AFC East: Darius Butler

Has Bill Belichick's genius license expired?

September, 20, 2010
9/20/10
6:31
PM ET
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has the reputation of being a defensive mastermind.

Cold, Hard Football Facts overlord Kerry J. Byrne scoffs at that.

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez had the best game of his career Sunday, clobbering the New England Patriots at the Meadowlands.

To Byrne, that was just one more instance of Belichick's defensive genius being a myth.

"The Belichick Defense is no longer great," Byrne writes. "But it's worse than that: The Belichick Defense doesn't even show up half the time, and allows even average quarterbacks to have their way with it."

Byrne adds the Patriots' defense is "a nameless, faceless unit that's been virtually incapable of making a big play, or even a small play, since its three picks against Donovan McNabb in Super Bowl XXXIX -- six seasons ago."

Byrne claims the Patriots' defense has suffered from Belichick's inability to draft capable defensive backs. To a point, I might disagree with that assessment in terms of safeties. Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung could form a nasty duo, although Meriweather didn't start Sunday because, as he explained, he didn't practice well enough.

But the Patriots have cycled through a lot of draft picks dedicated to finding satisfactory cornerbacks. Last year's second-round pick, Darius Butler, was benched late in the game because Braylon Edwards was abusing him. Terrence Wheatley, a second-round pick in 2008, was deactivated before the game.

The list of quarterbacks to "torch" Belichick's defense include A.J. Feeley (twice), Chad Pennington, Kyle Orton, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Drew Brees.

Some middling quarterbacks in there. Some great quarterbacks, too, but is a mastermind supposed to be able to defuse them more often than the Patriots do?

By the way, as much as fans of opposing teams love to poke fun at him, Sanchez is 2-1 against the Patriots.

Final Word: AFC East

September, 10, 2010
9/10/10
4:00
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

[+] EnlargeChan Gailey
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Dolphins can't be sure what to expect from new Bills coach Chan Gailey.
Game plans will be an exercise in speculation. There's always a healthy dose of mystery heading into opening weekend. Teams withhold much of their playbooks throughout the preseason, creating wonder about how a new player will be utilized or how much coaching philosophies might have changed since the year before. Whoever guesses best likely will win Sunday's matchup between the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills in Ralph Wilson Stadium. New Bills coach Chan Gailey has installed his offense and has switched the defense to a 3-4. The Bills also will show their full backfield for the first time. Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch return from injuries sustained in the preseason opener. With them out, rookie lightning bolt C.J. Spiller was limited to tailback duties. Where will Spiller line up now? Could be anywhere. The Dolphins, meanwhile, have new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Gailey has been watching Denver Broncos film and trying to project how Nolan will use the Dolphins' roster.

The New England Patriots defense could be in for a long afternoon. The Patriots better have something up their sleeves for the Cincinnati Bengals. Otherwise, Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens will have plenty to crow about. How will the Patriots contain the Bengals, who have placed an emphasis on their passing game? They added T.O. and drafted tight end Jermaine Gresham in the first round to help quarterback Carson Palmer. The Bengals have a strong enough rushing attack to keep any defense honest. Straight up, the Patriots appear to be at a disadvantage against the pass. The Patriots have the NFL's least experienced cornerbacks in Darius Butler and rookie Devin McCourty. As for a pass rush, the Patriots haven't had an effective one for a couple of years.

Don't dismiss the possibility of a big game from Darrelle Revis. The All-Pro cornerback had one week of practice to get ready for Monday night's opener against the Baltimore Ravens. He missed training camp and all four preseason games during his contract dispute. But that doesn't mean Revis will be rusty. Remember when the Jets signed cornerback Ty Law off the street in November 2008 for a Thursday night game against the Patriots? Law was 34, and they lined him up against Randy Moss. In the first half, Moss had zero receptions. He finished with three catches for 23 yards, and it took a pinpoint Matt Cassel rollout pass and a sensational sideline grab to beat Law for a 16-yard touchdown. Revis isn't 34 years old, and he wasn't signed off a free-agent scrap heap just before Thanksgiving. Revis kept himself in shape while AWOL, working out with a fellow Aliquippa, Pa., native named Ty Law.

If you have Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams on your fantasy team, start them. Heck, fourth-stringer Lex Hilliard might be a decent option against the Bills' run defense. The Bills' transition to a 3-4 defense hasn't made them noticeably better against the run, and they ranked 30th last year. The Bills were on the smallish side to begin with, and they're dealing with injuries at linebacker. Starting outside linebacker Reggie Torbor and backup inside linebacker Antonio Coleman won't play. Top inside linebacker reserve Kawika Mitchell was placed on season-ending injured reserve Friday. Newly acquired inside linebacker Akin Ayodele will be deactivated until he learns the system. On top of all those circumstances, Buffalo boasts a formidable secondary. Motivation for Miami to throw will be low.

