AFC East: Jonathan Wilhite

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots' 47-12 win over the Jaguars in the preseason opener:

A night for backups. Bill Belichick sat several key players, quarterback Tom Brady; receivers Chad Ochocinco, Wes Welker and Deion Branch; defensive lineman Vince Wilfork; cornerback Devin McCourty and linebacker Jerod Mayo among them. This gave Belichick a chance to evaluate some younger players, while at the same time not rushing things with key personnel after just seven full-pad practices. You had to be a hard-core fan to sit through all of this one, but in all, it was a productive night for a first preseason game.

Taylor Price one of the big stories. The second-year receiver was excellent, the highlight play coming with a back-of-the-end-zone, fingertip, toe-tapping touchdown grab. Price later showed his speed on a long catch-and-run play. Price is behind Ochocinco, Branch and Welker on the depth chart, but he ensured that he's not in jeopardy of missing the final roster cut. Impressive night.

Quarterback situation looks sharp. Between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, the Patriots appear to have one of the best backup quarterback situations in the NFL. Both were impressive.

Rookie RB Stevan Ridley shines. Third-round pick Stevan Ridley showed up for camp on time and took advantage of extended reps as second-rounder Shane Vereen had yet to sign and veterans BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris could not yet practice. That showed tonight. Ridley's confidence and hard-charging style was evident on two touchdown runs and he showed good hands on a touchdown catch. Agents generally don't get a lot of praise, but Ridley's agent -- Andy Simms -- gets a tip of the cap from here. Simms is also the agent for McCourty and for two years in a row he's made sure his clients were there for the first day of practice, putting them in the best position to succeed.

Tough night for CBs Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite. Both played into the fourth quarter. That's a hard fall for Butler, the 2009 second-round pick was an opening-day starter last season. Butler and Wilhite look to be on the roster bubble.

Nate Solder passes first test. The first-round pick played the entire first half at left tackle. He was hardly noticed, which meant he did his job well.

Dane Fletcher a top performer on defense. The second-year linebacker started and led the defensive huddle. He finished with five tackles while delivering a bit hit in the process. A strong special teams player as a rookie (he made the club as a free agent), he showed he's ready if called upon as a middle linebacker in the event of injury to Brandon Spikes.

What was the Patriots' biggest weakness in 2010? Pass defense.

That won't be the case in 2011.

First off, let’s start with the cover guys. I am not entirely sold on the safeties, and the depth at this position in particular is a concern. But overall, you could do worse than Brandon Meriweather, Pat Chung and James Sanders. Still, I do think this is the weakest position now on New England’s defense.

[+] EnlargeLeigh Bodden
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireThe Patriots needs Leigh Bodden to return from the injuires that hampered his 2010 season.
The cornerback play should be vastly improved, though. First off, Leigh Bodden returns from injury. If he returns to his 2009 form, Bodden is an above-average starting corner who can excel in many different schemes. Last year’s first-round pick, Devin McCourty, would have been a legitimate candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2010 -- if it weren't for Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, that is. As great as McCourty was last season, expecting improvement in his second season seems logical as well.

The Patriots also used an early second-round pick this year on Ras-I Dowling. Dowling would have been a first-round pick if not for injuries. He has a lot of ability, and along with Bodden and McCourty, gives the Patriots excellent size at corner.

In addition to the latest two early round picks, New England has a slew of younger corners in Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite. Collectively, this group has been underwhelming, but expecting improvement from these young cover men also doesn’t seem far-fetched. Even if just one of the three steps up, New England will be stacked at the position, which will allow Bill Belichick to be even more creative with his sub-package personnel. It should be noted, though, that it doesn’t yet appear Dowling is back to full health, which could stunt his growth and open the door for one of these three for early playing time.

Now, let’s discuss the pass rush, which like the coverage, should be improved. There has been a great deal of speculation that New England will be switching to more base 4-3 looks. Due to the team’s roster moves this offseason, that seems entirely likely. But I also expect Belichick to utilize many different looks from his front seven, changing on a week-to-week basis depending on the Patriots’ opponent.

