FOXBOROUGH — From March 1, 2008, the day that homegrown All-Pro Asante Samuel signed a six-year free agent deal with Philadelphia, until Nov. 1, 2012, the day they acquired Aqib Talib in a trade with the Buccaneers, the Patriots spent six draft picks and millions of free agent dollars trying to find a No. 1 cornerback.
There were several duds in the bunch, but there were some times over that four-plus-year span that it looked as if New England had found a suitable replacement: Leigh Bodden’s 2009 season was strong, and Devin McCourty was a Pro Bowler at the position as a rookie in 2010.
Neither, however, played at the level Talib is playing at right now for the Patriots.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound Talib has brought a measure of stability and confidence to the secondary that has been lacking for a few seasons, as players were cycled in and out of that unit and it continued to give up big plays at a sometimes-alarming rate.
Last week, Talib was matched up against Tampa Bay’s top receiver, Vincent Jackson, before Jackson left the game in the third quarter with a rib injury. Jackson was targeted six times and came away with three catches; one of the balls intended for the receiver ended up in Talib’s hands instead, when he made a great play on a sideline pass at the end of the first half.
It was his third interception of the young season.
On Sunday night, Talib will get another tall challenge in the form of the Falcons’ Julio Jones. Jones is in the discussion as the best receiver in the NFL, and through three games he is tied for the league lead in catches (27) and leads in receiving yards (373).
Talib may get some help with Jones, but for the most part, he’ll likely shadow the 2011 first-round pick wherever he goes.
In the locker room this week, Talib, who does not lack for bravado on the field, was modest when asked if he thinks he can handle Jones by himself.
“Hey man . . . I hope I can. If I have to. I don’t know what the plan is, you know, whatever the plan is, that’s the plan. So, it’s a task,” Talib said.
Atlanta head coach Mike Smith has seen enough of Talib to know that he’s not going to be a pushover lined up against Jones.
“He is a very physical, athletic corner that has the capability if they want to match him up with the No. 1 receiver,” Smith said. “We’re very familiar with him from having played against him while he was in Tampa, so we know that he is an outstanding player. We anticipate we’ll get his best shot this week. He is a good football player, their best cover guy by far.”
When New England gave Tampa Bay a fourth-round pick in exchange for Talib, who was then in the final year of his rookie contract, the University of Kansas product was a definite gamble.
The talent was there, but his attitude and off-field issues were a concern: Talib had gotten into a fight at his rookie symposium weekend with another Tampa Bay draftee; swung his helmet at a Buccaneers teammate during offseason workouts in 2009, missing his intended target and hitting a fellow cornerback; had to be restrained from going after an official after a 2010 game; was arrested twice; and received a four-game suspension from the NFL in 2012 for violating the policy on performance-enhancing substances.
But the structure the Patriots offer and the accountability Bill Belichick demands seem to have had a positive impact on Talib.
“You can tell the structure has helped him; that’s maturity as well,” an AFC scout said. “I’d say he plays more disciplined now [compared to when he was with the Buccaneers], and it’s a correlation between the structure of the organization and what Bill demands out of his players and the discipline he instills. You have to do what you’re supposed to do for fear of being reprimanded.”
Discipline was not something Talib got a lot of in Tampa Bay. When he was drafted in 2008, his defensive backs coach was Raheem Morris. In 2009, Morris was elevated to head coach.
Time and again, Morris made excuses for Talib and his behavior. After the Buccaneers were blown out by the Patriots in London in 2009, Talib was one of a few players who ignored curfew, and when Morris confronted them after they finally returned to the team hotel, Talib exploded, reportedly directing a string of obscenities at the coach.
He was not punished by the team.
Talib acknowledged that the expectations in New England have helped him “a bunch.”
“You don’t have no choice but to be here on time, know what you’re doing, because that’s what everybody does here,” he said. “Nobody is ever late, everybody always knows their assignments.
“In some other places you may have a little leeway, come late once in a while and it’s acceptable, [but] it’s just not acceptable here. You’ve got to get with the program or you’ll probably be gone.”
Though he played in just six games with New England last year, the Patriots re-signed Talib to a one-year contract for $5 million. It wasn’t a great free agent market for cornerbacks in particular this year, and a strong season means Talib will get another chance at a potential big payday next March.
He got off to a good start in the spring, becoming a strong presence during the Patriots’ offseason workout program, and he was later named one of the team’s offseason award winners.
It’s continued through training camp and into the regular season. Even defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, generally loathe to give a positive assessment of one of his players when talking to media, said earlier this month that he was “very, very happy” with Talib’s work and work ethic, calling him “a good example on the field for those guys who are coming into the program.”
Given his history in Florida, Tampa Bay reporters on the other end of the conference call must have been taken aback last week when Belichick called Talib a good leader for the Patriots and “a great addition to our team.”
But Talib believes his experiences with the Buccaneers happened for a reason, and helped make him a better player.
“It made me see one side, you see the other side, so I think it made me better,” he said.
McCourty, now playing at safety, didn’t hesitate when asked if Talib is the best corner he’s played with, and acknowledged that Talib’s play enables him to do some different things at his position as well.
When the offense lines up, McCourty will look at the route he believes Talib’s receiver is going to run, and knows whether his teammate will need help. If Talib doesn’t, McCourty can provide help elsewhere.
“How he went out there last week and covered Vincent Jackson while he was in there, it just brings some certainty, makes us have a little different game plan,” McCourty said. “That aspect of him being able to lock up on guys and do a very good job at it, any defense, you love to have a guy like that.
“The attitude he brings and how he approaches the game have been great.”