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PATRIOTS IN POSITION

In the secondary, Patriots were on the ball

Young cornerback Malcolm Butler didn’t save all of his good plays for the Super Bowl.
Young cornerback Malcolm Butler didn’t save all of his good plays for the Super Bowl.John Tlumacki/globe staff/file 2016/Boston Globe

Part of a continuing series on how the Patriots fare, position by position. Click here to read more stories in the series.


The biggest question for the Patriots heading into last season was: Who is going to play cornerback?

New England’s top trio from the Super Bowl XLIX championship squad — Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington — took their bling to new cities, leaving their previous employers woefully thin at the position.

Or so it seemed.

Turns out the new group had it covered. Literally.

Spearheaded by Malcolm Butler, who transformed from Super Bowl hero to Pro Bowl performer, and the underrated Logan Ryan, the Patriots cornerback crew was solid all season. They accomplished this despite losing projected starter Tarell Brown in the preseason and shuffling a few players (Justin Coleman, Rashaan Melvin, Leonard Johnson) in and out because of injuries.

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The corners, along with one of the best safety groupings in the league, gave Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia a superior secondary.

The core of the cornerback corps returns, with Butler, Ryan, Melvin, and Darryl Roberts (the rookie spent the year on injured reserve) under contract for 2017.

Butler, an incredibly quick and instinctive player who fights through the whistle, is in the last year of his rookie deal. He is set to make $600,000, making him one of the NFL’s biggest bargains, and is surely among the team’s highest priorities when it comes to getting a long-term deal done.

He doesn’t have a ton of leverage because he’ll be a restricted free agent after 2017, but it would be a surprise if a mutually beneficial multiyear deal isn’t struck long before then.

Like Butler, Ryan ($825,000) is in the final year of his rookie contract. He has a bit more negotiating power as he will be an unrestricted free agent.

Ryan was solid and often spectacular last season (just ask Demaryius Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins). Belichick often praises his preparation and physicality, and he seems a logical fit to sign a long-term pact.

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Coleman was plagued by wrist and concussion issues but showed plenty when he was on the field and has the inside track to be the slot corner in 2016.

Melvin has excellent length, and Roberts was having a good camp before being derailed by a wrist injury. They should provide solid depth.

Brown was having an exceptionally competitive camp, and the free agent likely will get another shot this summer. Johnson was released, but a return can’t be ruled out. He showed some flashes (and we’re not talking about his dance moves).

In addition to Brown, other interesting free agents remaining on the market include Browner, Antonio Cromartie, Sterling Moore, and Trumaine McBride.

Alabama’s Cyrus Jones, Ohio State’s Eli Apple, Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, Mississippi State’s Will Redmond, North Carolina Central’s Ryan Smith, and Baylor’s Xavien Howard are possible draft targets.

There’s some serious strength in New England’s safety numbers.

The starters are stars. Devin McCourty is widely considered one of the best free safeties in the game. He is a leader on the field and in the locker room and is under contract until 2019.

Patrick Chung is highly underrated. The strong safety plays much bigger than his 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound frame would suggest. He loves to play close to the line and is an excellent wrap-up tackler. Chung also proved last season he can excel in coverage, particularly against the tight end. He is under contract through the next two campaigns at $2.4 million and $2.8 million.

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Duron Harmon is a valuable third member of the rotation. He plays a solid center field and has a nose for the ball. Harmon is entering the final year of his rookie contract at $814,400.

New England got solid depth play from Jordan Richards, Nate Ebner, and Tavon Wilson last season. Richards’s role will continue to increase, as the strong and smart rookie did not look out of place. Ebner, who is chasing his rugby dreams, will continue to do most of his work on special teams, but Wilson will ply his trade in Detroit this season.

Additionally, Brandon King (a special teams demon who can also play linebacker), Brock Vereen and Cedric Thompson (both signed future contracts through this season) are options.

Available free agent safeties include Husain Abdullah and Reggie Nelson.

If the Patriots decided to stock through the draft, names to watch include Jeremy Cash of Duke, Miles Killebrew of Southern Utah, Deon Bush of Miami, Jalen Mills of LSU, and Notre Dame’s Elijah Shumate.


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.