The New England Patriots have a chance to field one of the top secondaries in the league for 2017. FS Devin McCourty and CB Malcolm Butler were both Second Team All Pro nods in 2016, while CB Stephon Gilmore and SS Patrick Chung round out an incredibly balanced secondary.
But the Patriots spend the vast majority of their time with five defensive backs on the field. Teams often have to throw against the New England in order to close a deficit, or they just operate out of a standard spread attack.
So who will be the Patriots fifth defensive back on the field for the 2017 season?
I argue that the Patriots will pick their fifth defensive back based upon opposing personnel and that no individual player will hold down the role full time. Here are the players and their games to perform.
CB Eric Rowe
The 6’1, 205 pound Rowe boasts 4.45s 40 yard speed and a 6.70s three cone time. He’s got length to defend the pass and quickness to match up against a variety of receivers, but I believe he’ll be asked to match up against some of the basketball-sized receivers in 2017.
Rowe matched up against Bengals WR A.J. Green and Falcons WR Julio Jones in 2016 and I expect him to hold a similar role in 2017. The Panthers, Chargers, and Jets all have multiple receivers that are larger than the normal receiver and Rowe should line up opposite of Gilmore with Butler in the slot against these teams.
The Raiders and Bills project to have a third receiver that stands taller than normal as a “big slot” with a job that could also fall to Cyrus Jones.
CB Jonathan Jones
Jonathan Jones has been a standout in camp this year and his straight-line abilities could be a good counter to a noticeable weakness in the Patriots defense. The Patriots defensive backs struggled at times to keep up with speedy wide receivers in 2016 and only the ineptitude of opposing quarterbacks (with an assist from McCourty) prevented some deep shots from connecting.
Jones was a stout run defender in his few opportunities and while he doesn’t have the same short-area quickness of his teammates, but his 4.33s 40 yard speed is the best in the secondary and would be helpful in defending these deep ball receivers.
CB Cyrus Jones
Cyrus Jones is looking for a rebound season and he should still be a part of the team’s vision for the future. Cyrus Jones offers the short-area quickness that Jonathan Jones lacks and would be a solid counter to some of the smaller slot receivers on the schedule.
There’s a very real chance that Rowe would take all of these games with Butler moving off of Tyreek Hill, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown to cover an easier option on an island, with Rowe stepping up with safety help- but it’s too early to count Cyrus Jones out.
FS Duron Harmon
Games: Texans (TE Ryan Griffin)
Harmon won’t get the credit as a nickelback, but he’ll be the main fifth defender against two-tight end sets. Almost every team has a two-tight end package, so Harmon will see plenty of time, but the Texans are the only one on the schedule that operate out of a two-tight end base offense. The Buccaneers, Saints, Chiefs, Chargers, and Raiders are other teams that should rely on a substantial amount of two-tight end packages.