Left guard, not quarterback, could turn out to be the Jets' weakest link. All eyes will be on Mark Sanchez on Monday night. So they might not see the peripheral blurs attacking him in the pocket. Left guard is among the chief concerns. The Jets featured a mimeograph offensive line over the past two seasons. That's 33 games of continuity for one of the best units in the league. But the Jets cut Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca, and his potential replacements have been shaky. Matt Slauson won the job by default over disappointing rookie Vladimir Ducasse. As head coach Rex Ryan acknowledged in "Hard Knocks," there's not a lot of faith in either of them to keep Sanchez off his back.

Patriots pass rush worse when it adds heat

September, 10, 2010
9/10/10
10:22
AM ET
I'm not delivering any news bulletins when I write the New England Patriots need to figure out how to manufacture a pass rush this year.

They tied for 23rd in sacks last year. Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain led them with 10, good enough to tie for 11th in the league. But half of his sacks were against the Buffalo Bills and seven came in three games. The Patriots released Derrick Burgess last week.

ESPN Stats & Information, which breaks down film of every NFL play, passed along some stats that underscore New England's problem.

Over the past two seasons, the Patriots have recorded only 26 sacks with four-man pressure. That's tied for 26th.

Their effectiveness wasn't better when Bill Belichick decided to send more defenders after the quarterback.

When the Patriots rushed five or more defenders the past two years, they have surrendered 12 more touchdowns than they've forced interceptions (tied for 28th in that situation), allowed an 89.8 passer rating (25th) and permitted a touchdown pass to be thrown per an average of 14.3 pass attempts (31st).

The Patriots open their season Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals with the NFL's most inexperienced cornerback tandem. Darius Butler has five NFL starts, and Devin McCourty is a rookie.

Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens have to be excited about this matchup.

How Bodden's loss makes Pats susceptible

September, 2, 2010
9/02/10
10:42
AM ET
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.

Bodden
Bodden

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 BostonHerald.com. "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
9/01/10
8:01
AM ET
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.

Pats place top pass defender Bodden on IR

August, 31, 2010
8/31/10
8:09
PM ET
In trimming their roster to the mandatory 75-man limit Tuesday, the New England Patriots made a surprising move.

Bodden
Bodden
They placed their top cornerback, Leigh Bodden, on season-ending injured reserve. That might leave them with the NFL's least experienced starting tandem at cornerback: rookie Devin McCourty and sophomore Darius Butler, who started five games last year.

Bodden has a shoulder injury, the Patriots announced. Bodden later tweeted he would undergo surgery. He also hurt his knee early in training camp.

He started 15 games last year, including the postseason, and tied for the team lead with five interceptions. His 17 passes defensed were more than double the next-closest cornerback.

The Patriots also put defensive lineman Darryl Richard (foot) and defensive backs Josh Barrett (shoulder) and Brett Lockett (chest) on injured reserve and released defensive back Terrence Johnson.

The AFC East's other big personnel move Tuesday was the New York Jets' decision to keep quarterback Kellen Clemens and waive Kevin O'Connell.

Clemens was on the verge of being released when he agreed to a pay cut to remain the third quarterback, a tough pill to swallow for a 2006 second-round draft choice. But Clemens wanted to stay make a Super Bowl charge with his boys.

ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini reports Clemens dropped his $1.1 million salary to a little more than the veteran minimum of $630,000.

The Jets also claimed pass-rusher Ricky Foley off waivers from the Seattle Seahawks. Foley had 12 sacks for the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League last year.

Podcast: Updated preview of AFC East

August, 27, 2010
8/27/10
3:15
PM ET
Bill Daughtry from ESPN 1050 in New York invited me onto his show late Thursday night to talk about the New York Jets and preview the AFC East.

We talked about the latest episode of "Hard Knocks" and the revelations of the Jets' internal depth chart, which included notes on some players who might be doomed. Other topics included the New England Patriots' vulnerability on defense and the low-profile Miami Dolphins being a dangerous opponent.

Camp Confidential: New England Patriots

August, 13, 2010
8/13/10
11:08
AM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 9

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Is this the year another AFC East team surpasses the New England Patriots in wins?

For nine straight seasons, no team in the division has won more games each season than the Patriots.

But they're being pushed.

The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins have experienced greater successes the past couple years. The Jets went deeper into the playoffs last winter. The Dolphins won the division two seasons ago on a tiebreaker that kept the Patriots out.

