The argument can be made that the Patriots were able to retain their most important free agent of the offseason when they came to terms on a one-year deal with cornerback Aqib Talib.
Wes Welker's importance to the offense was undeniable, but so too was Talib's value to the Patriots' defense, which received an immediate boost when he took the field for the first time with the team in November against the Colts.
The performance was up-and-down as he worked his way back into football shape following a four-game suspension, but Talib's interception return for a touchdown was the first of several big plays he made for this defense.
He provided the Patriots with something they were otherwise lacking: a capable man-to-man cornerback with the size and reactive athleticism to challenge an opponent's top wideout. The Patriots assigned Talib to Andre Johnson of the Texans and later Anquan Boldin while Talib was healthy in the AFC Championship game (an injury forced him out early).
That ability to play man-to-man allowed the Patriots to alter the defense around Talib. As an example, safety Devin McCourty was allowed to umbrella Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith during the AFC Championship, as Smith had scorched the Broncos deep the week previous. The Ravens got rolling offensively when Talib went down and they were able to expose the matchup between Boldin and Marquice Cole and work the middle of the field with their tight ends.
Talib's presence allowed Kyle Arrington to kick inside into a slot cornerback role, something more tailored to his natural skill set, and the emergence of Alfonzo Dennard as another starter helped to boost the secondary.
And it's not just what Talib brings to the table that made retaining him so crucial, but also the Patriots' depth issues at cornerback. They opened free agency with just three on the roster, including Malcolm Williams (primarily a special-teamer) and Ras-I Dowling (who has had major durability concerns). Dennard also faces potential jail time stemming from an April 2012 incident, which would further hamstring the secondary.
With Talib and Arrington back under contract, the Patriots' cornerback position is rounding into form. Throw in the addition of Adrian Wilson at the safety spot, and the Patriots' secondary is coming together as a whole.
Here's a snapshot look at each position:
Cornerback depth chart
1. Aqib Talib
2. Alfonzo Dennard
3. Kyle Arrington
4. Ras-I Dowling
5. Malcolm Williams
Safety depth chart
1. Devin McCourty
2. Adrian Wilson/Steve Gregory
3. Tavon Wilson
4. Nate Ebner
It's a good start for the team, although work is left to be done. Adding another capable cornerback to play on the perimeter would go a long way, as would another body to play in the slot to back up Arrington. The draft is an obvious avenue to potentially address the position, and the Patriots could continue to dip into the pool of free agents for other options.
As far as the safety spot goes, the feeling here is that with Wilson added, the team has a solid foundation in place. McCourty projects to play one starting role, while Gregory and the Wilsons figure to be in the mix for time alongside of him (the elder Wilson could also help quite a bit as a sub-defense player).