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Countdown to camp: Defensive back

07.24.14 at 7:00 am ET
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As training camp approaches, we’ve gone through each position and offered a spot by spot breakdown. With camp set to open Thursday, here’s our last positional preview, defensive back. (Check out the complete list here.)

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Alfonzo Dennard (42 tackles, 1 interception, 8 passes defensed), Kyle Arrington (60 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 1 interception, 12 passes defensed), Logan Ryan (41 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 5 interceptions, 1 touchdown, 10 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble), Malcolm Butler; safeties Devin McCourty (75 tackles, 1 interception, 8 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery), Duron Harmon (30 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 passes defensed), Tavon Wilson (2 tackles, 1 interception, 1 touchdown, 1 pass defensed), Kanorris Davis, Nate Ebner, Travis Hawkins, Shamiel Gary; defensive backs Jemea Thomas, Daxton Swanson, Justin Green

Overview: This was a pretty good group last year when everyone was where they were supposed to be: Aqib Talib as the alpha dog, Dennard as the No. 2 corner, Arrington in the slot, McCourty roaming center field and Steve Gregory at strong safety. The problems arose when Talib went down and everyone at corner had to take a step forward — instead of relying on depth, the whole house of cards came crashing down. Never was this more the case than in the AFC title game, when Talib went out early on and Peyton Manning scorched the New England secondary. (No one preaches team defense more than the Patriots, but Talib’€™s absence was the beginning of the end for New England.) After losing Talib in the offseason, the Patriots fundamentally approached the cornerback position using the same approach they did at wide receiver between 2006 and 2007, pushing all their chips to the middle of the table and going after Revis. Provided they stay healthy, the addition of Revis and Browner create an impressive layer of depth at corner — New England can now utilize Dennard as a nickel corner while keeping Arrington in the slot. As for safety, McCourty continues to play free safety at an elite level, but he will be forced to learn how to play alongside a new strong safety after Gregory was cut loose over the offseason. But despite the questions about strong safety, the secondary has become one of the positions of strength on the team, and allow the Patriots to stare down the rest of the top-shelf passing games across the league.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Darrelle Revis changes everything.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of Revis on the New England defense. At several points over the course of the spring, his new teammates (on both sides of the ball) commented on his approach to the game, his overall fitness as a teammate and his ability to affect almost every level of play on the defensive side of the ball. (Our favorite came from wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who gave a weary shake of the head when asked about Revis’ cover skills. ‘Man, Revis is … he’s a guy who has seen it all. None of your tricks are going to work on him.’ It might be unfair to say he’s going to be Revis, circa 2009, who had one of the great seasons for any cornerback in the recent history of the NFL. But if he can effectively take away the lead pass-catcher on a weekly basis and allow the pass rushers to get an extra two seconds to get after the quarterback, he’s done his job.

2. Brandon Browner will be sidelined for the first four games of the regular season.

The new corner will sit out the first month as part of a suspension for violating the league’s PED rules last season. As a result, the Patriots will likely push Dennard back into a starting role, at least on a temporary basis. One of the things New England has to feel good about is the fact that the ban comes at a time where it won’t be facing what could best be described as a top-shelf passing game — of the Dolphins, Vikings, Raiders and Chiefs, the biggest challenge might come from Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith. At the same time, provided Dennard is completely healthy at the open of the regular season, the Revis-Dennard corner combo should be enough to hold the fort until Browner returns to action.

3. Devin McCourty remains the leader of the secondary.

While no one dispute the fact that the Patriots added an elite cornerback in Revis, McCourty will still hold sway as the unquestioned head of the defensive backs. He hasn’t had the most seniority in the system — remarkably, that honor goes to Arrington, who arrived in 2009, one year before McCourty. But the rest of the defensive backs defer to McCourty, who has evolved from an All-Pro corner (second team) as a rookie to one of the better free safeties in the league.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. How quickly can all the new defensive backs get used to playing alongside each other?