The Patriots, aging on offense and patchwork on defense, seem vulnerable to being overtaken.

Still, they're the Patriots, and as long as Bill Belichick is the head coach and Tom Brady is the quarterback, they'll be a fearsome opponent. Randy Moss is back. Wes Welker looks like he's going to be a factor from the start of the season. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork will anchor the defense with linebacker Jerod Mayo behind him.

"Each year is a new year," Belichick said at the beginning of training camp, "and what a team looks like on paper and what they actually are in the fall and how they perform are two different things.

"Each year it seems like we have three or four new division winners. We have teams that go from one, two, three wins to double-digit wins and playoff teams and so forth. I don't know how you project all of that. I don't really spend a lot of time worrying about that. I think you do your preparation on your opponents -- the new ones and the ones you are familiar with like the Jets and Miami, teams like that, Indianapolis, and then you take them as they come."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeLogan Mankins
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesLogan Mankins is unimpressed by the Patriots contract offer and has demanded a trade.
1. How will left guard Logan Mankins' absence impact the offense? Mankins is unsigned and publicly demanded a trade because the Patriots haven't presented him with a contract proposal worth signing. Those who know him don't think he's going to back off that stance easily.

The Patriots already are down to a third-stringer at his position. They switched last year's starting right tackle, Nick Kaczur, to left guard. He suffered a back injury that could threaten his season. That puts Dan Connolly, a sixth-year offensive lineman with four career starts, in the lineup.

That's a precipitous drop from Mankins. He went to his second Pro Bowl last year and is known as one of the division's great smash-mouth players, regardless of position. He has a mean streak that sets the tone for New England's offensive line, particularly in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

One of Belichick's objectives coming into 2010 was to improve New England's red zone efficiency. Belichick has shown he's willing to go with three tight ends if he must. But Mankins' presence certainly would help the offense in terms of attitude and production.

2. Will the Patriots be able to generate enough of a pass rush? They tied for 23rd in sacks last year, registering a lackluster 31, worst among all playoff teams.

So the Patriots had a problem when they entered the offseason and might have gotten less stable. They cut Adalius Thomas, whose three sacks ranked fourth on the club. Derrick Burgess, a two-time Pro Bowler, tied for second with five sacks. He hasn't reported to training camp and is said to be contemplating retirement. Update: Burgess was reinstated to the active roster Friday, and defensive end Ty Warren (hip) was placed on injured reserve, ending his season.

Tully Banta-Cain, who led the team with 10 sacks, is back. But he doesn't strike fear in opposing tackles. Half of his sacks came against the overwhelmed Buffalo Bills. Second-round draft choice Jermaine Cunningham didn't play in Thursday night's preseason opener, which should raise some eyebrows.

You can't tell me Rob Ninkovich or Marques Murrell are going to provide that desperately needed jolt. Murrell did beat Pro Bowl tackle Jon Stinchcomb to sack Drew Brees on Thursday night (the Patriots' only sack), but the undrafted former Jet hasn't started an NFL game. Neither has Ninkovich.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Michael DwyerQuarterback Tom Brady has not made a big fuss about his contract this preseason.
3. Will Tom Brady's contract situation be a distraction? In stark contrast to Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis' entrenched holdout, Brady's approach to his contract situation has been commendable.

Brady is entering the final year of his contract and reportedly has been aggravated by the fact he hasn't gotten an extension yet. Some pundits insist Brady will be a tough negotiator because he has made salary concessions in the past and will insist on receiving full market value for a three-time champion.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft wants Brady to remain the face of the franchise, but it's not that simple. Labor strife and the role each man plays -- Kraft an influential voice for the league, Brady an emerging union spokesman -- contributes to the delicate process.

Brady's contract has been a major storyline of camp so far, but because he showed up on time and said all the right things, it hasn't been a problem.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Welker didn't play in the exhibition opener, but he has demonstrated he's going to be ready to play in Week 1, barring a setback. The only visible evidence he's coming back from two torn left knee ligaments is a brace. He also had offseason shoulder surgery, but you'd never guess by looking at him. Welker went all-out in joint practices with the Saints, putting his body in harm's way to make tough catches. He sliced through defenders, fought through coverages and leaped for passes.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Burgess, the AWOL outside linebacker, has left the Patriots in a lurch with his indecision. He apparently wanted to play in June, when he signed a one-year contract worth as much as $1.65 million. The Patriots expressed surprise when Burgess declined to report for camp. With an inkling Burgess was having second thoughts, they would've had a better chance to address the situation before it was too late.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeJulian Edelman
    AP Photo/Michael DwyerWide receiver Julian Edelman was impressive in the Patriots' first preseason game.

