Patriots positional analysis: Defensive backs

Posted March 04, 2011 @ 11:15 a.m.
Posted By Kevin Fishbain

This is the eighth in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots' personnel entering the 2011 offseason. Today, we analyze New England's defensive backs.

Overview: The Patriots' secondary had an interesting season. Defensive backs combined for 19 interceptions, helping the team lead the league in that category. But the Pats also finished 30th in the league in passing defense and last in third-down defense. Some of that can be attributed to the youth in the secondary.

The biggest positive was the season that rookie Devin McCourty had, making the Pro Bowl thanks to seven interceptions. The Patriots seem to have found their shutdown corner of the future.

But the unit was marred by injuries. Both Brandon McGowan and Leigh Bodden missed the entire season. Jonathan Wilhite was put on injured reserve in the middle of the season.

On paper, though, the top guys in this unit are very good with great upside in the form of Patrick Chung, the playmaking safety. While they were opportunistic and have depth, the defensive backs gave up plenty of yards and their vulnerability was shown in the playoff loss to the Jets.

Here's a breakdown of each of the defensive backs on the roster:

CB Devin McCourty: A contender for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, McCourty led all rookies with seven interceptions. He got inserted into the starting lineup when Leigh Bodden landed on injured reserve. He has great ball skills and showed the speed to keep up with some of the league's top receivers. Looks to be a mainstay for the Patriots at that position for years to come.

CB Kyle Arrington: Arrington had an up-and-down year, taking the starting job in Week Three from Darius Butler. He's good against the run but does not have great ball skills. He was tendered for 2011 but will have to battle to regain his starting spot with Bodden healthy.

CB Darius Butler: Butler struggled mightily in a Week Two loss to the Jets, losing his starting job. He came back at the end of the season, playing some nickel. If he gets some confidence back, he could join the battle to start opposite McCourty. Butler finished with 23 tackles and six passes defensed.

CB Tony Carter: Signed before Week 15 to add depth, Carter played in two games with one tackle. Carter will have to compete for a roster spot.

CB Jonathan Wilhite: The team's nickel back, Wilhite saw his season cut short because of a hip injury. He recorded 20 tackles and two passes defensed.

CB Leigh Bodden: The team's top corner heading into 2010, Bodden tore his rotator cuff before the season, landing on I.R. If he returns to full health, he should be starting opposite McCourty, but might have to compete with Arrington and Butler. Bodden had 55 tackles and 18 passes defensed in 2009.

DB Thad Turner: Turner joined the Patriots' practice squad on Nov. 9, 2010.

DB Sergio Brown: The undrafted rookie made his debut in the Patriots' win against the Chargers, helping to lock down TE Antonio Gates. A special-teams contributor, Brown finished with eight tackles on defense and two on special teams, including a fumble recovery.

DB Bret Lockett: Lockett spent 2010 on injured reserve with a chest injury. He is mainly a special-teams contributor and got a one-year contract extension through 2011.

S Brandon McGowan: Counted on to help cover tight ends, McGowan missed the entire season with a chest injury suffered in the preseason. In 11 starts in 2009, he recorded a career-high 79 tackles and four passes defensed. McGowan is set to be a free agent, and could be expendable considering the depth at the position.

S Jarrad Page: Acquired in a trade with the Chiefs, Page played in 10 games and recorded two interceptions and two passes defensed. He missed four games because of an injury. The team likes what Page brings and offered him a restricted free-agent tender.

S Patrick Chung: One of the defense's top playmakers, Chung finished second on the team with 96 tackles. He added three picks and nine passes defensed. He blocked a punt and field goal while also recording a pick-six in the Week Four win over the Dolphins. He needs to improve his coverage, but Chung is a good hitter and adds an aggressive dynamic to the defense.

S James Sanders: With McGowan out for the year and Page often hurt, Sanders became the team's third safety after questions arose that he wouldn't make the team. He covered tight ends mainly and started nine games, finishing with 58 tackles and a career-high three picks, including the game-clinching interception against the Colts. The team likes his intelligence on the field.

S Brandon Meriweather: The team's best over-the-top cover man, Meriweather made his second Pro Bowl and hauled in three interceptions. He is very aggressive, sometimes to a fault, but should start again next season. There are rumors that Meriweather could be traded one day, but for now, he remains the team's top safety.

Bottom line: This is one of the few positions that the Patriots likely won't address in the draft. By tendering Page, that could mean they will let McGowan go. At cornerback, the Pats need a healthy Bodden and could have an intriguing battle at nickel back.

The unit itself is solid, with McCourty, Chung and Meriweather being some of the best young defensive backs in the league. But the unit couldn't slow down high-octane passing games, partially due to the bend-but-don't-break defensive style, but also because of some coverage issues.

The future for the secondary is bright, but there needs to be improvement in 2011.