Piecing together puzzle in secondary

June, 5, 2012
6/05/12
4:12
PM ET
Yesterday, a commenter on this blog requested a synopsis of the cornerbacks for the Patriots, and some insight of what each may offer to the team.

With that comment in mind, and while there’s still much to be seen out of the newcomers and returning players from last season's squad, the following is an early projection and analysis of how each current defensive back could be used.

But before offering that projection, I wanted to share a brief take from my time working in NFL scouting departments to highlight a few characteristics that I sought in defensive backs.

Reactive athleticism: This is the ability to mirror an opponent in front of you. It’s one thing to be able to run fast in a straight line, but those players who are able to match receivers typically excel in coverage, particularly man-to-man schemes. As an example, one player who exhibits strong reactive athleticism is former Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel.

Hip fluidity: How smoothly and efficiently a player can transition his hips, and in turn his body. We often hear draft analysts refer to players’ hips, and it’s something I kept a close eye on for safeties who had to open themselves up and run into deep coverage. Patrick Chung is fluid player who can open his hips and defend the deep part of the field.

Instincts: Quite simply, a defensive back without instincts is bound to get burned during the course of a game. In corners, it’s the ability to understand when a receiver is going to break off a route or when to jump a quarterback’s throw. As a safety, it’s the ability to diagnose a play as run or pass, and accordingly track the play’s progress so as to stay in front of the receivers and the football.

Much more went into my evaluations of cornerbacks and safeties, but the above three factors were areas that I always focused on during my film study.

On to the analysis (done alphabetically).

Will Allen: Allen could align in a number of locations, but both as a slot cornerback and safety (as we’ve seen during OTA’s) seem to make the most sense.

Kyle Arrington: Expect Arrington to be a starter in the Patriots base defensive package as an outside cornerback, and also as a slot cornerback when needed in sub defenses.

Josh Barrett: Barrett looks to be a reserve safety right now, with more of the traits of a strong safety than a free safety.

Sergio Brown: This is a player whose value rests in his special teams contributions, but Brown could be used as an emergency safety as well.

Patrick Chung: A likely starter at safety, Chung projects to move around the formation, cover tight ends, and play in the box on occasion. He could be the Patriots most well rounded secondary player.

Marquice Cole: Watch out for Cole come training camp, because he’s an exceptional athlete and special teams maven. The sense here is that he’d be a reserve outside corner on defense too.

Alfonzo Dennard: Expectations vary for Dennard, depending on whom you talk to, but he showed the skills in college to play as both a perimeter and physical inside corner. He’s one to monitor come training camp.

Ras-I Dowling: Dowling boasts strong reactive athleticism, which is a reason why he’s a solid fit as an outside corner. Health is the key.

Nate Ebner: The stage is set for Ebner to contribute on special teams, and based off of his build and evident toughness, he projects as a developmental strong safety.

Steve Gregory: Gregory may end up as a starter alongside Chung in his first year in New England, and is likely to end up on the field quite a bit no matter what given his experience and versatility. From what we’ve seen from Gregory, and what we heard during the free agency process, he fits the mold of a free safety.

Devin McCourty: The microscope will likely be locked on McCourty this season, as he works to bounce back from a sophomore slump. Personally, I see him settling back in as a starting perimeter corner, and may take on some kick returning duties as well.

Sterling Moore: Moore showed he has what it takes to play in the NFL last season, and he offers unique versatility as both an outside corner and a safety.

Ross Ventrone: A special teams workhorse and fan favorite. Barring injuries, Ventrone doesn’t project to have a prominent role as a safety.

Malcom Williams: Another special teams contributor who may have a chance to garner more experience as a cornerback and perhaps safety as well. This is a player we’ll learn much more about in training camp.

Tavon Wilson: Using his college career as a reference, Wilson projects to be a jack-of-all-trades defensive back. He may end up aligning as a safety and corner, although it sounds like he’s best suited as an NFL safety, who could prove valuable in covering tight ends working between the numbers.
Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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