The Patriots Training Camp starts in three weeks. At that time, the Patriots season will kick off in earnest and go non-stop through (hopefully) February. In this lull, the rest of the sports landscape in Boston sees the Red Sox getting swept by Oakland (Freaking Oakland!?!) on the west coast; the Celtics are shuffling money around to try and build a bench and go (Brandon) Bass fishing; and the Bruins are keeping goalie Tim Thomas until some one's starting goalie blows out a knee, apparently.
Outside of Tom Brady at Quarterback and the Special Teams Specialists trio, questions abound going into training camp for the Patriots. I want to see how things shake down on offense and who ends up where on defense. The offensive line and running backs got some lover earlier. Let's jump in to the third installment of all things Patriots a look on the other side of field starting with the...
It seems odd seeing the Patriots secondary referred to without "much-maligned" in front of it. This unit took a lot of (deserved) abuse this past year. To simplify matters, let's break them out into Cornerbacks and Safeties to simplify:
The two starters are likely Devin McCourty on one corner, Kyle Arrington as the third (slot) corner, and healthy at last, Ras-I Dowling on the opposite corner. Dowling and McCourty are huge question marks heading into their second and third seasons respectively. Dowling impressed enough in limited pre-season time to warrant a starting spot last season until injuries (as they had done in college) derailed him. McCourty, after a sensational rookie season, got torched repeatedly last year, even warranting a move to safety at the end of the season. Arrington had numerous interceptions last season, but did not make any lists as any kind of shut-down cornerback.
Arrington fits best in the slot, being able to stay with the small, quick receivers in the open field. Dowling has great size, and--if healthy--can be what the Patriots missed more than anything else last year: someone capable of covering the large, dynamic wide receiver in the Brandon Marshall, Andre Johnson, and the like who have had field days against New England in the past. McCourty, who excelled in primarily zone coverage in 2010, had significant difficulties with more man-to-man coverage last season getting torched early and often. Whether it was a loss of confidence, a lack of safety support without James Sanders and Brandon Merriweather playing behind him, or some kind of combination, the Patriots definitely need McCourty to bounce back to his 2010 level. Without better corner play, the Patriots have no chance to shut down opposing offenses. The Patriots have desperately needed that 3-and-out defense, that big stop, that big turn-over, that defense take over a game and jump-start the offense.
Sterling Moore, he of the huge break-up in the end zone at the end of the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough against the Ravens, should benefit from a training camp in the defense and lock-up the dime cornerback role. Moore showed flashes of good play and potential, but is far from starting cornerback caliber at this time. Alfonzo Dennard is the enigma, considered a potential second-day pick who dropped to the7th round due to an idiotic arrest right before the draft. Dennard has talent, the question is what he does with his opportunity.
Marquice Cole, the former Jet, is solely a special-teams player. If he is on the field, the Patriots are in trouble on defense. Malcolm Williams is a long shot who needs to blow-up on special teams to make the team. He is fighting in camp just to be seen and maybe just get on another team's radar to get picked up after cut-downs.
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As with the cornerbacks, at safety it is safe to pencil in Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, and possibly second-round pick Tavon Wilson as starters going into this season. Chung is, when healthy (there's that phrase again), the star of the secondary. Speed, athleticism, strength, and smarts define the young leader of the secondary. Without Chung (and LB Jerod Mayo) at full strength, the defense noticeably suffers. Chung is a leader and potential Pro Bowl safety who must take the next step this season.
Steve Gregory is the "free safety" in the defense (though Bill Belichick will say that their is no strong or free safety in the defense) and his strength is the deep part of the field and coverage. His role will allow Chung to play in the box more, and play to his strengths instead of playing "center field" in the defense and reacting instead of attacking. Expect Gregory to allow Chung to maximize his play-making abilities going after tight-ends, slot receivers, and running backs; more big hits, more turnovers should result.
Tavon Wilson, like Tackle Sebastian Vollmer two years ago, had the draft "experts" frantically flipping through their notes to find out exactly who this guy was that Bill Belichick plucked out of nowhere. Where Wilson was drafted doesn't matter once the games start for real, what matters is what he does on the field. Fast, strong, and smart, Wilson has all the attributes Bill Belichick looks for in finding another safety to replace the "mistake" of Brandon "Big Bang Clock" Merriweather. Wilson can cover tight ends, he can run and cover deep, and he's able to make the plays in the passing game. How quickly he gets the defense down will dictate how much he can make an impact on the field. As far as him being picked in the first 50 picks, remember, Illinois was coached by Ron Zook, aka Friend of Bill Belichick. Who knows what was passed on that other teams may have missed about him.
James Ihedigbo rejoined the team recently and adds some depth to the safety position, and with veteran Will Allen on board, the team finally has some decent depth at the position. Ihedigbo reminds one of James Sanders, a veteran lacking big time athleticism but making up for it with intelligence. Ditto for Allen, who also has the potential to fill-in at cornerback in a pinch if need be. With his strong special teams play, players such as the oft-injured Josh Barrett and one of the biggest disappointments of 2011, Sergio Brown have a long road to make the team. Ross Ventrone faces a fight with rookie rugby star Nate Ebner to make the roster as a special teams maniac, and even money leans toward Ebner making the practice squad, and Ventrone getting cut and re-signed another 15 times this season.
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The secondary is going to be under scrutiny this season. Long a strength of the team in the glory days of the early 2000s with Lawyer Milloy at safety and later Rodney Harrison, and also with Ty Law and later Asante Samuel at cornerback. The secondary has deteriorated into a weakness, coinciding with defensive whiz kid secondary coach Eric Mangini leaving to start Spygate, flame out in New York and Cleveland, and finally land on TV. When the secondary improves, the defense improves. The team needs the veterans to contribute and the kids to step up and make plays. If that happens, a good team becomes scary good.
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