If nothing else, the addition of Albert Haynesworth will pay dividends in this area. He can really get after the passer. Whether it is from a defensive end or nose tackle position in the 3-4 or as a 3-technique in the 4-3, Haynesworth will wreak havoc on quarterbacks. During his time in Tennessee, Haynesworth was used all over the defensive line, including as an outside edge rusher.

Haynesworth should pair with another newcomer, Shaun Ellis, as one of the most potent interior pass-rushing forces in the league on clear passing downs. Ellis will also contribute in the pursuit of quarterbacks from an end spot in New England’s odd front. The presence of both these players -- along with several incumbents -- should allow the Patriots to keep Haynesworth and Ellis quite fresh.

Off the edge, Jermaine Cunningham did some good things as a rookie and could be poised for a substantial step forward as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 or as a designated pass-rusher on throwing downs. He also could play some end when the Patriots use an even front. Andre Carter has consistently performed poorly when asked to move to outside linebacker in a 3-4, but he is well suited for defensive end in the 4-3. Belichick surely recognizes this and should use him accordingly.

The foursome of Haynesworth, Ellis, Cunningham and Carter as a pass-rushing front on passing downs is a vast improvement from a season ago. Mark Anderson, another guy who is much better suited for end in the 4-3, could also factor in, especially on early downs.

To say that New England has been aggressive to cure what ailed it in 2010 is a massive understatement. I fully expect this aggression to pay off in a big way.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.

Making millions in the AFC East

March, 4, 2011
Mark SanchezRichard A. Brightly/Icon SMIMark Sanchez is set to earn $14.75 million in base salary next season, the most in the AFC East.
Sports labor squabbles often are described as billionaires arguing with millionaires over money.

While that's a catchy rhyme that sums up fan frustration, the phrase is not entirely true.

Inspired by a blog entry from the minister of all things AFC South, Paul Kuharsky, I looked at NFL Players Association files to count up the number of AFC East players scheduled for $1 million base salaries in 2011.

Granted, up-front bonuses and incentives can make base salaries misleading. But base salaries are the only figures that create a common ground, player for player.

You'll see a vast majority of NFL players make much less than $1 million a year. Although many will make seven figures before they walk away from the game, careers are short and treacherous. They'll never see that kind of cash again for the rest of their lives.

That's why they're fighting for every dollar now.

Of the 226 players under contract in the AFC East, only 62 of them (27.4 percent) will make base salaries of $1 million or more.

The NFLPA hasn't acknowledged any franchise tags that have been signed. Those players are marked with an asterisk and not factored into the totals.

Buffalo Bills
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 19

Players under contract: 54

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 35.2

Miami Dolphins
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 15

Players under contract: 55

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 27.3

New England Patriots
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 14

Players under contract: 60

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 23.3

New York Jets
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 14

Players under contract: 57

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 24.6

Jets at Patriots inactives

December, 6, 2010
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are the inactives for Monday night's game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium.

New York Jets
New England Patriots

Colts at Patriots inactives

November, 21, 2010

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are the scratches for Sunday's game between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium:

Indianapolis Colts

New England Patriots

How Bodden's loss makes Pats susceptible

September, 2, 2010
The loss of New England Patriots cornerback Leigh Bodden won't cut their defense in half. Those kind of statements are reserved for superstars like Darrelle Revis.


But Bodden's season-ending injury shouldn't be underestimated, "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden said on a conference call Wednesday.

"I think it hurts them," Gruden said in a story on "That was the one corner they had that was an NFL-experienced corner. ... Losing a guy like Leigh Bodden, who they thought a lot of and paid a lot of money to retain, I think it really hurts the Patriots."

