INDIANAPOLIS — Drafting Alfonzo Dennard was always a risk/reward proposition for the Patriots. He was a potential lockdown cornerback saddled with the possibility of becoming a locked-up one.
He made strides toward developing into the former last season, starting nine games — including the playoffs — corralling three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown, and displaying NFL-starter ability.
He took a step closer to becoming the latter on Wednesday, when he was convicted of a felony charge of assaulting a police officer and a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest. Both charges stem from an incident that took place in Lincoln, Neb., on April 21, 2012, just seven days before the Patriots drafted Dennard.
The felony charge is punishable by up to five years in jail, but typical sentences for offenders range from probation to 180 days in jail, according to Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly, whose office prosecuted the case. The Patriots won’t know whether they could be without their starting corner into the regular season until his sentencing, which is set for April 11.
Even if Dennard gets a light sentence from the legal system, the NFL could still render its own brand of unforgiving justice.
You don’t draft a guy with legal trouble like Dennard’s without the understanding that at some point he could go from playing man free in your defensive backfield to not being a free man. So, this shouldn’t jolt the Patriots’ offseason plan off its moorings.
Regardless of the availability of Dennard for the offseason program and next season, the team needed to address its 29th-ranked pass defense with reinforcements.
The only teams that allowed more yards per completion than the Patriots’ 7.7 in 2012 were the Saints, Giants, Chiefs, and Buccaneers. None of those other teams made the playoffs, and only the Giants (9-7) had a winning record.
That’s why regardless of Dennard’s status the Patriots have to slap the franchise tag on mercurial coverman Aqib Talib, who boosted the pass defense when he arrived in a November trade.
Talib is not Asante Samuel or Ty Law, but he’s the closest the Patriots have had to a game-changing cornerback since Samuel left for greener pastures after the 2007 season.
Talib is a gambler, and when he guesses wrong he looks bad. But he’s guessed wrong a lot less at corner than Bill Belichick has.
The NFL is a quarterback league, but by extension it’s become a cornerback league. You need talent at that position. The days of getting by with the Earthwind Morelands and Hank Poteats are over.
A former Patriots personnel man once told me that Belichick didn’t believe in lucrative contracts for cornerbacks. But you either pay for talent at that position in today’s NFL or spend a lot of time and resources trying to cover up for guys who can’t cover well enough.
That’s what the Patriots have been doing for five seasons. You can’t get better if you get worse first.
There are other franchise tag candidates for the Patriots in wide receiver Wes Welker and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. The Patriots have until March 4 to use the franchise or transition tag.
Welker got tagged last year, and to do it again would cost the Patriots $11.4 million. The team seems disinclined to spend that kind of dough on Welker, whose biggest dropped ball is not holding the Patriots’ feet to the fire for a new deal when he had the leverage.
Vollmer is among the elite right tackles in the league. The estimated franchise tag numbers peg him at $9.6 million per season. Right tackle is like the minivan of football. The good ones are solid and reliable, but no one dreams of owning a costly one. The Patriots won Super Bowls with such luminaries as Greg Robinson-Randall, Tom Ashworth, and Brandon Gorin as primary right tackles.
For about a $1 million more ($10.6), they can franchise Talib instead.
The idea of giving someone with Talib’s off-field list of transgressions a long-term contract causes one to swig Pepto-Bismol like Gatorade. But on a one-year, make-good deal where Talib literally has incentive to stay out of trouble and stay focused, it’s a slam dunk.
For all his behavioral issues and legal entanglements, Talib can still say something Dennard now cannot. He’s never been convicted of a crime while playing in the NFL.
Plus, it would be nice if the Patriots got more than seven games, two series, and one ill-timed hamstring pull out of the fourth-round pick they sent to Tampa Bay for Talib.
There are other free agent corners who could be available, such as Brent Grimes, Sean Smith, and Derek Cox. But the Patriots already know that Talib fits in Foxborough.
Statistical analysis is not kind to Talib. According to Pro Football Focus, Talib ranked 112th among NFL corners in yards allowed per coverage snap this past season. Yet, anyone who watched the Patriots has to acknowledge the pass defense went from criminal to passable after he arrived.
If Dennard’s conviction is the catalyst for bringing back Talib, so be it. But it shouldn’t be.
Of course, another avenue to aerial amelioration is through the draft, which is why the Patriots are here along with the other 31 teams, poking, prodding and probing draft prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine.
But the success rate of Patriots cornerback draftees is about the same as that of the contrived reality romances on “The Bachelor.”
Dennard is the closest thing to a success story right now, and he’s facing jail time.
The Patriots knew what they were getting into with Dennard when they drafted him in the seventh round. They got the reward, now they pay with the risk.
Let’s hope their offseason defense plan is more effective than Dennard’s was.