FOXBOROUGH — When it came to the cornerback position, the Patriots did for most of the 2015 NFL Draft what teams are going to do on them this season. They passed.
The Patriots drafted 11 players, but they didn’t send a card up with a cornerback’s name on it until their penultimate pick, taking Darryl Roberts from Marshall in the seventh round (247th overall). Marshall was the 43d of the 47 defensive backs taken in the draft. He has the same initials as Darrelle Revis. Let’s leave it there.
The next Revis isn’t backpedaling through the Gillette Stadium door. It’s unclear if the Patriots even have a corner capable of replacing Brandon Browner. In his front seven, which got an infusion of talent in the draft, coach Bill Belichick is going to have to trust.
The Patriots better hope that Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler turns out to write the cornerback version of Tom Brady’s football fairy tale. Or that they can repeat the Aqib Talib heist with some clueless team. Otherwise, despite a cluster of corners, they’ve left themselves supermodel thin at one of the NFL’s most vital positions.
It was last year at this time that the explanation for the Patriots not drafting weapons for Brady was that they had taken the pressure off him by upgrading the secondary with Revis and Browner — starting corners whose metier was man-to-man coverage. The Patriots cashed in on their investment by lifting that elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy. That was not a coincidence.
Cue the bugle, though, because the Patriots are back to riding Brady like a Kentucky Derby jockey.
New England’s current cornerback situation is reminiscent of 2008, when Asante Samuel left for the greener pastures of Philadelphia. The Patriots tried to replace him by signing bargain-bin cornerbacks Lewis Sanders, Jason Webster, and Fernando Bryant. They brought in Deltha O’Neal six days before the season opener and inserted him into the starting lineup.
The Patriots signed discounted (in more ways than one) corners Bradley Fletcher, Chimdi Chekwa, and Robert McClain this offseason. That doesn’t exactly conjure up visions of Mike Haynes, Ty Law, Samuel, Revis, or even Talib.
In addition to the free agent additions, the front-runners on the depth chart are Butler, reliable slot corner Kyle Arrington, and young corners Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard, although both of them took a step back last season. Dennard ended the season on injured reserve, but had fallen out of favor before that.
“We’ll keep working through the team-building process like we always do,” said Belichick. “You saw several players come on to our roster halfway through the season or thereabouts last season. There is a long way to go on that. I think [the draft] is just a significant step in the process, but it’s certainly not the final one.
“We’ll take what we have and work with it and move forward. If we can upgrade it or improve it or change it, as we see necessary along the way, then we’ll look at those options. I just don’t think in any way that this is a final roster. It’s not even close to it.”
Let’s hope he is right.
One of the reasons the Patriots had to trade for Talib in 2012 and employ helmeted Hessians Revis and Browner last season is because they have not been able to develop players to man the position via the draft.
Does Ras-I Dowling or Terrence Wheatley ring a bell?
From 2010 to 2012, no team in the NFL allowed more passing yards than the Patriots (13,181). They ranked 30th, 31st, and 29th in pass defense.
If you can’t cover ’em, pressure ’em seemed to be Belichick’s approach in the draft.
The Patriots drafted defensive tackle Malcom Brown with their first-round pick to help fill the Vince Wilfork void.
In the third and fourth rounds, the Patriots grabbed defensive end/outside linebacker types, selecting Oklahoma’s Geneo Grissom with a compensatory pick in the third round and using their first of three fourth-round picks to take Trey Flowers of Arkansas.
(The pick after Grissom was Oregon State cornerback Steven Nelson, taken by the Chiefs, who selected a corner in the first round. With the last pick of the second round, the Patriots selected Stanford safety Jordan Richards. One pick later, the Indianapolis Colts took cornerback D’Joun Smith.)
This was a classic Patriots draft. They flummoxed some fans by neglecting a position of need (cornerback) and completely ignored one of the draft’s purported positions of strength (wide receiver).
They selected smart guys, tough guys, and football character guys, and had you scouring the Internet for proof of life of some of their picks.
They used a fifth-round pick on a long-snapper from Navy, Joe Cardona. A long-snapper from Navy, where Belichick’s father Steve was a legendary assistant coach and scout, is Belichickian personnel beatitude.
The Patriots did bulk up and bolster the interior of their offensive line, which was a need.
New England used the final two of its three fourth-rounders on leviathans Tre’ Jackson of Florida State and Shaq Mason of Georgia Tech.
There is now a clear Florida State-to-Foxborough offensive line pipeline. Last year, the Patriots picked Jackson’s FSU teammate, center Bryan Stork, in the fourth round.
An NFL personnel executive said being able to protect up front is crucial.
“One thing QBs hate is being rushed up the middle,” he said. “Inside pass rush is more difficult than outside pass rush.
“You’ve seen Tom Brady do it a million times, step up in the pocket and avoid a rusher and still deliver the football. If you have a quarterback who is comfortable in a pocket situation you really need to be better at guard and center than the outside because you can step up and find a lane and get the ball out.”
Protecting Brady is paramount because it looks like he’s going to have to cover for corners that can’t.