Gruden then explained how, noting the Patriots' lack of depth. The projected starters would be second-year pro Darius Butler and rookie Devin McCourty, giving the Patriots the NFL's least experienced cornerback duo. The rest of the depth chart consists of Jonathan Wilhite, Terrence Wheatley and Kyle Arrington.

"Teams are going to put three and four receivers out on the field to try to get your third and fourth corner," Gruden said. "And God forbid [the Patriots] have another injury at that position.

"So not only have they lost an outstanding player and arguably their best corner, they've lost depth."

In AFC East, experience down at the corners

September, 1, 2010
When the New England Patriots put veteran Leigh Bodden on season-erasing injured reserve Tuesday, they were forced to deal with likelihood they'll have the NFL's least experienced cornerback tandem in 2010.

Second-year pro Darius Butler and rookie Devin McCourty are the probable starters, a combined five NFL starts between them in a division that includes Brandon Marshall, Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards.

ESPN researcher Keith Hawkins poked around, checked the latest projected depth charts from Ourlads Scouting Services and found the Patriots would have the league's greenest cornerbacks by far.

But the Miami Dolphins have the third-youngest duo. And until Darrelle Revis ends his holdout, the New York Jets will have the fifth youngest.

Here are the youngest cornerback combos projected for opening day with combined seasons, games and starts:
The other three cornerbacks on the Patriots' roster don't offer much experience either. Jonathan Wilhite has made 12 starts over his three NFL seasons. Terrence Wheatley has one start in two seasons. Kyle Arrington has zero starts in one season.

Big Question: Patriots cornerbacks

June, 29, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets improving at receiver, will the New England Patriots' cornerbacks be good enough in 2010?

The AFC East will be up for grabs this year. With the Jets and Dolphins making acquisitions that could open up the passing game for their young quarterbacks, strong cornerback play will be vital.

[+] EnlargeLeigh Bodden and Lee Evans
AP Photo/Mike GrollAdding veteran Leigh Bodden should help solidify the New England secondary.
The Patriots have an interesting situation at cornerback. They re-signed veteran Leigh Bodden to play on the right side, but released Shawn Springs, who they trusted enough to start nine games, including their final five, at the all-important left cornerback spot.

The Patriots otherwise are young and relatively unproven. Plus, their dubious pass rush could put added strain on the secondary.

In each of the past three drafts, they have selected a cornerback within the first two rounds. Darius Butler, the 41st overall pick last year, looks like the left corner and has the potential to be a force in the division for years to come. But he has started only five games, two as a nickel or dime back.

Jonathan Wilhite, a fourth-round pick in 2008, has surpassed second-round classmate Terrence Wheatley. Wilhite started eight games last year, four on the left side, three on the right side and one at nickel. Wheatley has played in only 11 games because of injuries.

The Patriots drafted Devin McCourty with the 27th pick in April.

I asked Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson if the Patriots' cornerbacks will be up to snuff in a division that added Brandon Marshall and Santonio Holmes in the offseason.

"My initial impression is no, but that mostly stems from a below average pass rush," Williamson said. "I don't dislike the Pats' cornerbacks as a whole. There is a lot of very young talent that should be on the upswing.

"Wilhite and Wheatley worry me. They seem like nickel cornerbacks or even dime guys, but if everything goes as planned with McCourty and Butler, those two will be fine in such roles. Butler is a little more of a finesse player than Bill Belichick really seems to like, but there is a ton of ability there. It would be surprising if he doesn't bring more to the table as a cover man this season."

Despite doubts about being able to get after quarterbacks, Williamson mentioned another way the Patriots can assist their cornerbacks. If the offense can light it up, then the Patriots will have the advantage of defending obvious pass situations for significant portions of the game.

"I do think Tom Brady and company are going to score a ton of points," Williamson said. "So, in a way, that balances things out. That pass defense does not have to be elite in order for New England to win games."

Patriots take wire cutters to Shawn Springs

May, 18, 2010
Shawn Springs was the New England Patriots' starting left cornerback for nine games last year, including the playoffs.


