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Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan lead Patriots defense in playing time

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – One of the major questions facing the New England Patriots entering the 2015 season was how they would replace starting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.

The answer: Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan.

“Those are two players that both had good years and we have a lot of confidence in them,” coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday morning. “There were good opportunities for both players based on the transition that we made at that position from the offseason, with [Alfonzo] Dennard, [Kyle] Arrington, Browner, Revis, that whole group.

“They really took advantage of those opportunities and have worked hard, continued to develop and refine their technique and craft. They’ve given us really solid play throughout the year. They’re both still young players who still have a lot of things they can work on and improve on, but they definitely have helped us a lot and been consistent, dependable and healthy all year, which has been huge.”

The work of Butler and Ryan is the springboard for the complete 2015 snap-count analysis of the Patriots’ defense.

Total defensive snaps: 1,095

CORNERBACK

Malcolm Butler – 1,082 (98.8 percent)

Logan Ryan – 978 (89.3 percent)

Justin Coleman – 299 (27.3 percent)

Tarell Brown – 162 (14.8 percent)

Leonard Johnson – 157 (14.3 percent)

Bradley Fletcher – 68 (6.2 percent)

Rashaan Melvin – 45 (4.1 percent)

Notes: The plan entering the season was to have Butler and Brown as the top 1-2 tandem, but Brown’s foot injury ended those plans early. He only played in three games. Butler held his ground as the No. 1 option and earned a Pro Bowl berth, while Ryan’s development was critical as low-budget free-agent signings Brown and Bradley Fletcher didn’t pan out. Johnson is the current top nickelback going into the playoffs, with rookie Coleman the No. 4 option.

SAFETY

Devin McCourty – 928 (84.7 percent)

Patrick Chung – 887 (81.0 percent)

Duron Harmon – 593 (54.2 percent)

Jordan Richards – 239 (21.8 percent)

Tavon Wilson – 83 (7.6 percent)

Nate Ebner – 46 (4.2 percent)

Notes: McCourty and Chung have been the starters, with McCourty in the center field-type role and Chung often playing in the box and offering quality run support. No. 3 safety Harmon played a lot as the “Big Nickel” (three-safety package) was used quite a bit this year, and he’s the top backup to McCourty as the center field-type option. Big plays have been an issue, and there haven’t been as many forced turnovers as desired from this group.

LINEBACKER

Jamie Collins – 778 (71.1 percent)

Dont’a Hightower – 594 (54.2 percent)

Jerod Mayo – 396 (36.2 percent)

Jonathan Freeny – 390 (35.6 percent)

Jon Bostic – 40 (3.7 percent)

Darius Fleming – 28 (2.6 percent)

Dekoda Watson – 4 (0.4 percent)

Notes: The biggest surprise in this group was the sharp reduction in playing time for Mayo, a team captain and usual three-down option. He was the No. 4 option on the depth chart when everyone was healthy and it will be interesting to see how the sides to address his contract after the season because it seems certain he won’t be back at his current numbers based on his role. Mayo was coming off two injury-shortened seasons in 2013 and 2014 as he overcame significant surgeries (knee, pectoral). Collins missed four games in the middle of the season but still earned Pro Bowl honors. Hightower missed four games at various points and was limited in others.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Malcom Brown – 509 (46.5 percent)

Alan Branch – 434 (39.6 percent)

Akiem Hicks – 301 (27.5 percent)

Dominique Easley – 275 (25.1 percent)

Sealver Siliga – 254 (23.2 percent)

Ishmaa’ily Kitchen – 1 (0.1 percent)

Notes: One of the big questions entering the year was how the Patriots would replace Vince Wilfork, and this group was commendable. Brown, the first-round pick out of Texas, looks like a keeper. Bill Belichick noted he came on after the Week 4 bye, and one play in particular stands out -- Oct. 11 against Dallas, when he played down the line of scrimmage to make a tackle that showed unusual athleticism for a player of his size (6-foot-2, 320 pounds). The Patriots got a lot out of nine-year veteran Branch and Hicks was a steal after acquiring him from the Saints after Week 3. Easley, the 2014 first-round draft pick, landed on IR in December for the second year in a row and needs to prove he can stay on the field.

DEFENSIVE END

Rob Ninkovich – 891 (81.4 percent)

Chandler Jones – 863 (78.8 percent)

Jabaal Sheard – 558 (51.0 percent)

Geneo Grissom – 131 (12.0 percent)

Rufus Johnson – 13 (1.2 percent)

Trey Flowers – 4 (0.4 percent)

Notes: This is arguably the deepest group on the team, both from a short- and long-term perspective when factoring in the possible growth of Grissom (third-round pick) and Flowers (fourth-round pick), the latter of whom flashed in the preseason before sustaining an injury. Also, Sheard was one of the best free-agent signings across the NFL. Jones earned his first Pro Bowl berth, earning the respect of many with his play against the run. Ninkovich is as steady as they come – reliable, professional and the type of on-field/off-field presence any winning team needs.