September 30, 2016

Stacking the Board with First Day Defensive Backs

by Scott Benson
[email protected]

picStop the average Patriots fan on the street and inquire as to their health and I’ll guarantee you within minutes they’ll be complaining about the team’s secondary.

These days, playing defensive back for the Patriots must be like playing shortstop for the Red Sox.  You’re a transient, you’re just hanging around looking guilty, people seem kind of anxious for you to move along…

I’m not saying I blame anybody for this, incidentally. Even accounting for an incredibly soft and passive coverage scheme, last year’s DB’s didn’t bang enough receivers around, didn’t challenge enough routes, and sure as hell didn’t disrupt enough passes. I don’t know if they’d have gotten the job done even if they’d had a pass rush.

Hence the free agency action, where the Pats added two veteran players with legitimate chances to start in the fall. On the backline, they returned an apparently severely underrated James Sanders. They bid adieu to Deltha O’Neal and Lewis Sanders.

With Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden on board, the Fan On The Street may relax a little for now, also comforted by two second year corners already on the roster. But the PD War Room never rests, so here is our defensive back draft board for the first day.

Mid First Day (Picks 23, 34)

This is one of those “if he happens to be there at 23″ picks, kind of like Brian Cushing from our linebacker board on Tuesday. Like the USC backer, Ohio State CB-S Malcolm Jenkins is expected to come off the draft board somewhere in the teens, so I’m really just hedging bets here, in the event that his middling 40 times (nearly 20 players finished with faster times at the Combine) lead the nervous Nellies to pass on him.

I’m a big fan of drafting players that have already played and succeeded at a high level for a sustained period of time. In Jenkins I see an instinctive, in-position defender, equally adapt in coverage and in run support, and that he projects at two positions (corner and safety) ain’t chopped liver either. It all depends on how the board breaks, of course, but a falling Jenkins would be more than a consolation prize at 23.

I can’t say the thought of him inspires trade-up thoughts, though. If I had my way, the Pats would use their second-round pick surplus to move up to draft an impact, Top 20 linebacker. Failing that, I’d rather see them leverage 23, 34, 47 and 58 into three players and an upgraded pick next year.

I have yet to find another defensive back that I would put on the first round level.

If the Pats retain the 34th pick, however, Wake Forest CB Alphonso Smith will be among the players we have in that slot. I’ll just say it – he’s Ellis Hobbs with better ball skills. I understand how that comparison will be viewed in some quarters. Along with being almost identically sized, I see in Smith Hobbs’s valued competitiveness and toughness, but with a better instinct and break on the ball. I’ll put him in the 34 slot with the idea that Smith will be more talented than Jonathan Wilhite and more durable than Terrence Wheatley.

Connecticut CB Darius Butler has vaulted into the first round in some places, and Bill Belichick’s appearance at UConn’s pro day has raised suspicions regarding the Pats. By all accounts the Husky captain is a legit cover corner who will translate well to either zone or man schemes. He tested out respectably on the kind of quickness drills the Pats look for (3 cone, 20 yard shuttle) and posted a top 40 time. He’s also a two-way guy who has made a mark as a receiver. Better height than Smith, but here’s the thing: doesn’t he look kind of thin and wispy to you?

Still, no question he’s become one of the top corners in the draft and is a viable option for the Pats at 34. To be honest, I’m not bowled over by either of these guys, but the impression here is that they’d be entirely reasonable picks in this range.

Late First Day (Pick 47, 58)

Every year every draft observer picks from all the prospects one or two sweethearts that hit their football spot, and this year, Oregon SS Patrick Chung is one of those for me. We know from the Pats’ dalliance with Tank Williams last year (and this year again) that New England may like to put a third safety on the field as an answer to spread formations, and Chung comes to the pros with the skill mix to assume that responsibility, at the very least.

I like that he’s shown the kind of quickness and agility to be an asset in pass coverage, and the kind of toughness and aggressiveness to be a presence inside the box. I like that he’s a team captain known for his on-field aptitude and off-the-field commitment. He may not have the straight-line speed of a young Rodney Harrison, for example, but his versatility and reliability over his college career makes him one of our favorite players in this draft. Even with Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders already under long-term deals, there’s a place for Chung in New England. I’m biased, but this would be a most welcome 47th pick later this month.

Based on everything I’ve read and seen, I’m a little less enamored with Western Michigan FS Louis Delmas, another possibility in this range. Another team captain and leader (like so many of our prospects today are), Delmas is known as a smooth, long-striding centerfielder in the middle of the Broncos’ defense. He’s been consistently good throughout his college career. He’s instinctive, aggressive and willing in run support, but some reports express concern about his lack of bulk and consistency as a tackler at the next level. Those things can be improved on, of course. For me, I wonder whether his skill mix would amount to a step forward for the Pats along the back line. Chung seems like a better fitting piece of the puzzle than Delmas. You can’t discount this kind of college career, however.

A few other late first day possibilities:

CB DJ Moore has been all over the field for Vanderbilt, making major contributions as a corner, running back, receiver and returner. He’s another shorty, but like Alphonso Smith and his doppelganger Hobbs, he’s bulky, tough and durable. By all reports, a smart guy, coachable, with good instincts. His coverage skills may be best suited for the kind of zone-cushion scheme he would find in New England. The concern is deep speed, and that his quickness didn’t show itself better in workouts. You can’t discount his production and versatility though.

Oregon CB Jarius Byrd is a legacy – his dad Gil was a solid defender for San Diego. Decent size, athletic ability and quickness, and here’s another guy coming a consistently productive college career. A very focused, competitive player according to reports. He’s not a particularly physical player, and he may be more quick than fast. But his versatility (also a top punt returner) and resume as a consistent, productive defender might make him an excellent pick at 58.

Utah CB-S Sean Smith might be a nice project as a swingman, with his size, mobility and ball skills.  He’s played just two seasons as a DB after starting as a receiver, and there might be questions about his tackling and physical presence. We’re at the point in the draft where we may be running out of players who could make an immediate impact, so like with our next prospect, the Pats would be taking a gamble based a couple of very athletic and productive seasons in the secondary.

Missouri FS William Moore seems to have a little Ed Reed in him as a playmaker, and his size translates to either backline position. The concern is his slow start as a Senior after a brilliant Junior season, and his propensity to get knicked up. It might be worth a late first-day roll of the dice though.

That’s the top of PD’s defensive back board. Chris Warner will be here tomorrow with our favorite second day prospects.

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