Now he's out of work.

The Patriots released Springs on Tuesday and signed sixth-round draft choice Ted Larsen, an offensive lineman from North Carolina State.

The Patriots previously re-signed last year's starter on the right side, Leigh Bodden. If Bill Belichick doesn't switch him over, then left cornerback becomes New England's biggest battle of the summer.

As's Mike Reiss wrote Monday, the Patriots have a crowded depth chart at cornerback. Several are recent draft choices. In 2008, Terrence Wheatley was a second-round pick and Jonathan Wilhite was a fourth-rounder. Darius Butler was a 2009 second-round pick. Devin McCourty was selected 27th overall last month.

Wilhite and Butler both started games at left cornerback last year.

Springs, who signed a three-year contract a year ago, and joins a sizable list of failures from last offseason (receivers Greg Lewis and Joey Galloway, tight ends Chris Baker and Alex Smith).

ESPN's Adam Schefter suggested the Patriots might re-sign Springs, which would make sense. If Springs was good enough to start at left cornerback down the homestretch and into the postseason, then he should be good enough to remain on the roster for less money in 2010.

Springs missed four games but finished with 39 tackles, an interception and four passes defensed.

Patriots CB Wheatley: 'The time is now'

May, 17, 2010
The concept of a make-or-break season applies a little differently to New England Patriots cornerback Terrence Wheatley.

Make it as a second-round draft pick entering his third NFL season. Or break it, as in a wrist or a leg or a ...

In two years, Wheatley has played in 11 games and started one. He has endured a series of setbacks that includes a broken wrist, a knee injury and having his appendix removed.'s Mike Reiss takes a look at Wheatley's evolution with the Patriots. He's on crowded depth chart with Leigh Bodden, Shawn Springs, Darius Butler, Jonathan Wilhite and rookie Devin McCourty, their first-round draft pick last month.

"I think the one thing that has my attention now is that the time is now," Wheatley said. "You can't have any more 'free' years. If you got it, you got it. If you don't, you don't. That lights a fire under me and you have to go out there and show what you can do.

"You have to stay healthy. That's been my biggest issue for the past two years and in college. It's kind of been the story of my career. I think if I stay healthy, I'm going to be all right."

Reiss projects Wheatley as a player on the bubble to make the final roster.

"I haven't really done a whole lot in some people's eyes," he said. "That's fine. Everybody is going to have an opinion on whether I should have been drafted where I was and stuff like that, but obviously, Bill [Belichick] has faith in me or I wouldn't be here. So I have to go out there and just really do what I need to do to gain his trust back and allow him to put me out there and stay healthy."

Another look at new Pats CB McCourty

April, 23, 2010
The New England Patriots drafted a cornerback onto a roster that has quite a few of them, trading back twice before selecting Rutgers ball hawk Devin McCourty.

But in reviewing ESPN analyst Todd McShay's pre-draft video breakdown, it doesn't sound like the Patriots should have trouble finding ways to get McCourty on the field. McShay called McCourty a "special-teams demon" who blocked seven kicks at Rutgers, and his coverage skills are elite.

"What you can't coach is his athleticism, instinct and his overall ability to turn and run in coverage," McShay said. "This is one of the most fluid cover corners in the 2010 class. He has great top-end speed, and eventually he should develop into a No. 1 cornerback at the next level."

The Patriots have veterans Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs and recent draft picks Jonathan Wilhite, Darius Butler and Terrence Wheatley.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick was big on McCourty as a "four-down football player" who can play in any defensive situation and then contribute on special teams.

"It's hard for me to picture a player who can do more than that," Belichick said. "There aren't too many players that can really impact the game on first, second, third and fourth downs. I think that he can be a player that can contribute in all four of those areas, and I think that gives him a lot of versatility and a lot of value. You may disagree, but I don’t see it that way."

Pats trade back twice, draft Devin McCourty

April, 22, 2010
The New England Patriots traded back two spots, then traded back three more spots before selecting Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty 27th overall in Thursday night's draft.

