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Bill Belichick is making more curious moves in his secondary. The Patriots released 35-year-old cornerback Shawn Springs yesterday, an unexpected roster move that seems to be part of an effort to get younger players involved on the Patriots’ defense.
“It’s hard to evaluate and give young guys a shot if you’ve got me,’’ Springs said to Boston Globe reporters.
Springs’ release comes less than a month after Belichick surprised Patriots fans by drafting Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty in the first round of this year’s draft. Belichick has been building a young secondary over the past couple of years, also drafting Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, and Jonathan Wilhite, who all saw time on the field last season and are ready to contribute this year. With Springs gone, the oldest Patriots cornerback is now 28 year-old Leigh Bodden, who was locked up this offseason with a four year, $22 million deal. Bodden is currently penciled in as the starter at cornerback alongside Darius Butler on the unofficial depth chart shown on the Patriots’ website.
The Patriots’ overall defense has been getting younger in recent years, with the retirements of Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, and Junior Seau, along with the trades of aging fan favorites Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour for draft picks.
As it stands, the starting defense listed on New England’s unofficial depth chart is dominated by youth, including 21 year-old rookie linebacker Jermaine Cunningham; 24 year-olds Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, and Darius Butler; and 26 year-olds Brandon Meriweather, Brandon McGowan and James Sanders. Even some of the experienced starters are under 30, including 28 year-olds Vince Wilfork and Leigh Bodden and 29 year-olds Ty Warren and Tully Banta-Cain.
Even when acquiring veterans on defense, Belichick has made sure not to sink too much money into older players. Instead of trying to afford a new contract for an aging Richard Seymour, Belichick traded him to Oakland for a first-round draft pick in 2011. The trade allowed the Patriots to avoid a holdout by the younger and arguably more important Vince Wilfork by offering him 5 years and $40 million, making him the highest paid nose tackle in football. It also allows the opportunity at grabbing a high first round defensive lineman in next year’s draft. When filling the gap left by the Seymour trade and the departure of Jarvis Green to Denver, Belichick acquired the 6’4” 330 lb. Gerard Warren for a one-year, $900,000 deal. The risk for the 31 year-old Warren, a third overall pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2001, is less than one million dollars if it doesn’t work out with him. But if Gerard Warren comes out looking like Richard Seymour, who comes from the same draft class, then the Patriots get a quality starter for $900,000.
But Shawn Springs was 35 years-old and his $10.5 million contract was starting to become a liability on a predominantly young defense. According to Boston.com, Springs underwent arthroscopic knee surgery less than a month after the Patriots’ playoff loss to the Ravens, although Springs claims his release is not related to his injury. Last season, Springs was a healthy scratch from the roster for a four game period, playing in only 12 games. He contributed 40 tackles and just one interception over that span. On the other hand, in Darius Butler’s rookie season last year he played in 14 games, acquiring 35 tackles and three interceptions, and Jonathan Wilhite had 45 tackles and two interceptions in 14 games of his second season. The young guys are ready to step up to the plate in the secondary. It looks like Bill Belichick was just trying to make room for them.