No one is disputing that Revis, Browner and McCourty are some of the best at what they do. The positional grouping has a chance to be the best secondary in New England since the 2003 team that had Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Tyrone Poole, a young and feisty Eugene Wilson and Rodney Harrison. (Although the 2001 secondary — with Law, Lawyer Milloy and Otis Smith — was pretty good as well.) But you just can’t throw three guys who have never lined up together into the mix at the same time and tell them to play. Regardless of how good they were before they came together, playing as a singular unit in the secondary is an art form, and learning how to mesh can take some time. (This is one of the reasons why the group has apparently got together over the course of the offseason.) This is not to suggest that they will have issues — it’s just that sometimes, it can be a delicate process, and the acclimation can occasionally take some time.

2. Who is going to play strong safety?

With Gregory cut loose in the offseason, there are several possibilities at the strong safety spot, a group that includes Chung and Wilson, the latter of whom was seriously talked up Wednesday by McCourty. However, the odds on favorite at this point seems to be Harmon, a second-year defensive back out of Rutgers who looked relatively natural at the spot over the course of the spring workouts that were open to the media. The 6-foot, 198-pound Harmon, who finished his rookie year with two picks in 15 games, stood out for several reasons this spring, not the least of which was the fact that while the rest of the defensive players were either working in their own position groups or going through special teams drills, he was frequently seen in the company of McCourty, Revis and Browner. (When he was asked what those conversations were like for him, the 23-year-old replied sheepishly, “Really, just me listening. You have guys that are All-Pros — what can I really say? I’m in my second year, and these guys have played a lot of football and a lot of great football at a high level. It’s really a great chance for me to just sit back and soak up a lot of that wisdom from those three guys.”)

3. Can one of the rookies crack the 53-man roster?

The most intriguing young prospect might be Thomas, a playmaker out of Georgia Tech who lined up at both safety and corner over the course of his college career. At 5-foot-9 and 192 pounds, the slightly undersized — but solidly built — Thomas played all four years at Tech as a defensive back, starting the final 28 games. As a junior, he had four interceptions. In 2013 as a senior, he started all 13 games and led the team in solo tackles (73) and pass break-ups (8), and had 9 interceptions in his last three seasons at Tech. No one is expecting him to step right into this starting lineup, but his skill set, versatile and record as a playmaker certainly suggest he could stick around in some form or fashion. (For what it’s worth, another youngster who didn’t look out of place while running with the backups over the course of the spring workouts was Swanson, a 5-foot-11, 190-pounder out of Sam Houston State. He’s technically in his second year in the league, but didn’t take a snap at the NFL level last season with the Colts and Niners. He finished his college career with the school record for interceptions with 14, and showed a nice nose for the ball during minicamp and OTA’s. Like Thomas, he faces a steep climb when it comes to playing time, but if the Patriots can get him through to the practice squad, he might provide some depth, at least this year.)

By the numbers: 1.8 – According to Football Outsiders, in his eight games with the Seahawks in 2013, Browner yielded an average of just 1.8 yards after the catch, tied for the league lead with Jabari Greer (For comparisons sake, Talib yielded an average of 5.4 YAC, 77th in the league, while Revis was at 3.3, 24th in the league.) In 2012, Browner was 15th in the league with an average of 2.5 yards allowed after the catch.

Key new player: Revis. Revis, Revs, Revis. Simply put, he may very well be the most impactful defensive free agent acquired during the Belichick era. Depending on his contract situation, he might only be around for one season, but if you are going to go all-in on a cornerback, he might be the guy.

The skinny: The Patriots were paper-thin at corner at the end of the season. Now, they boast a cornerback tandem so complete, New England is being mentioned in the same sentence with teams like Seattle as possibly having the best secondary in the league. They might not be in that discussion quite yet, but as the 2014 dawns, the Patriots aren’t too far removed.

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