Why the Patriots took him: You never can have enough cornerbacks, and the AFC East is turning into an aerial division. The New York Jets will field an offense that features Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes and Jerricho Cotchery. The Miami Dolphins recently added Brandon Marshall.

Where McCourty fits on roster: He joins a crowded depth chart. The Patriots re-signed Leigh Bodden and have Jonathan Wilhite (fourth round in 2008), Darius Butler (41st overall last year), Terrence Wheatley (62nd overall in 2008) and Shawn Springs.

Scouts Inc. says: Seasoned and savvy. Understands routes concepts and get into proper position in zone coverage. Flashes anticipation in man-coverage but needs to show more consistency in this area. Plays bigger than size suggests. Displays good short-term memory to move on once beaten. ... Willing and active in run support. Sound overall tackler. Does not have a lot of ammunition in holster but not afraid to throw weight around when filling on the perimeter. Does a good job of anticipating and is effective going down low to knock bigger ball carriers off feet. Uses hands well to disengage from blocks by can be controlled by bigger receivers on occasion.

Ranking the AFC East secondaries

February, 18, 2010
Revis, Meriweather & DavisIcon SMIDarrelle Revis and Brandon Meriweather are two of the AFC East's star defensive backs, and Miami cornerback Vontae Davis has the potential to be very soon.
Note: Thursday and Friday, Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson is reviewing key aspects of AFC East teams. Below, he reviews and ranks the division’s secondaries from best to worst.

1. New York Jets

A lot has been written about Darrelle Revis. Like many, I put him at the top of the cornerback list. He would have been my NFL Defensive Player of the Year for 2009. But he can cover only one receiver at a time.

I contend that New York’s biggest offseason need is a starting cornerback opposite Revis. Donald Strickland, Lito Sheppard and Dwight Lowery are all best suited for third cornerback duties. Lowery is my favorite of these three, but he has physical limitations.

Jets head coach Rex Ryan obviously expects a lot out of this position and an upgrade could make an excellent defense even better. Strong safety Jim Leonhard is a personal favorite of mine. The guy has some limitations of course, but he just makes plays -- especially as a coverage player. Free safety Kerry Rhodes took some criticism during the 2009 season, but I contend that he is a well above average all-around safety. Year 2 in this defense could really yield dividends for Rhodes. Backup free safety Eric Smith could leave via free agency, but he was a liability for most of the season.

Overall, the Jets get the edge as the best secondary in the division weighted heavily on what Revis brings to the table.

2. New England Patriots

While I give the Buffalo Bills’ set of safeties the nod as the division’s best pair, I’m high on the Patriots’ Brandon Meriweather. He’s the best safety overall in the AFC East. As good as he is at strong safety, Meriweather and the Patriots would benefit from an upgrade at free safety. Brandon McGowan is a force against the run, but is too often exposed in coverage. Fellow free safety James Sanders is too ordinary in both facets.

At cornerback, veterans Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs caught way too much heat for New England’s pass defense issues. Remember, this is a defense that lacks much of a pass rush. These two are still starting caliber, particularly Bodden (an unrestricted free agent).

The younger guys are the problem. Surely they will improve, but Darius Butler, Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite collectively did little to get excited about in 2009. If Bodden is retained, the Pats squeak ahead of the Bills as the second-best secondary in the division. Without Bodden, Buffalo has a distinct advantage.

3. Buffalo Bills

When evaluating the safeties in this division, I think you have to give that position to the Bills. In 2009, safety Jairus Byrd obviously made a ton of impact plays as a rookie and was an extremely pleasant surprise. His ability to play the ball and his coverage abilities overall are very strong, but when it comes to playing the run, let’s just say that isn’t his specialty. I am a big fan of safety Donte Whitner, too. Last season wasn’t his best campaign, but he is very talented and versatile. Fellow safeties George Wilson and Bryan Scott are not household names, but both are very solid players who deserve playing time, though Scott might leave via free agency. I still have hope for Leodis McKelvin to develop into an upper-tier cornerback. Overall, the threesome of McKelvin, Drayton Florence and Terrence McGee was underwhelming in 2009.

