- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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As much as people talk about how well athletes play in their second year removed from ACL surgery, that isn't the best thing to like about the presence of cornerback Darrelle Revis with the New England Patriots. It's the overall timing of this move that should make fans in that area giddy.
On one hand, you have an elite pass defender eager to prove he's still as good as any in the league. On the other, you have Bill Belichick going back to his roots with the belief that better defense can lead to more championships.
Anybody who has watched the Patriots over the last few years understands how Belichick has approached this team. It mainly has been about the brilliance of quarterback Tom Brady, a future Hall of Famer who has guided an offense that has been as productive as any in the NFL.
The defense, once the heart of a team that won three Super Bowls between 2001 and 2004, became less dominant as the pass rush evaporated and the secondary became a revolving door for defensive backs. Until cornerback Aqib Talib joined the Patriots after a trade midway through the 2012 season, there really hadn't been much confidence in how the team defended the pass.
That all changed when the Pats signed Revis earlier this offseason shortly after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released him. Now, the Patriots have a better talent than Talib, who signed his own free-agent deal with Denver in March. Revis is more technically sound in man coverage and more capable of shutting down any receiver he faces in a given week.
He didn't fit well in Tampa, where the Bucs asked him to play more zone coverage in his first year back from that torn ACL, but Revis' talents already have the New England receivers raving about how much his presence actually helps their development in practice.
With Revis in the secondary, Belichick has more flexibility than he has had in years when it comes to defensive strategy. If you thought Talib had an immediate impact on this team's secondary because of his own ability to manhandle wideouts, just think about the options Revis creates for Belichick's game plans. Safety Devin McCourty should be even more of a ball hawk who can take chances on the back end.
Defensive end Chandler Jones could be even more dangerous after producing 11.5 sacks in a breakout season last year. A defense that was besieged by injuries (including the season-ending losses of stars such as defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo) should have a swagger that hasn't been seen in those parts since Romeo Crennel was devising schemes as a coordinator nearly a decade ago.
Basically, Belichick -- who has selected five defensive players overall in the first two rounds of the last three drafts -- is taking the next logical step in an apparent plan that should've been hatched years ago. As gifted and consistent as Brady is, it has become apparent the Patriots aren't going to win another Super Bowl on offense alone. The NFL may be a passing league but no quarterback is that good. Ask Denver's Peyton Manning. He just guided the most prolific offense in league history and he wound up humiliated by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Belichick certainly saw the same things everybody else did that day. All we've heard over the last few years is how the league is so biased toward the offense that the only way to win is with an elite quarterback throwing for 400 yards a game. The Seahawks proved that ball control, efficient quarterback play and a bone-jarring, ball-hawking defense still has a very real place in this game. Their secondary delivered an even more definitive message during that championship run: They made it known that difference-making defensive backs aren't an endangered species just yet.
It's not a coincidence there's a lot of talk recently about who the best cornerback in the game really is today. Of the contenders, Seattle's Richard Sherman just earned a four-year, $57.4 million contract extension for his success, Cleveland's Joe Haden landed a five-year, $68 million extension on the cusp of his first Pro Bowl, and Arizona's Patrick Peterson hasn't been shy about discussing his own interests in a nice pay raise. But none of those players have been as good as Revis was before his ACL injury, when he dominated opposing receivers with the New York Jets from 2007 to 2012. If he can return to that level, he will end up being the steal of offseason free agency.
Of course, that is a big "if" because while he played in Tampa, we didn't get to see Revis do all the things for which he has been noted. However, it's quite likely that he never has entered a season in his seven-year career with more motivation. Last year, Revis was trying to find a comfort zone on the field after a devastating injury. This year, he has to prove that his best years aren't behind him because of that blown-out knee.
The added incentive is his contract. He earns $12 million for this season, while his second year includes a salary of $20 million. Since that second year is only a means for the Patriots to spread out the cost of the salary-cap hit, Revis is likely to be an unrestricted free agent in 2015. He could be hitting the open market at a time when top cornerbacks are as coveted as they've ever been.
That means this season is all about impact for Revis. It's about reminding fans of his legacy and his peers of his place among the league's elite. In that respect, Revis chose an ideal place to gamble on what amounts to a one-year deal when he could have sought a longer contract elsewhere. If he can help the Patriots move past the AFC Championship Game -- where they've lost the last two seasons -- he could name his price in free agency if New England doesn't want to work out a new deal.
Revis also surely knows enough about New England to know that Belichick has always been at his best when he has had Pro Bowl cornerbacks. Ty Law was a cornerstone of New England's success in the early 2000s, Asante Samuel was a star on the 2007 Super Bowl team, and Talib elevated the defense during his 1½ seasons with the Pats.
Now, here comes a player who doesn't need to tell anybody about what it means to be on "Revis Island." All Revis has to do is remind people of what that Island can do for everybody else around it.
13hEric D. Williams