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Over the past few seasons, no group of players in the New England organization has been subject to as much criticism as the Patriots’ defensive backfield. Heading into 2011 however, this group finally appears to have a firm foundation of talent and experience that has plagued the back end of the Pats’ defense since their Super Bowl runs.
Since the loss of Ty Law, Patriots’ corners have struggled to adapt to Coach Bill Belichick’s tough defensive scheme. Over the past four drafts however, the Hooded One has begun a wholesale change that has turned this group that was once a liability into one of the youngest, most talented cores in the NFL.
On the left side, sophomore cornerback Devin McCourty will look to vault into the upper-echelon of cover corners in the league. As a rookie in 2010, McCourty registered 7 interceptions, tying him for second in the NFL. His performance was good enough for second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, trailing only Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh. His development in his sophomore year is essential to the success of the New England DBs.
Returning to his spot at right corner is ninth-year player Leigh Bodden. Another victim of injury in 2010, Bodden suffered a season ending rotator cuff injury in training camp, causing him to miss the entire season. Bodden was the Pats’ best pass defender in 2009 with a team-high five interceptions, including three against Mark Sanchez in a 31-14 win against the Jets. If he can return to his 2009 form, McCourty and Bodden could become one of the better cornerback tandems in the league.
New England’s nickel corner will be an interesting position to watch this season, with four players vying for the coveted third corner position. Rookie Ras-I Dowling joins fourth-year corners Kyle Arrington and Jonathan Wilhite, and third-year player Darius Butler as challengers for the spot.
Blessed with the 33rd pick in this year’s draft, the Patriots added to their stable of corners by drafting Ras-I Dowling from Virginia. Dowling is an interesting prospect to project for the Patriots this season. Billed as a potential first round pick prior to his senior season, Dowling suffered a fractured left ankle early in 2010, and had lingering knee and hamstring issues that saw his draft stock plummet from potential first round pick into New England’s lap.
Arrington came into his own in 2010, replacing Butler in Week 3 and maintaining the right corner position for the rest of the season. Arrington made 14 starts with 49 solo tackles and one interception, gaining the confidence of Coach Belichick as the season progressed.
Wilhite was another member of New England’s 2010 secondary that fell victim to injury. He appeared in nine games last year with one start, and has three interceptions during his career. Wilhite’s value will be as a special teams’ contributor, and is possibly someone who could see more playing time if someone ahead of him suffers injury.
Butler, who was expected to grow as a sophomore last season, regressed greatly in 2010. The Connecticut product started the first two weeks, but was torched by both Terrell Owens and Braylon Edwards before being replaced by Arrington. Like Patrick Chung with the safeties, Butler was a second round pick in 2009, so his potential to emerge as a quality corner is there. However, Butler must play like he did at the end of 2009 in order to see a significant amount of snaps.
Dowling’s rookie year maturation is an X-factor for Belichick’s defensive backfield. If the rookie can come in, grasp the complexities of the defense and contribute early on, the Patriots will have one of the deepest defensive backfield’s in the league.