4. Miami Dolphins

Vontae Davis and Sean Smith get a lot of ink as the Dolphins’ starting rookie cornerbacks. Smith began the season strong, but his unusual body type and struggles flipping his hips always might hold him back. To me, he finished the season as a somewhat overrated player.

But Davis could be on the verge of stardom. Like Smith, he made some rookie mistakes, but this kid has it all physically. He will be a true No. 1 cover man -- maybe as soon as next season. Third cornerback Will Allen is serviceable, but not dynamic.

Gibril Wilson and Yeremiah Bell are both average starting caliber strong safeties. But the problem in Miami is that neither has the skill set for deep patrol. The lack of a true free safety-type hurt this pass defense and is a clear offseason need.

Jets CBs don't feel the burn

January, 8, 2010
Darrelle Revis isn't the only reason the New York Jets finished the regular season with the NFL's top-rated pass defense.

Revis, the lockdown left cornerback, gets most of the attention because he's one of the league's elite defenders, regardless of position.

But statistical analysis shows Revis isn't the only Jet giving receivers fits.

Stats Inc. records what it calls "burns," the number of times a defender allows a reception to the man he's covering. Stats Inc. then divides that by the number of times the defender is targeted to compute a "burn percentage."

Of cornerbacks who were targeted at least 50 times, three Jets cornerbacks ranked among the top six.

Revis was best with 40 receptions allowed on 108 targets for a 37.0 burn percentage.

Part-time starter Dwight Lowery, third on the list, allowed 22 catches on 54 targets for a 40.7 percentage. Usual right cornerback Lito Sheppard was sixth. Sheppard surrendered 26 catches on 57 targets for a 45.6 percentage.

The Buffalo Bills had two among the top 11, another reason why they finished second in pass defense. Drayton Florence was fourth at 43.2 percent, and Reggie Corner was 11th at 47.3 percent. Former Bills cornerback Jabari Greer ranked second at 37.9 percent.

Sean Smith was the Miami Dolphins' best in terms of burn percentage. He ranked 16th, allowing 35 receptions on 73 targets for a 47.9 percentage.

His rookie partner, Vontae Davis, was 61st -- worst among all AFC East cornerbacks who faced at least 50 passes. He gave up 46 catches on 76 tries. That's a 60.5 percent success rate for the offense.

The New England Patriots top cornerback was Leigh Bodden at 19th. He yielded 43 catches on 87 attempts, or 49.4 percent. Darius Burler was 43rd, with 37 receptions on 65 attempts for 56.9 percent. Jonathan Wilhite was 49th with 42 receptions on 72 attempts for 58.3 percent.

Bruschi bristles at Belichick's decision

November, 16, 2009
INDIANAPOLIS -- Former New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, now an ESPN analyst, didn't like Bill Belichick's game-defining decision in Sunday night's loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Belichick, with a six point lead and 2:08 on the clock, opted to go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line and failed. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning threw the winning touchdown pass four plays later.

In a column for Bruschi wrote:

As a former defender on that team, I would've cared less about the result of that fourth-down attempt. The decision to go for it would be enough to make my blood boil for weeks. Bill Belichick sent a message to his defense. He felt that his chances were better to go for it on his own 28-yard line than to punt it away and make Peyton Manning have to drive the majority of the field to win the game.

I would look at this decision as a lack of confidence in our ability as a defensive unit to come up with a big play to win the game. If I'm Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Darius Butler, Jonathan Wilhite, Brandon Meriweather and Brandon McGowan -- to name a few -- I'm wondering why we weren't given the chance to do what we've been coached to do ever since the first day we practiced.

Bruschi shares similar sentiments in an interview with John Buccigross: