The tides are changing.
Free agency is a strange time in the NFL. Teams are forced to gauge market values, pit them against the true values of free agents, and evaluate intangibles such as character and how well a player might “fit” into a team. These complications often cause teams to show their true colors and desires during free agency.
Aside from a couple big signings, the New England Patriots have not been very aggressive thus far. They let Talib walk to the Broncos, allowed Edelman to shop from team to team, and let multiple free agents go from visits to Foxborough without contracts. As of yet, the only two signings (not including resignings) that the Patriots have made are Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
Why is this so? Did the Patriots not have pressing needs throughout their team? Wasn’t the main issue during the year the lack of weapons for Tom Brady? Then why let wide receivers walk and sign two cornerbacks?
The answer is simply that Bill Belichick has done his homework. For much of his head coaching tenure, Belichick has largely been a trendsetter in the NFL. Teams have rushed to duplicate formations and tactics (such as the Two-TE Set) first popularized by the ingenious head coach.
The newest trend however, was not started by Belichick, but by the Super Bowl winning Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks. The infamous “Legion of Boom” is the Seahawks’ solid secondary that allows nearly no holes in coverage. It consists of tall, lengthy cornerbacks that can make plays, a hard hitting strong safety, and an speedy ball hawk. This combination proved to be arguably one of the most effective secondaries in history, shutting down Denver’s record breaking passing offense and allowing only 8 points.
Belichick knows he’s late on this trend. He also knows that he doesn’t have much time until Tom Brady retires. The solution? Go after tall, playmaking cornerbacks who can cover more effectively, making the Patriots defense as a whole stronger.
Brandon Browner, the Patriots’ most recent signing, is a giant, standing at 6’4. His size contributed nicely to making the “Legion of Boom” as famous as it is today. Darrelle Revis, arguably the biggest signing of the offseason, makes up for his size (5’11”) with his playmaking ability. For nearly his whole career Revis was considered to be the best cornerback in the NFL; he had the ability to lockdown his side of the field and take away an opponent’s best weapon without safety help.
However, the common question of many Patriot fans is why invest in a position that the Patriots had already strengthened over the years as opposed to working on offense? The Patriots have virtually no reliable weapons for Tom Brady to throw to, aside from newly renewed Julian Edelman.
The answer to this is that offense can always get you far and win you games, but the same rule has held up for decades: Defense Wins Championships.
For the past few years, the team that has won the Super Bowl has had a daunting defense– but not always the best offense. Teams with impressive offenses but holes on defense such as the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos have been able to push far, but not enough. This year, the Seattle Seahawks (#1 Defense, #18 Offense) showed that they were truly the best team in the NFL by annihilating the Broncos 43-8, and they demonstrated that the principle that defense wins championships still holds true.
Belichick is no fool. He watched the Super Bowl (and likely plenty of film) and saw the new direction the NFL was taking. He knows that the Patriots have come short year after year, appearing in the AFC Conference Championship for three years straight and winning one. And now he knows that to take the next step, the Patriots must make the jump on the defensive side of the ball.
The combination of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner is already hard to think about without shuddering, but with McCourty’s ball skills this secondary could contend for the best in the NFL. Look for the Patriots to invest in a hard hitting strong safety next (or look to Adrian Wilson), and strengthen their defensive line.