The New England Patriots face a number of questions in the off-season and one big question revolves around the secondary. Cornerback Aqib Talib is a free agent and New England must decide whether to bring him back or let him walk. Even letting him walk, there is the decision if New England needs to find a shut-down cornerback in free agency to take his place or hand the job to young cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard. With his injury history in New England, is it smart for the Patriots to bring back Talib or find another option at cornerback for 2014?
Cornerback Aqib Talib is a key free agent this off-season and the Patriots have a hard decision as to whether they re-sign him. On one hand, when healthy he proved to be a catalyst to the defense that bumped them from very good to elite. Even with his hip injury the past two seasons, his presence alone on defense seems to make the secondary stronger just by being able to keep fellow cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in the number two role outside and cornerback Kyle Arrington inside on the slot receiver where he thrives.
As shown numerous times over the past season-and-a-half with Talib in New England, when he is unable to play the defense struggles. This season against Denver in the AFC Championship Game with Talib for the first two drives the Broncos were held to a field goal and their only punt of the game. Once Talib was knocked out of the game with the knee injury from the pick by Denver wide receiver Wes Welker the Broncos feasted on Dennard and rookie Logan Ryan in the secondary.
It was eerily similar to the AFC Championship Game the year before against Baltimore where the Ravens did not score a point until Talib left the game injured. Once he was out and the secondary was disrupted quarterback Joe Flacco began attacking the secondary downfield.
One thing made clear in this season’s AFC Championship Game was that rookie Logan Ryan and second-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard are not ready for primetime as the top two cornerbacks. New England’s defense needs to have a real number one cornerback on the field in order to thrive. With Dennard and/or Ryan opposite outside as the number two cornerback and Kyle Arrington inside where he plays best, the Patriots secondary makes the defense a worthy complement to the offense.
The question for New England is whether Talib is the right fit or if there is another cornerback on the market who can step in and replicate his performance. On the free agent market are potential number one cornerbacks Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes, Vontae Davis, Captain Munnerlyn, Sam Shields, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Obviously, the teams are intent on re-signing their own free agents and the franchise tag may come into play, but the Patriots seriously need to investigate whether one of these cornerbacks may be more durable than Talib and a better fit in New England.
One issue in New England is always the price tag. With injuries derailing his past two seasons in New England, Aqib Talib may be viewed as damaged goods by other teams and be available at the discount price that the Patriots front office desires. Vontae Davis has played well in Indianapolis and is a known quantity with the New England front office after having faced him multiple times. Physical and aggressive in coverage, Davis has a skill set similar to Talib and may be a target if the Colts are unable to keep him in house.
Cornerback Brent Grimes is also in a similar situation as Talib. WIth injury questions after missing all of 2012 with an Achilles tear, Grimes thrived with the Miami Dolphins on a one-year “prove-it” deal similar to what Talib received from the Patriots. Both cornerbacks are looking to cash in this off-season. The Patriots saw Grimes twice, and both times he put on a show. In week eight against the Patriots he allowed only two receptions for nine yards in coverage. Although he did not replicate those stats in week 15, his importance to the Dolphins was highlighted by how New England opened up the passing game once he left the game with cramping.
The most intriguing free agent at cornerback is Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner (aka ATV). With cornerback Jason (Twin of Devin) McCourty locked up to a big deal and solid rookie Blidi Wreh-Wilson on hand, the Titans may be willing to let ATV walk. Tennessee is looking to spend at quarterback and may need to let Verner hit the open market. Though not a big cornerback, ATV is an aggressive cornerback who plays bigger than his size. The knock on the young cornerback is that he has really only has had two strong seasons and teams may not pony up for someone still somewhat unproven.
Captain Munnerlyn, Sam Shields, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie all are likely a step down from Talib and only an option if another team is able to swoop in and overwhelm the cornerback. Shields seems likely to stay in Green Bay, Rodgers-Cromartie may go back to Denver with Champ Bailey’s cap number off the books, and Munnerlyn is undersized and his head-butt of wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the divisional playoffs may have made him look bad, but he has talent. Expect Munnerlyn to test free agency but the Panthers expect to make a big push to keep him.
For New England, they may find themselves with no choice but to make a push for Aqib Talib at cornerback simply due to lack of options in free agency as teams try to re-sign their own players before they hit the open market. While Talib has shown he is a great fit for the defense and he clearly makes the other secondary players better, his durability causes concern. It would not be shocking to see New England make a splash with free agent Brent Grimes, Vontae Davis, or Alterraun Verner to replace Talib’s oft-injured role as number one cornerback with another aggressive, strong defender.