With NFL Draft Day fast approaching, the New England Patriots primary need is the secondary.
Although they have been the stars of off-season free agency signings, the Pats did not bolster their secondary in any way. They must do so during the draft since they find themselves in the unenviable position of now chasing the Colts. Three losses in the last two years to the reigning Super Bowl champions, punctuated by the second half meltdown in January's AFC championship, leaves no doubt they are now the hunter after previously being the hunted.
This precarious predicament is somewhat reminiscent of the Boston Celtics trading for Dennis Johnson solely to stop Andrew Toney of the Philadelphia 76ers during the 1980s, since the Celts simply had no answer for him during those days. The Patriots now officially have no answer for the Colts passing attack, which shows no signs of slowing down.
Beyond that, the Pats' secondary has been decimated by injury too many years in a row. Call it bad luck, bad training, or bad players, the secondary has consistently been the Achilles Heel of the Patriots. The superior talent and creative coaching were able to mask this problem and overcome it to win three Super Bowl, but no more. How many games have we all watched the past few years, lowlighted by the ignominious crash at the RCA Dome two months ago, and remarked about the secondary, "Who are these guys?"
The starting cornerbacks are Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs, and they are backed up by Chad Scott, Randall Gay, Willie Andrews, and Eddie Jackson. Samuel may be franchised for this year, but his future in New England is certainly uncertain. Hobbs is often at the center of the action, much of it positive but much of it negative as well. The backups are carry questions marks, be it age, injury, or inexperience.
At safety, the Patriots trot out Rodney Harrison and Artrell Hawkins, with James Sanders and Eugene Wilson as backups with experience. Rounding out this corps are Mel Mitchell and Rashad Baker. Harrison and Wilson are huge question marks due to injury, and Hawkins and Sanders are both more than capable, but the depth beyond that is disconcerting.
However, not to worry. Help will hopefully be on the way, and it will be immediate impact players. I believe the Patriots will draft Florida Safety Reggie Nelson, and they may consider trading up to get him, However, as the second-rated safety behind LSU stud LaRon Landry, he could slip to the Pats at pick number 24.
There is ample evidence that the five-star Scout.com player is a Belichick guy and may be the latest arrival from Gainesville (forgetting fellow Gator Guss Scott's bad karma here in New England).
After Nelson and Landry, there are no Scout.com four-star safeties as it precipitously drops to three-star players. This is yet another reason the Pats may do whatever it takes to get Nelson if they have decided that safety is their biggest need and Nelson (assuming Landry is already gone) is their guy.
Whether they get Nelson or not, the Patriots will also draft cornerback. There are two five-star and four four-star candidates listed on Scout.com, so it is a guarantee that some of these players will be available, even if New England stands pat at picks 24 and 28.
Leon Hall and Darrelle Revis are the top CB tandem, and you can think Ty Law with either of them. Hall attended Law's alma mater at Michigan and Revis went to Pitt from nearby Aliquippa, Law's hometown.
Slipping down one star to four, cornerbacks Aaron Ross from Texas and Chris Houston have already been predicted by various draft pundits as first round picks for the Patriots. If not them, then the other two four-star players, Jonathan Wade from Tennessee and Tarell Brown from Texas, could be the chosen ones.
However you slice and dice it, this draft will undoubtedly be the year of the secondary for New England. It is the biggest need, especially to stop the Colts. It is a non-subject so far in free agency, perhaps a clue that Pioli and Belichick see the answer via the draft. It is time to eliminate the yearly merry-go-round in the secondary that has plagued the Patriots. It is actually possible that Troy Brown might not be here someday as a security blanket in the secondary.
John Ingoldsby is a free-lance sports writer based in Medfield, Massachusetts, who has written articles about the Patriots for various publications during the past five years. You can find John on the Patriots Insider boards under the handle Rudiee.