By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots are entering this yearâ€™s training camp with some very interesting positional competitions going on this year, among them, WR, DB, RB, LB and DL. Weâ€™ll take a look at the secondary and give some thoughts on the players that they will keep and those others they may.
The Patriots secondary as of the beginning of July is:
Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Sterling Moore, Alfonzo Dennard, Marquice Cole, Malcolm Williams, Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, James Ihedigbo, Will Allen, Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, Nate Ebner, Ross Ventrone
No positions were as maligned last season as the CB and S spots on the Patriots roster. Teams moved the ball easily against this unit and injuries and poor play was the culprit. Although the team finished at 13-3 and went to the Super Bowl, to return this season to the big game, the secondary will have to be much better.
The team will undoubtedly project Devin McCourty, Ras-I Dowling and Kyle Arrington as its top three corners. This season will be a big one for McCourty who shined in his rookie season only to stumble badly in 2011. The lockout almost certainly had something to do with it and injuries as well. He played when he probably should have sat last season because; frankly there was no one else to play.
Dowling will have to remain healthy this season, he has the size the Patriots haven’t had a cornerback in a long time and could really help to turn the tide for a beleaguered secondary. If those two step up it will allow the team to move Arrington to where heâ€™s best suited and that would be at slot corner. Arrington is a more effective blitzer out of the slot although Bill Belichick once lined him up as a defensive end in 2010.
So where does this leave Allen, Cole, Moore, and Denard ? Allen may be counted upon to play safety because the others can contribute on special teams. Moore and Denard will be looked to as the depth corners. Although if someone gets hurt or falters, either Moore or Denard could step up and vie for playing time.
Patrick Chung remains the best player in the group the Pats field at safety but one with question marks. He missed eight games due to injury last year and his absence showed. If he can remain healthy during this, his contract year he could be a big playmaker at safety.
So who plays opposite Chung? Right now my money is on Gregory, at least initially. He was playing SS at San Diego which is not his strong suit and he has unimpressed mostly but here, heâ€™ll get the opportunity for a fresh start and a chance to play a position where his versatility and coverage skills would come into play more.
The competition here will be something to watch, Chung is already penciled in, but Gregory, James Ihedigbo Josh Barrett and Tavon Wilson will all vie for playing time. Wilson is a lock to make the roster, being a 2nd round pick.
Tavon Wilson will be an interesting player to watch during camp, he can play at either safety position or line up as a slot corner. But as Mike Reiss pointed out in a recent column, to offset so many teams attacking with a spread offense, the Patriots could be playing more of a dime defense rather than the nickel this year. That could open the door for Wilson, Ihedigbo or Barrett to fit the role vacated by the linebacker coming off the field.
Josh Barrett is a favorite of Belichickâ€™s and his size would lend well to being used in such a position. But heâ€™ll have to stay healthy and have his work cut out for him to make the roster. Sergio Brown will have to make the team for special teams work; he played on four units last year and but had a nightmare in the backfield. Malcolm Williams played on three special teams units last year as well.
James Ihedigbo played a lot last year due to injuries, originally signed as a special teams player and for depth at safety, he was pressed into service and the coaches were impressed with his work ethic, and professionalism. Heâ€™ll be looking to carve out a bigger piece of the pie for himself this summer.
Nate Ebner and Ross Ventrone will likely battle it out for a practice squad slot. Ebner will be interesting to watch on special teams this year as heâ€™s perfectly suited to it. No one had more transactions than Ventrone last year, but with just one more game on the active roster, heâ€™d lose his eligibility to return to the practice squad.
Injuries are bound to take their toll as they do every year, but it seems like the team has enough parts to make a significant improvement over where they were last year. The competition at camp should be wide open and fun to watch.
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