The Patriots Air Defense Force has reported for duty
On the eve of the "Raise the Banners" start of the 2019 NFL season, New England Patriot corners gained 21 million more reasons to be excited. With Jon Jones' extension finalized the Patriots kept together one of the deepest and best secondaries for the near future. How did we get here, what have they done and what can we expect from a talented secondary and a scary defense?
Player Free Agent year
J.C. Jackson 2021
Jason McCourty 2021
Stephon Gilmore 2022
Jonathan Jones 2023
Joejaun Williams 2023
And with that snapshot the Patriots are entering an uncharacteristic period of stability at that position. Not since the days of Asante Samuel did they have a bona fide #1 corner locked down.
How did we get here?
Much has been made of a seemingly inability to draft talented corners high in the draft. This is supplemented and exceed by scouting undrafted players. Phil Dawson and Cyrus Jones never developed up to their draft status. The early returns on Joejaun Williams appear to be positive. And J.C. Jackson and Jones all fought for their spots as undrafted free agents and have become critical pieces in a smart and talented defensive backfield. Free agent acquisitions can range from high-priced early hour strikes (Gilmore) to resigning veteran depth (McCourty).
So, to say that Bill Belichick and company are well-positioned for the future is an understatement. They will continue to scout and look for upgrades and their may still be some holes that crop up as age and development problems crop up. But this group has performed and will continue to play at a high level in the future.
What have they done to warrant such optimism? Held offensive guru Sean McVay and his offense to 3 points in the biggest game of the year. Limited rising star Patrick Mahomes not once but twice last season as they marched to the Super Bowl.
What they did in 2018
The volume stats don't tell the whole story of how well the secondary performed in 2018. They rank in the bottom third in passing yards allowed and attempts. They did this while opposing offenses knew they needed to score more points and gain more yards every week. The Patriots offense was in the Top 5 for both yards and points in the 2018 season. If you look at Pro-football-reference.com's net yards per attempt, the Patriots fall into the top 10 in the NFL at 6.2 yards. All of this adds up to a defense that performed very well against some very difficult circumstances.
Many will point to the 2014 Patriots secondary as the best group to take the field for the team. Revis and Browner were a formidable duo that contributed to the team winning the Super Bowl. Malcolm Butler intercepted a game changing pass that will go down in history as an iconic football moment.
The 2019 Crew
The 2019 season debuted with the starting unit largely intact. It held Juju Smith-Schuster to six catches and 79 yards. Twenty-six came on one play. It held Ben Roethlisberger to 276 total air yards in a game that they were behind from the get go. Playing in the AFC East this season should benefit the unit as well. Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills all have upheaval or young players at quarterback. The Jets have both and this should translate to the corners playing very well. Warren Sharp of @sharpfootball has the 2019 offenses that the Patriots face ranked 30th-32nd on nearly every metric. Things are looking up!!
The dominant performance against the Dolphins in Week 2 limited the Dolphins quarterbacks to 185 yards, and four interceptions. Gilmore brought one back for a score. Granted it was against what may go down in history as one of the worst professional teams ever. They can only get better as we move forward in the season.
The scary part about this group is that they could have an even better group playing ahead of them. The defensive line received an infusion of new blood and talent. The linebackers became deeper. If those units take steps forward and the pass rush becomes more dangerous than the corners will look even better. One of the best, if not the best defense in team history is the 2004 Patriots. They helped the team accomplish the very difficult task of back to back Super Bowl wins. My hot take is this: The 2019 defense could be even better.