|A big sophomore leap from Malcolm Butler would transform a suspect looking secondary into a solid unit|
There's no way around it: this year's secondary wont be able to match the output of last year's great unit. In fact, no one knows what this year's group can do, as it features more question marks than sure things. If a few things break their way, this group has the on-paper talent to be an asset to the defense. If too many players don't emerge as the team hopes, they could become a liability on the back end.
There's no shortage of options at the position, so lets jump right into the candidates.
Lets get this out of the way: Malcolm Butler is more than that one play. It's highly unlikely that any play from his career matches the magnitude of a Super Bowl winning interception on the goal line, but the Patriots hope in a breakout season from him is rooted in far more than that singular moment.
The Butler hype actually began around this time last year, as the undrafted free agent from West Alabama began to demand coaches and players attention with his play on the practice field. That performance translated onto the field during the preseason, when Butler held opposing quarterbacks to a Geno Smith-esque 55% completion percentage with no touchdowns and two passes defensed. That promising play was enough to earn him a roster spot despite playing arguably the most loaded position on the depth chart.
Earning a roster spot was a major accomplishment in itself. Given the proven NFL talent ahead of him on the depth chart, things would have to go seriously wrong health-wise for Butler to earn meaningful regular season reps. He only saw action in seven regular season games, totaling only 187 snaps. While most of those snaps came in garbage time, there were plenty of impressive flashes, including a two week stretch that saw him allow only 6 receptions in 13 targets against the talented outside weapons of the Bears and Broncos (including Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas).
The Patriots trusted those flashes just by making Butler active for the Super Bowl, and their faith was obviously rewarded once it became clear that Arrington lacked the size and ball skills to match up with Seattle's 6'4" Chris Matthews. Butler got thrown into the rotation at outside corner and held up despite becoming an instant target for Russell Wilson. Butler was targeted six times in his 18 snaps, but only allowed two catches. One of those, of course, came after Butler made a ridiculously athletic play to deflect a deep ball, only for the ball to make a fortuitous bounce right into the hands of Jermaine Kearse. That, of course, set up Seattle on the goal line for the potential game winning touchdown, which set up, well, you know...
Throughout the regular season and postseason, Butler allowed a measly 51.5% of his targets to be completed. It's admittedly a small sample size (17 of 33), but still impressive for any corner, let alone an undrafted rookie. The Patriots obviously have high hopes for him, as they wouldn't have him taking all of his reps with the Ones if they didn't envision him making the leap to full-time starter this year. Even more telling, he's spent quite a bit of time in OTAs and the early portions of training camp matched up one-on-one with Julian Edelman. That was an assignment Revis himself was drawing at this time last year, and assignment most opponents will leave to their top corner.
There's a lot to like about Butler's game. He's a smooth, fluid athlete with excellent ball skills, as evidenced by his six passes defensed and one huge interception in only 33 targets. At 5'11" and 190 pounds, he's not necessarily a big corner, but he's not undersized either, and he proved last year that his leaping ability, length and ball skills make him competitive even when matched up against big number one receivers like Marshall and Thomas. Of the Patriots current corners, it's safe to say he has the highest upside and their best option against other teams stars.
Of course, there's a big difference between being the best option and being a good option against opposing team's star wideouts. Matchups loom this season with the likes of Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas, Odell Beckham Jr, Desean Jackson and Sammy Watkins, and Butler's ability to compete with that kind of superstar talent will play a huge factor in the team's chances at a title repeat.
|Brown, shown here playing against the Patriots last September|
Brown's peak came during his tenure with the Niners, where he was a starter on a defense that propelled the team to three consecutive NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl appearance. Over his three season span as a starter in San Francisco (2011-2013), quarterbacks completed just 58.9% of their passes against him, with as many touchdowns (8) as interceptions and another 35 passes defensed.
Now, any corner will benefit from great front seven play, and suffer when the pass rush fails to chip in. Thus, it was no surprise to see Brown's performance take a hit across the board moving from the loaded defenses of the Niners to the barren wasteland that was last year's Raiders. Still, given the lack of pass rush around him, Brown's 2014 performance was still fairly impressive, as the veteran allowed 62.7% of his targets to be completed for relatively low yardage (521 yards) and only one touchdown.
