When Tom Brady lines up for the first 11-on-11 drill of training camp Thursday and begins to survey the defense, he’ll more than likely see Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at cornerback and Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon at the safety spots.
Three of the four have at least one Pro Bowl under their belt, and combined with reserves Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard, Patrick Chung, and Tavon Wilson, this could arguably be New England’s best secondary in years.
It’s a welcome change after several seasons of revolving-door roster switches, with the turnover making cohesion difficult — not to mention the lack of talent that led to many of the changes.
“I am as excited for them defensively as I have ever been,” said Solomon Wilcots, the former safety who now works as an NFL Network analyst. “I work with Willie [McGinest], I talked with Ty Law recently about the kind of defenses they had when they won Super Bowls and where they’re at now, and we always go back to the secondary.
“Getting a guy like Revis — you look at the last two AFC title games, Aqib Talib was dominant, and then he got hurt [and the Patriots suffered]. It tells you how close they are.”
When they drafted McCourty in the first round in 2010, New England had a young and inexperienced group. James Sanders was the veteran of the bunch, and Chung and Brandon Meriweather were also at safety. McCourty and Arrington started at corner, with 2009 second-rounder Darius Butler also seeing reps.
That group didn’t stay together long.
Over the last four seasons the Patriots have started 21 players in the secondary, from McCourty, who has played all but three games in that time, to Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett. In 2011, the Patriots started a whopping 10 players at defensive back.
The signing of Revis has been hailed by not just Patriots fans, but also his teammates and NFL observers, all of whom believe adding the three-time All-Pro, was a masterstroke by Bill Belichick.
“It allows them now to scheme other receivers,” Wilcots said. “With Revis matched up on an opponent’s best receiver, now you can take away a top guy, second guy, even the third guy. You single up on one [with Revis] and double the other two guys — what teams do you know that have a fourth receiver that can beat you? Doesn’t exist. Good teams will always have a third guy that can beat you, but the Patriots can take that guy away. Just go single coverage on the best receiver and bracket coverage on the others.”
Wilcots joked that it must really burn Jets coach Rex Ryan that Revis is a Patriot. When the corner played in New York, Ryan would tell anyone Revis was the best in the game. Now he plays for the archrival.
As the Patriots secondary has struggled in recent seasons, the front seven has had problems getting pressure on quarterbacks, though that was less of a problem with a healthy Talib playing.
Now that the back end is stronger, that could lead to more exotic looks in an effort to pressure quarterbacks.
“There’s no doubt they can scheme a lot more — we always say pressure leads to picks, not sacks lead to picks,” Wilcots said. “Pressure will create mistakes, leads to turnovers, and can force [quarterbacks] into doing something bad with the ball.
“Sometimes you expect the D-line to get pressure and the secondary to come up with the ball, but sometimes the D-line needs the secondary to hold up . . . If the quarterback takes a five-step drop and he doesn’t have to hold it because the coverage isn’t good, the D-line is going to say, ‘What can we do?’ They need more time.
“You can’t become a great defense if you’re just trying to rely on pressure and have no coverage on the back end. It really does come together in a way, one area of the defense is covering for the other.”
Revis has impressed his teammates with how quickly he’s been able to pick up everything that’s been thrown at him. On the field, he’s so smooth and such a technician, understanding how routes are run and at what depth, etc., at times it looks like he’s not giving much effort.
But that fluidity and ease come from years of honing his talents.
Wilcots said Revis is fearless.
“He’s a great player. He’s not just a great cover guy, he can tackle, he can do everything that Ty did, and things like that are lost in a lot of corners today,” Wilcots said. “Revis has no fear because he has supreme technique and confidence in his ability.’’
Wilcots also spoke highly of McCourty, and believes Browner, who will miss the first four games because of a league suspension, brings the physical presence New England needs.
“Devin won’t get you beat,” Wilcots said. “Sometimes you just need guys that are smart and get you lined up, but he can make plays, too. It takes about 4-5 years to be able to match wits with opposing quarterbacks — I’m not talking about just any quarterback, I’m talking about second- season, elite quarterbacks.
“Quarterbacking the defense, you have to be smart and very heady. [McCourty’s] already a smart player and now the experience is there.”
Perhaps the only question is Harmon. It’s assumed he will win the other safety spot, but Wilson, who basically didn’t play on defense last year but has been diligently working to improve, could put up a good fight.
A third-round pick last year, Harmon started three late-season games and acquitted himself well. With Revis and Browner at the corners, Wilcots theorized the Patriots could move McCourty around more to exploit matchups and give quarterbacks more to think about, and just tell Harmon to roam center field, which is the safest play for him.
Brady was frustrated during spring practices, trying to work the offense against the new-look secondary. He won’t get much relief during training camp, but come September, the Patriots hope they’ll be frustrating opposing quarterbacks far more frequently than they have in recent years.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.