  • You have to wonder if Welker's speedy recovery is partially due to the presence of Julian Edelman. I'm not saying Edelman is Welker's equal, but knowing that Edelman's on the roster and ready to step in must have entered Welker's mind once or twice during rehab.
  • Edelman, the converted quarterback from Kent State, turned in a very Welkerish six-reception, 90-yard performance on Thursday night. He also had a 40-yard punt return.
  • Strong safety Brandon Meriweather continually has progressed toward star status in his previous three seasons and still has room to get better. With another year of experience, this should be a big year for him.
  • Interesting choice to start at running back in the preseason opener. Belichick went with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who ran 11 times for 34 yards but darted for a 6-yard touchdown run.
  • Both rookie tight ends look like they'll be impact players. Aaron Hernandez (113th overall) has trouble blocking but is a dangerous receiver. Rob Gronkowski (42nd overall) looks like a power forward at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds. He'll be easy for Brady to spot in the red zone.
  • Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty has been getting first-team reps with Leigh Bodden sidelined by a knee injury. McCourty looks like he belongs out there, a great sign for the Patriots' secondary.
  • Second-year cornerback Darius Butler, meanwhile, committed a costly penalty in Thursday night's preseason opener. Butler was called for illegal contact on a fourth-down play in which the Patriots seemed to stop the Saints. The penalty extended a 20-play touchdown drive.
  • The Patriots will need more consistency out of their kicking game. Stephen Gostkowski, an All-Pro two seasons ago, had trouble kicking field goals this week, although he did nail both of his tries (from 35 and 28 yards) Thursday night. Zoltan Mesko can boom it, but the fifth-round draft pick occasionally delivers an onside punt.
  • If you're in a larger fantasy league, jot down receiver Brandon Tate on the margin of your cheat sheet. Draft him late. You might steal one.

video

AFC East training camp preview

July, 27, 2010
7/27/10
10:30
AM ET
Can the AFC East send three clubs to the playoffs?

Sure seems possible to me. The past two years have produced different division champs and a third team that reached the AFC Championship Game last season.

The journey will start in a matter of days. The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots blow the air horn on Thursday. The Miami Dolphins start Friday afternoon. The New York Jets open their "Hard Knocks" camp Monday morning.

All four teams have loose ends to tie up before camp. None has signed its first-round draft choice. Patriots left guard Logan Mankins remains unsigned and unhappy.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

Buffalo Bills: Who will be the quarterback?

[+] EnlargeEdwards
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireTrent Edwards played in just eight games for the Bills last season.
New head coach Chan Gailey has stressed there will be an open quarterback competition, but the first depth chart will be known when the Bills begin camp. The campaign would get off to a fascinating start if anybody other than Trent Edwards takes the initial first-team reps. Ryan Fitzpatrick finished last year as the starter, but offers the least amount of upside. He's a sixth-year journeyman backup. Brian Brohm, a 2008 Green Bay Packers second-round pick, provides the most intrigue, titillating Bills fans because he's the unknown quantity. The battle should be a slowly progressing storyline unlikely to be decided until preseason games have been played -- and maybe not until the week before the season opener.

Miami Dolphins: How quickly will receiver Brandon Marshall integrate into the offense?

The Dolphins' prized offseason acquisition missed voluntary workouts and minicamp because of hip surgery the Dolphins didn't anticipate when they traded for him in April. His absence delayed the Dolphins' ability to see how he could transform the offense, forcing any ideas to remain X's and O's on the dry-erase board until training camp. The injury also prevented quarterback Chad Henne from getting fully acquainted with Marshall, a player who can help expedite Henne's development. Henne must get used to Marshall's speed and route angles. How quickly they find their timing on intermediate and longer patterns such as deep outs and posts against a defense will be important to making sure they're totally on the same page when the season starts.

New England Patriots: Will the Patriots show noticeable improvement on defense?

[+] EnlargeDarius Butler
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDarius Butler will compete with Devin McCourty for the chance to start at left cornerback.
The old baseball adage claims championship teams are strong up the middle. The Patriots can say they're formidable in that regard. They have star nose tackle Vince Wilfork, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo and a solid group of safeties. But this ain't baseball. In football, especially with a 3-4 defense, teams need an outside presence. The Patriots are eager to see if they can improve their pass rush and be more consistent at cornerback. Those two areas depend on each other and contributed to the Patriots ranking 22nd in sacks per pass play last year. They'll have to sort through returning outside linebackers Tully Banta-Cain, Derrick Burgess, Rob Ninkovich and Shawn Crable and 53rd overall draft pick Jermaine Cunningham. At the all-important left cornerback spot, unproven sophomore Darius Butler will compete with first-round pick Devin McCourty.

