Pro Football Focus ranked the top secondaries in the NFL and there aren’t many surprises at the top. The Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Chargers, and Los Angeles Rams hold the top three spots and that’s hard to dispute. They’ve all invested heavily in their secondaries and have elite players or top draft picks at multiple positions.
And then there’s the New England Patriots, coming in at 13th in the rankings, in what I think is an undervaluing of the squad.
PFF projects Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty to be the starting cornerbacks, with Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, and Patrick Chung rounding out the top five since most teams play nickel the majority of the time.
Gilmore and the McCourty twins all graded over 80 by their metrics, which means they’re above-average players, while Harmon and Chung come in at 79.8 and 79.0 respectively, so they’re on the cusp. So how are there 12 secondaries ahead of a team that can field five above-average players?
“One need look no further than the Super Bowl to see what the loss of Malcolm Butler might do to this defense,” per PFF. “Even during the worst season of his career, Butler was still a key cog on the back end in New England. Signing (Jason) McCourty could help mitigate the loss some, but he put up the bulk of his 83.9 overall grade last year playing zone coverage whereas the Patriots have been traditionally man heavy. McCourty was cut in Tennessee after three straight seasons struggling in man-heavy schemes.”
That’s an interesting thought. How bad was the Patriots secondary in the Super Bowl and will that be representative of the secondary sans Malcolm Butler in 2018?
I want to say “no” because Jason McCourty has played at a higher level than Eric Rowe or any of the other defensive backs the Patriots rotated on the field instead of playing Butler. But their suggestion that Jason has struggled in man coverage in the past definitely gives reasonable pause.
But I’ll counter by saying that Jason struggled playing in a Dick LeBeau-style defense under Ray Horton in 2014-15 and then struggled again under LeBeau himself in 2016. We’ve seen Tom Brady shred the Pittsburgh Steelers with enough regularity to know that the LeBeau-style defense relies heavily on blitzing and that can put defensive backs in a precarious position.
Meanwhile, the Patriots rarely blitz and- without knocking LeBeau’s undeniable influence and import to the game of football- I have confidence that Bill Belichick won’t leave Jason McCourty stranded on the outside.
Ultimately, I think the Patriots are fielding one of the best secondaries in the league, especially if Stephon Gilmore (who is PFF’s #12 ranked cornerback heading into 2018) can build off his outstanding finish to his first year in New England.
By PFF’s own metrics, the Patriots are one of just 9 teams to average over an 80.0 score with their top five defensive backs and have the fifth-highest average. Even if you want to devalue the nickelback and only look at the top four defensive backs, they still rank at the top.
But I would definitely argue that the Patriots defensive backs stack up well against the likes of the Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers, and Denver Broncos, and they don’t have a glaring weakness like the New Orleans Saints, Tennessee Titans, or Detroit Lions.
The Patriots deserve to be on the outside fringe of the top five, not on the outside of the top ten.