MythBusters: Secondary issues, not Brady's absence, could doom Patriots
In our new "MythBusters" series, SI.com's NFL team will use tape, statistics and conversations with some of the NFL's most knowledgeable voices to debunk storylines that have inexplicably gained traction. In our first installment, Doug Farrar takes a closer look at the real reason the Patriots could be in trouble in the AFC East this year.
Myth: Tom Brady's absence will cause a backslide in Foxboro.
Reality: The New England secondary is the primary cause for concern.
There's a burgeoning consensus that the Patriots, fresh off their fourth Super Bowl win, are vulnerable enough to lose ground in the AFC East in 2015. Most of that talk is rooted in Tom Brady's four-game suspension, which still could be reduced or eliminated depending on the outcome of Brady's recent appeal. Those who believe New England will survive the Brady suspension point to 2008, when Brady was lost for the season to a knee injury he suffered in Week 1. The Patriots went 11–5 with backup Matt Cassel under center that season, though they also lost the division to the Dolphins and missed the postseason for the first time since 2002.
Back then, the Patriots had two top receivers in Randy Moss and Wes Welker, along with a defense that was stable enough, ranking 17th overall in Football Outsiders's opponent-adjusted metrics. However, they dropped to 24th in pass defense in 2008 from seventh the year before, a slip due in part to the loss of All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel to the Eagles in free agency. Then as now, regression in the secondary was a bigger part of the Patriots' outlook then most figured. Overshadowed by championship and controversy, the turnover within Belichick's secondary this off-season has been fairly extreme.
Four of New England's top cornerbacks from 2014—Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard—either found new teams in free agency or were released. To replace those players, the Patriots signed former Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher and ex-Falcons cornerback Robert McClain, and took a flier on Derek Cox, who didn't play a single NFL snap in 2014 and only lasted one season of the sizeable free-agent deal he signed with the Chargers the year before.
The assumption was that Belichick would deal with this issue in the draft, but the Pats didn't take a cornerback until the seventh round, when they selected Marshall standout Darryl Roberts—a nice prospect, to be sure, but probably not an NFL-ready defensive back just yet.
Belichick is one of the best defensive scheme architects and secondary coaches in NFL history, but in the end, the question is whether this is a case of hubris. This is a guy, after all, who has won with secondaries so depleted, he's put receivers at the cornerback position (Troy Brown, anyone?) and it worked out. The assumption is that Belichick will get results no matter who's in the secondary, and if he believes that he can overcome severe personnel obstacles and still come out on top, he's earned the benefit of the doubt from the league. It's just that the Patriots' new guys ... well, they have issues.
Here are the 2014 regular-season numbers for the players who left New England this spring and the guys expected to replace them.
Departed Patriots cornerbacks
Darrelle Revis (now with the Jets): 41 receptions on 79 targets for 557 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, 72.6 opponent passer rating
Kyle Arrington (Ravens): 25 receptions on 45 targets for 298 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, 83.4 opponent passer rating
Brandon Browner (Saints): 31 receptions on 54 targets for 455 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, 89.7 opponent passer rating
2015 Patriots cornerbacks
Malcolm Butler: 15 receptions on 27 targets for 267 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, 114.3 opponent passer rating
Bradley Fletcher: 61 receptions on 115 targets for 1,072 yards, nine touchdowns, one interception, 107.6 opponent passer rating
Robert McClain: 47 receptions on 70 targets for 552 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, 88.5 opponent passer rating
Logan Ryan: 33 receptions on 56 targets for 471 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, 83.3 opponent passer rating
Let's start with Fletcher, whom the Pats gave a one-year, $1.5 million contract despite the fact that in Philly's system in 2014, he was perhaps the NFL's worst starting cornerback. There are countless stories of players experiencing career rebirths in New England, but if Belichick can turn Fletcher around, they ought to skip the waiting period and put him in the Hall of Fame now.
Fletcher often played against his opposition's top receivers, and the results were often ... not at all good. Especially on deep vertical routes. Here, against DeSean Jackson of the Redskins in Week 16, he gets shaken and baked from the beginning of the route and gives up a 51-yard completion. The most disturbing thing about this play from a defensive perspective is Fletcher's inability to adjust to Jackson taking the route outside of a straight line.
And here, in Week 14 against the Seahawks, he loses a vertical battle to Doug Baldwin—a good, reliable receiver, but hardly a guy who's going to win any footraces against the league's best defenders—and responds with one of the most obvious pass interference penalties you'll ever see. We suppose the 44-yard penalty is better than the touchdown that may have happened, but that's the soft bias of low expectations right there. In both of these plays, it's the inability to react to the receiver's adjustments that really stands out. Fletcher cannot go on an island. He needs safety help, and when he doesn't get it, bad things happen.
McClain's signing didn't make a big splash, but he might be the best cornerback the Patriots have right now. He's a reliable player when defending short passes outside, and he's really good in the slot. Here he is against Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 1. Watch how he directs the coverage when the Saints go double-slot to the right side out of motion, then jumps the route of Brandin Cooks for the interception.
McClain tends to struggle when he's asked to adjust to angles at the top of a route, which makes him a relative liability in deep coverage against the league's best receivers. He's especially susceptible to curls and comebacks, as Green Bay's Jordy Nelson exposed on this Week 14 play.
Roberts fits the physical prototype Belichick wants: a tall, aggressive corner who can excel in man coverage. But he gives away inside position too often, and that's something that can only be solved over time. He'll likely take his lumps when facing savvy receivers at the next level.
That leaves the two holdovers from last year's depth chart, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. I detailed what I like about Ryan's play in this January 2014 article. He's a smaller guy (5'11", 191 pounds) and he doesn't have great trail speed, but he understands route concepts and will generally be football-fast as a result. He's got a great opportunity to take one of the slots left open by the departures of Revis and Browner. Butler squandered the momentum of the most famous interception in Super Bowl history with his late arrival at OTAs, but he's also in the mix for a starting spot.
The problem here is that there isn't any alpha dog, no cornerback who can consistently lock down top opponents. Last season, the Patriots ranked seventh in Football Outsiders's opponent-adjusted metrics against No. 1 receivers, averaging 64.5 yards from 7.9 pass attempts per game. The Eagles, who had Fletcher covering the top opposing receiver more than anyone else, ranked 24th in those same metrics, averaging 84.2 yards from 10.1 pass attempts per game. The Falcons ranked eighth in those same metrics, but that was due to top cornerback Desmond Trufant, not McClain. Ryan and McClain are good slot players and can do things outside but lack that lockdown touch.
Belichick has two options here: He can choose to live or die with the guys he has, or he can do what he did in 2012 and look for opportunities on the open market. Then, he bolstered an underwhelming secondary with a November trade for Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib, which worked out pretty well. Talib helped the secondary in 2012 and became one of the league's more effective defenders in 2013 before he was replaced in the rotation by Revis.
In the meantime, all we can do is wonder how it will turn out and hypothesize that if the Patriots struggle to defend their title this season, it will be more because of the cornerbacks they lost than the quarterback who will miss a few games.