New York Jets: Will quarterback Mark Sanchez take command in his second camp?

As a reckless rookie, Sanchez seemed hell-bent on squandering a team loaded in several key categories: No. 1 defense, No. 1 rushing attack, three Pro Bowlers on the offensive line. But late last season, Sanchez finally bought into what offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer had been preaching and closed the season with a deep playoff run. Knee surgery limited Sanchez's first full NFL offseason, but he participated in minicamp. He'll have two talented receivers, Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, who weren't around at this time last year. How their chemistry develops over the next two months will be crucial.

HOTTEST SEATS

Bills: Demetrius Bell. It's odd to imagine a player drafted in the seventh round as a long-term project being on the hot seat going into just his third season. But Bell plays left tackle, and the Bills can't afford to fool around at such an important position. Bell didn't play a snap in 2008, yet emerged as last year's opening-night starter. He struggled before a knee injury ended his season prematurely. Bell was one of the NFL's most penalized players, and Gailey abhors pre-snap penalties. In eight games, Bell committed six false starts and allowed five sacks.

[+] EnlargeWill Allen
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesHow Will Allen rebounds from a knee injury will be important.
Dolphins: Will Allen. The 10-year veteran started last season as the club's top cornerback, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the sixth game. The Dolphins played out the year with a pair of rookies, Sean Smith and Vontae Davis, at cornerback. While they were frequently broiled by opposing receivers, they are the future and there's something to be said for trial by fire. Allen's contract might doom him. He's scheduled to make base salaries of $5.2 million this year and $5.5 million next year.

Patriots: Laurence Maroney. He has been a polarizing player since the Patriots drafted him 21st overall in 2006. He has looked like a stud running back at times, but not nearly often enough. Maroney's entering his fifth season but has started only 14 games, hasn't cracked 900 rushing yards in a season and fumbles too much.

Jets: Nick Folk. Coaches don't have much patience for an erratic kicker. The Jets parted ways with a good one, letting Jay Feely leave via free agency. They signed Folk, a former Pro Bowler who was a disaster with the Dallas Cowboys last year. He was inconsistent in Jets voluntary workouts and minicamp, already drawing playful ridicule from coach Rex Ryan. If Folk continues to miss kicks, the Jets won't be laughing.

SECRET WEAPON

Patriots receiver Brandon Tate. When considering New England's top targets, the names Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Torry Holt and maybe Julian Edelman come to mind. Keep an eye out for Tate, a second-year pro with one reception. Tate still was recovering from knee surgery when the Patriots drafted him in the third round out of North Carolina. He made his debut in Week 7 and suffered another knee injury in Week 9. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has spoken highly of Tate during the offseason.

CHANGING OF THE GUARDS

The Bills boast one example of stability over the rest of the AFC East -- on the offensive line, no less.

[+] EnlargeAlan Faneca
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinThe Jets' release of Alan Faneca raised some eyebrows.
The Bills enter training camp with the lone left guard in place. Second-year pro Andy Levitre returns as the starter, while each of the other three clubs have uncertainties to address. The Jets and Dolphins are letting players compete for their left guard openings, while the Patriots have a two-time Pro Bowler who has demanded a trade.

In Jets camp, second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse and sophomore Matt Slauson are battling for the vacancy created by the controversial release of nine-time Pro Bowler Alan Faneca.

The Dolphins traded Justin Smiley, their left guard the past two seasons. Nate Garner started eight games, including four on the left side while Smiley was hurt last season. Donald Thomas started 12 games at right guard. Richie Incognito started at right guard for the St. Louis Rams and Bills. The Dolphins drafted guard John Jerry in the third round.

Mankins isn't expected to be at Patriots camp when it begins. He's an unsigned restricted free agent and last month went public with his desire to be traded. Right tackle Nick Kaczur has been working in Mankins' spot.

Video: Patriots preview with Darius Butler

July, 12, 2010
7/12/10
12:16
PM ET


Patriots cornerback Darius Butler talks about New England's chances of contending in 2010.

Big Question: Patriots cornerbacks

June, 29, 2010
6/29/10
1:00
PM ET
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
5/18/10
4:22
PM ET
Shawn Springs was the New England Patriots' starting left cornerback for nine games last year, including the playoffs.
Springs

Springs

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 ESPNBoston.com'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
5/17/10
5:22
PM ET
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.

ESPNBoston.com'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
4/23/10
11:21
AM ET
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
4/22/10
10:35
PM ET
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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

AFC EAST SCOREBOARD