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Countdown to Patriots Camp: Defensive back

07.25.12 at 10:18 pm ET
By

Devin McCourty (AP)

In the days leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we’ll take a quick look at how each position shakes out. We’ve looked at quarterback, tight end, running back, wide receivers and offensive line. Now, it’s the defensive backs:

Roster: Cornerbacks Devin McCourty, Sterling Moore, Malcolm Williams, Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington, Will Allen, Alfonzo Dennard and Marquice Cole. Safeties Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, Patrick Chung, James Ihedigbo, Nate Ebner and Ross Ventrone.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW:

By now, the Patriots should have a pretty good idea of what they have in Devin McCourty. After McCourty’s first year, the Patriots likely believed they had something of a Revis clone on their hands, and put him into situations last season where he was asked to shadow the opponents’ best receiver. McCourty was quickly exposed and the Patriots dialed back on his responsibilities, even using him at safety at the end of the season. That single-coverage scalding he got from some of the best receivers in the league (Brandon Marshall, Vincent Jackson) caused a crisis of confidence for the defensive back, which hounded him all year. Now, New England realizes that McCourty’s long-term future is somewhere between his first and second seasons. That means while his days of imitating a shutdown corner are over, he can still be a very important part of the Patriots’ secondary.

In the Patriots’ secondary, versatility is paramount. New England has three defensive backs who have played both corner and safety at a high level, with McCourty and Moore turning the trick last season and Wilson doing the same as a collegian at Illinois. Meanwhile, Gregory has played both safety spots in the NFL, and even spent some time at receiver in college. And that doesn’t take into account the fact that guys like Arrington and Allen have played both in the slot and split wide, and Chung has frequently been asked to play the “star” position. As they say around Foxboro, the more you can do, the more you can do for us.

The back end of the defensive back depth chart has some important special teamers, and that includes the new faces. Brown and Williams showed up often on special teams last year, while Cole and Ebner figure to get most of their reps on special teams this season.

THREE QUESTIONS

What exactly do the Patriots have in Ras-I Dowling? We asked this question in regards to rookie Alfonzo Dennard earlier this month, but it also applies to Dowling. The Virginia product has shown tantalizing flashes in his relatively brief NFL career. He was talented enough to start the regular-season opener last season against the Dolphins as a rookie and play 67 of a possible 77 defensive snaps, but suffered a hip injury in Week 2 and was lost for the year. Based on his injury history as a collegian, it’s worth asking if he’ll turn out to be the only occasionally healthy defensive back who will always be battling injuries? (Type “Ras-I Dowling” into Google and the second suggestion that comes up is “Ras-I Dowling injury.”) Or does he have the mental wherewithal to fight through that and become what many believe he can: an every-down corner in the NFL? He’s one worth watching in camp.

Will Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown get pushed off the back end of the depth chart by new faces like Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson? Barrett and Brown got a lot of snaps at the start of last season, but were eventually surpassed by Ihedigbo and his weekly shoulder injury, with Barrett ending up on season-ending injured reserve with a calf injury and Brown seeing limited playing time over the second half of the season, with the exception of the two final regular-season contests. (To his credit, Brown did become a special teams regular.) But with all the new faces at safety this season, they could be in a real fight for playing time this summer.

Is Patrick Chung ready to make the leap? It’s no surprise that the New England defense was playing its’ best football of the season down the stretch when both Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes were healthy. At this stage of his career, when he’s on the field, he’s a great contributor and a consistent and stabilizing presence at the safety position. If he can put together a healthy 2012, he will put himself in line for a handsome payday (or maybe the franchise tag) at the end of the year when his current contract expires.

By the numbers, courtesy of Nuggetpalooza: Devin McCourty “allowed” 1,115 receiving yards last season, second most in the NFL (Green Bay’s Tramon Williams allowed 1,120), and the most by a Patriots player since they began tracking the stat 17 years ago. The Top 3: McCourty, 1,115 yards (2011); Jimmy Hitchcock, 976 yards (1997); Ty Law, 842 yards (2000).

The skinny: There are a lot of shifting parts in the New England secondary, but with the new faces that were brought in (both in free agency and through the draft), the Patriots have made improvements and built depth at both corner and safety. While there’s no way of knowing how newcomers like Gregory, Allen, Cole and Wilson will fit into the system, it seems unlikely that they’ll leave themselves open to a similar situation as last season, where they had to rely on converts and part-timers like Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater to come up with regular reps at defensive back.

Read More: Countdown to Camp,
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