Brown is also a very reliable tackler on the outside, something that definitely won't go unnoticed by Bill Belichick. He missed only three tackles all of last season, and has only surpassed that season total as a starter once (his seven missed tackles in 2013 certainly seems to be an aberration when looking at his career as a whole). The role corner backs have in setting an edge and making tackles against outside runs isn't lost on Belichick, and Brown's tackling should help his quest to win a starting role this year.
Despite spending the last four years as an above average starting corner on the outside, Brown was available right until the eve of training camp thanks to a season-ending foot injury that required offseason surgery. His signing by the Patriots was no surprise, as he visited the team twice during offseason. The Patriots were one of a number of teams monitoring his recovery from said foot surgery, with the rival Ravens reportedly amongst the teams they beat out to land his services this year.
The veteran is now healthy and practicing, and with a higher cap hit than any Patriots corner actually on the roster (Darrelle Revis' $5 million dead money charge leads the team), he figures to be in the mix for a starting role. While not an ideal option as a number one corner, Brown has proven to be a more than capable number two in the league. Barring a sudden drop off due to age (Brown turned the dreaded 30 in January), that's the role that he's likely competing for in camp. A solid season under his one year Patriots contract could set himself up what figures to be his last NFL deal, giving him extra motivation to get things done as a productive Patriot.
A third round pick in 2013, Ryan has been competitive but inconsistent during his two season career. He's never been a full-time starter, but has flashed enough as an important depth corner to put himself firmly in the mix this season. With youth on his side, he's certainly in the mix for a starting job, and could very well emerge with one if he impresses with his play this August.
Ryan was touted as a steady, smart corner coming out of Rutgers, but it's actually been his ball skills that have flashed the most over his first two seasons. His rookie season saw him come up with five interceptions and another six passes defensed in 68 targets. In roughly the same amount of targets (71), his second season saw his interceptions drop to two, but his passes defensed increase to 8. Both seasons saw him give up three touchdowns. For his career, he's allowed just 55.3% of his targets to be completed.
Those numbers are pretty impressive, but plenty of them have come from the safety of a depth role, with Ryan covering opposing third and fourth receivers instead of their starters. He's vying for a bigger role this offseason, and will have to prove he can stand up against a higher level of competition. Mistakes like he made in the Super Bowl, when allowing too much cushion gave Seattle's Chris Matthews the space he needed for a critical touchdown, can't happen with regularity if he is to earn a starting job.
Don't get me wrong, Ryan has proved at the very least that he can play at this level. The question is whether his ceiling peaks as a quality depth corner, or whether he has the good to deliver as a starter. He'll certainly get his chances to answer those questions this summer, as early reports from camp have him spending plenty of time with the ones across from Butler, lining up against the Pats top offensive players.
|Physical play will be key to putting a rough 2014 season behind Fletcher|
Lets start with the positives on Fletcher. At 6'0" and 205 pounds, he brings a little more size than most of his competition. That physicality shows up in his run defense, where he's consistently earned solid marks from ProFootballFocus. He also has several impressive seasons under his belt as a physical, press-man corner: a 2010 breakthrough that saw him allow just 51.8% of his targets to be completed with as many picks as touchdowns allowed (4) and 5 passes defensed, a 2012 contract year that saw him hold opposing quarterbacks to a 47.1% completion percentage, and a solid 2013 season with the Eagles during which he maintained solid numbers (57.8% completion percentage against, 3 TDs allowed, 3 INTs, 8 PDs), despite facing a then career high in targets.
However, everything fell apart last season. Letting up big plays was the uncharacteristic killer for Fletcher, who allowed 9(!) touchdowns and a play of 35 or more yards in a remarkable 7 of his 16 games. To put that into context, he had allowed 10 total touchdowns from his rookie year through 2013, a five season span. He also allowed just two plays of 35+ yards in 2014 and just three such plays in his four year Rams career. Those big plays lead to Fletcher surrendering more receiving yards than any corner in football last year (1,072), despite a late season benching after a particularly brutal stretch against the likes of Jordy Nelson, Dez Bryant and Desean Jackson.
There were whispers in Philadelphia that Fletcher "lost his confidence" at some point during last year's debacle of a season. That's understandable, but Fletcher will have to quickly put 2014 in the rear-view mirror if he wants to stay in the league. The constant "do your job, focus on the present" culture of the Belichick Patriots can only help him, but opposing quarterbacks will certainly target him early and often whenever he's on the field after last season. Like any corner, he's going to get beat once in a while. How he recovers will be key to watch.
