The New England Patriots have not wasted any time in the off season picking up players to improve their aging defense. With veterans Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs already on board, the search for the next great cornerback in New England since the departure of Asante Samuel has just begun. Darius Butler, Sean Smith and Vontae Davis are just a few already on the radar.
In less than four weeks, the New England Patriots will have the opportunity to choose 11 players from a fresh crop of athletes in hopes of bettering every aspect of their game. Perhaps one of the biggest positions in question is that of cornerback.
Cornerbacks in New England have seen their high points. From 2005-2007, Ellis Hobbs III and Asante Samuel had a combined 384 total tackles. At the end of the 2006 season, both players were part of the defense that allowed only ten touchdown passes by their opponents. Those successes are in the past. In 2008 the corners reached a few new low points instead.
Some of the problems involved free agents brought in to replace Samuel, but were unable to perform. Corners Jason Webster (D 2000 SF, 2nd round) and Fernando Bryant (D 1999, Jacksonville 1st round), were released. Another free agent acquisition, former Broncos first round pick (D 2000) Deltha O'Neal, struggled. Despite collecting 32 total tackles while learning a new system, he was still unable to match the performance of Samuel in prior seasons. Since the departure of Asante Samuel, the shutdown corner that had been so familiar with the Patriots has slowly faded into a distant memory. Samuel's former partner, Ellis Hobbs, just cannot cover an entire open field on his own. So who will be there to help with coverage?
In the New England's 3-4 base defense, they currently have a total of seven corners on their roster. Antwain Spann, Mike Richardson, Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite are presently the youngest corners on the team. Some made their NFL debut, yet all had uneventful seasons. As is their tendency, the Patriots did not hesitate to sign veteran players to help Hobbs for 2009. Veteran free agent additions Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden improve the experience factor at the position.
The draft is drawing near and the Patriots have already had their eye on a few of the standouts in the defensive back position. Bill Belichick recently worked with University of Connecticut's Darius Butler, who in his senior year, managed to impress the 1994 Defensive Player of the Year Deion Sanders. Standing at 5'10 and 178 lbs, the predicted first round pick is built very similar to Ellis Hobbs III. His build isn't the only similarity to the five-year veteran, Butler is an impressive defender with speed and his 43 inch vertical leap gives him the ability to break up passing plays with ease.
Currently ranked number five on Scout.com's NFL Draft Rankings, Sean Smith from Utah is the tallest corner of the three, standing at a towering 6'3. His height can prove to be a great asset when diagnosing plays in the backfield. His 4.49 40-yard dash allows him to be quick on straight runs and although he does struggle in directional changes, he provides great coverage for taller receivers in the league.
Finally, there is Vontae Davis. The junior coming out of Illinois has already impressed many teams including the Patriots at both his combine performance and at the University of Illinois's pro day. His 4.35 in the 40 yard dash is hard to ignore and being one of the top cornerback prospects in the Draft, the Patriots have to be give strong consideration to the role that Davis could play in New England's revamped backfield. His ability to create turnovers and solid understanding of the field draws comparisons to another great corner by the name of Champ Bailey. Both Bailey and Davis are great at shutting down receivers and are deadly in an open field. Bailey was the seventh overall pick in the 1999 draft. Davis would be happy with that.
If the Patriots are able to adequately rebuild their cornerback group to its full strength at the time of Samuel's presence, then the question will no longer be how long they can stay healthy, but rather, how many offenses have they been able to shut down. No matter who the Patriots choose on draft day, whether it be Sean Smith, Darius Butler or Vontae Davis, all three have great skills to offer and will give New England a much-needed revival of the defensive backfield.
[Editors note: Kisha Tapangan is Patriots Insider's newest contributor. This is her second article for us. If you like what you're reading, be sure to let her know here]
Kisha Tapangan covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for PatriotsInsider.com. To read more of her material, visit her blog at www.nrwithkisha.com.