Ryan to a longer deal and put off a Butler extension until after the 2017 season. However, if, say, Jamie Collins plays 2017 on the franchise tag, it would likely be difficult to fit extensions for both players under the salary cap.
With all the hoopla surrounding what has been called the "big three" of impending free agents on the defensive side, Logan Ryan has gone largely unmentioned. And if rookie corner Cyrus Jones proves himself worthy of significant playing time and performs well, it's possible that the Pats don't fight hard to keep Ryan after the season given his UFA status. Most see Butler as the most valuable impending free agent the Patriots have in the secondary. And they could be right.
But if the team prioritizes resigning Butler over Ryan, no one should be surprised if Ryan receives a pretty generous contract on the open market. In a league dominated by passing offenses, he proved himself to be a well-above-average cornerback. Whether or not it is by the Patriots, eight months from now, Ryan will be paid like one. The young corner has spent his whole career overshadowed, both by big-name free agents and out-of-nowhere stars, by fellow cornerbacks and other defensive standouts. But Logan Ryan has earned more notice.
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