Prior to last year, injuries were the biggest concern regarding Fletcher. He rookie season was cut short with a double whammy of a torn ACL and LCL. He recovered to play and play well in 2010, but saw his 2011 season cut short after only four games with yet another ACL tear. Fletcher also missed time in 2013 thanks to an early season concussion and midseason pectoral injury.
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned here, but if his mind and body are right, Fletcher has proven capable as a starting cornerback in the league. Last year certainly proved that he is NOT a number one option, and should never be matched up one-on-one with the Dez Bryants of the world. However, his size and physicality could make him a valuable depth option who could be called into a starting role in a pinch if necessary. Like Brown, Fletcher is on a relatively inexpensive one year deal, and is likely playing for his NFL future. We'll see if that motivates him into putting last year behind him.
The sleeper: Darryl Roberts
A seventh round pick out of Marshall, the man known as Swagg was lauded as an excellent value pick by many in the industry. Roberts was actually mocked to the Patriots by ProFootballFocus, who had them landing him five rounds earlier, with the second round pick that turned into Jordan Richards. They also ranked the fourth biggest "draft day steal", two spots below fellow Patriots rookie Trey Flowers.
Roberts thrived in the relative anonmynity of Conference USA football, earning the third best PFF coverage grade amongst non-"Power 5 conference" corners. Those numbers included holding opposing quarterbacks to a 67.1 QB rating when targeting him and a remarkably stingy 29.4% completion percentage on intermediate (11-20 yards) routes. Roberts also allowed 0.88 yards per coverage snap, all while often matching up with the opposition's top wideout.
That's all well and good, but it came against a lower level of competition. Despite that production, it's unlikely Roberts would have been drafted without a phenomenal pro day performance in which he flashed all the tools required to play at the next level. At 6'0" with long arms, Roberts possesses an ideal height/length combo, although at a listed 182 pounds he could use a year in the weight room. More importantly, his athleticism jumped off the charts at his Pro Day, with him posting a 4.36 40 yard dash, 39" vertical leap, and 11'1" broad jump. Those numbers match up with any of the corners taken on the first two days of the draft.
That athleticism translates onto the field, where his natural ability to change directions and make plays on the ball stood out during OTAs and minicamps. In fact, many beat reporters noted that his standout play recalled the breakthrough of Butler last offseason, who kept making plays until he had forced Belichick to keep him on the team. It remains to be seen if Roberts can do anything close to that as a rookie (he certainly has some technique issues that could be ironed out), but he has the physical talent to eventually develop into a starter if all breaks well. That potential, combined with his ability to immediately contribute on special teams, should be enough to earn him a roster spot as the fifth/sixth corner.
It's worth noting that limiting this camp battle to "outside" cornerback duties meant not including Robert McClain, who appears to be the front-runner to take over Kyle Arrington's slot cornerback role. A seventh round pick in 2010, McClain struggled last year, although it's worth noting he didn't get any help from the league's worst pass rush. He best season came in 2012, when he held opposing QBs to a 64.8% completion percentage and a 75 QB rating while holding receivers to 9.2 yards per reception, all solid numbers for a slot CB.
It's also worth noting that how the competition on the outside plays out could affect McClain's status as well. After playing catch up the first few sessions of camp, Brown has recently been promoted to the starting groups in practice, bumping Ryan down from starting to nickel duties. McClain will likely still make the team; Belichick has already offered some public praise for his work ethic, smarts and versatility. However, the losers of the competition to start on the outside (Ryan and Fletcher, by my guess) could cut into his snaps as matchup-specific nickel options.
I believe the best case scenario is for Butler to emerge as the top outside corner, with one of Brown, Ryan or Fletcher playing well enough to hold down the number two role. So far in camp, Butler looks poised to make that jump, as he's not only held up, but impressed going against Julian Edelman every day in practice. My early money is on Brown winning the other starting job based on his rock solid resume, although he faces a steeper learning curve as a late offseason addition. With McClain likely to hold down the slot role, one of the losers from the Brown/Ryan/Fletcher competition could find themselves a surprise cut, with the veterans more vulnerable than Ryan due to his youth, promise shown, and inexpensive contract. If Fletcher does make the team, it will likely be due to his size and physicality, which could prove useful in certain matchups. Finally, I have Darryl Roberts making the team as an immediate special teams contributor and high-upside developmental prospect.