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Countdown to Camp: Cornerbacks

07.19.13 at 11:32 pm ET
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As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We’€™ve looked at the special teamers/specialists, linebackers and safeties. Now, it’€™s the cornerbacks:

Depth chart: Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington, Marquice Cole, Brandon Jones, Stephon Morris, Logan Ryan.

Overview: The Patriots got a boost midway through the 2012 season when they acquired Aqib Talib from the Bucs, and while Talib wasn’€™t a world-class cover corner, the move allowed them to shuffle a few bodies around and play to the strengths of the defensive backs they already had on the roster. As a result, the pass defense numbers improved across the board over the course of the 2012 season. With Talib signing a one-year deal to return for 2013 — and providing that Dennard will be around for at least a sizable portion of the season, providing he steers clear of off-field troubles — the combo of Talib and Dennard on the outside and Arrington in the slot is a good starting point for this group of corners. Meanwhile, Dowling enters his third season in the league as a question mark — his health has derailed two decent starts. Cole has positive special teams value, while Ryan and Morris will likely start the season competing to provide depth and assistance on special teams.

Three Things We Know:

1. This group improved as the season went on. Much of it was due to the arrival of Talib, but going back and rewatching film of the 2012 season, it was easy to see Dennard’€™s evolution into a fully-formed NFL corner and that Arrington’€™s slightly more physical brand of play fit better in the slot than on the outside. No one preaches team defense more than the Patriots, but by any metric you want to use (passing yards allowed, points allowed, etc.), the pass defense improved over the course of the 2012 season, and a sizable portion of that was due to the play of the cornerbacks.

2. With this lineup, Arrington is better fit in the slot than he is outside. Arrington has been a solid contributor wherever he has played over the course of his career (he had seven picks and 15 passes defensed in 2011, mostly on the outside), but he really seemed to click when it came to playing in the slot last season. He doesn’€™t have high-end, elite speed or exceptional footwork, but he does a nice job closing on the ball, competitive, and is a good help defender. In this era of wide-open passing attacks, Arrington is a quality presence working against some of the better slot receivers in the league. (For what it’€™s worth, after he was kicked inside, he showed a real flair for getting his hands on the ball, finishing with eight passes defensed over the last eight games of the season. And not that this means a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but he’€™s pretty stout against the run — Pro Football Focus has him as the 17th-best corner in the league when it comes to run defense.)

3. There’€™s not a lot of room for error here, at least when it comes to competing with the best in the league. After Talib went down in the AFC title game, the lack of depth in the secondary — particularly at corner — was exposed. Cole was an integral on special teams last year, but the Patriots were forced to have him place significant snaps in the most important game of the season. Not an ideal situation. There’s no telling what sort of impact youngsters like Morris and Ryan could ultimately end up having, but at this point, it’s safe to say the Patriots need their best corners to stay healthy all year if they want to play deep into January.

Three Questions

1. What sort of impact can Talib have with a full year in the program? As we said previously, Talib wasn’€™t a Pro Bowler by any stretch, but was able to provide New England with some help when it came to getting the most out of its defensive backs. Now, with a full offseason in Foxboro under his belt, he figures to be more at ease in the system as he starts his first full season as a member of the Patriots. One thing that worked out nicely for both sides is that Talib essentially signed a one-year, ‘€œshow-me’€ deal where it’€™s in his best interest to play as well as possible, stay healthy and out of trouble, and go back to the open market next spring. The Patriots hope that will be enough of an incentive for him to put together an impactful season.

2. What sort of future does Dennard have in Foxboro? We’€™ll see if Friday’€™s report that the team does not plan to cut Dennard holds up. (If he does end up sticking around, it wouldn’€™t be a surprise if he still faced some sort of discipline.) If he’€™s in the lineup, the continuity the defensive backfield built down the stretch — with the Dennard-Talib-Arrington combo at corner — should bring positive results in 2013.

3. What is a reasonable level of expectation for Dowling? At this point in his career, you can’€™t talk about Dowling as the sort of player you can depend upon. Sure, the coaching staff thought enough of him to have him start his first two games as a rookie, but since then, he’€™s been dogged by injury, and now, as a result, has a giant question mark next to his name. The 33rd overall pick of the 2011 draft, his first two years in the league have ended prematurely with trips to season-ending IR. When he’€™s been healthy, the 24-year-old has been an intriguing physical presence in the secondary ‘€” at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he brings a size that New England had been lacking at corner for several years, at least until Talib came along. But Dowling now has to prove that he can stay healthy for an entire season before the Patriots start to lean on him seriously.

By the numbers: 75.6. Per Pro Football Focus, the total quarterback rating for signal-callers who were throwing in Dennard’€™s coverage area in 2012, 27th best in the NFL. It represents the lowest number for any cornerback on the New England roster. (In his time at corner, Devin McCourty ranked second on the team at 78.2, while Talib was third at 103.7.) For comparisons sake, Green Bay corner Casey Hayward led the league at 31.1.)

Key new player: Ryan. A bit of a wild card at this point — he has yet to put the pads on — but in a perfect world, the 5-foot-11, 191-pounder spends his rookie year providing depth at corner and working on special teams. The book on Ryan is that while he’€™s an aggressive corner when it comes to working in man coverage, that physical play can also be his downfall in that he doesn’€™t have the elite speed to match and can’€™t make up ground when he bites on fakes. However, he’€™s known as a good zone defender, and for what it’€™s worth, was one of the top performers in the 3-cone drill at the combine, an area the Patriots’€™ scouts put a lot of stock in.

(Here’€™s the scouting report on Ryan from his college coach Kyle Flood: ‘€œLogan is a total package in terms of being a complete player, both on and off the field. In terms of a player comparison to someone who is in the league right now, he’€™s the closest player I’€™ve ever seen to Devin McCourty. I had the pleasure of being head coach last year, and watching Logan work over the course of the season, and I know from a skill-set comparison, Logan will do well in coach Belichick’€™s system. They cover well and are good against the run — they’€™re both physical guys. But really, they’€™re much more than that — from the moment they hit the field, they always do the right thing. I will say that Logan and Devin might be the two best practice and game players I’€™ve seen come through this program: Guys who just do it every day — every rep, all the time. They’€™re two great examples for us as a program to use when it comes to younger players. When you see a guy work as hard as they do, it’€™s hard not to follow along.’€)

The skinny: A lot of the expectations are tied up in Dennard’€™s future, but if he’€™s back on the field on a consistent basis for the Patriots in 2013 — and the group stays healthy — there’€™s every reason to think that this group will be just as competitive as they were late in 2012. A full year in the system for Talib and more time in the slot for Arrington would be good, but if they could also keep Dennard out of trouble and get anything at all from Dowling and/or Ryan, that would be the best possible scenario for New England.

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