They were backed into a corner
The Patriots started training camp last year without one half of their eventual primary starting cornerback tandem. Deltha O’Neal was still a member of the Bengals when last year’s version of Camp Belichick commenced.
Cast off by Cincinnati, O’Neal joined the Patriots six days before their season-opener against the Chiefs and wound up starting 10 games at left corner, the spot - or is that chasm? - created by the departure of Pro Bowler Asante Samuel.
This year the Patriots have much more reason to be confident they have the cornerback position covered and that they have cornerbacks who can cover, as training camp kicks off Thursday in Foxborough. Perhaps no position on the roster has undergone as dramatic a makeover - the Patriots will have new starters at both corner spots in 2009.
During the offseason, the Patriots not only jettisoned O’Neal but also traded right corner Ellis Hobbs to the Eagles. In their place, the team picked up veteran free agents Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden. A season after using a second-round pick on Terrence Wheatley and a fourth-round pick on Jonathan Wilhite, the Patriots drafted cornerback Darius Butler with one of their four second-round picks.
The Patriots, who went 11-5 and still missed the playoffs, had a fatal flaw last season. Although New England ranked a more than respectable 11th in the NFL in pass defense (allowing 201.4 yards per game), it had problems preventing the big play.
Part of that was attributable to a mediocre pass rush, but the cornerbacks and defensive backs have to take their share of the blame for a pass defense that allowed 27 touchdown passes, second-most in the NFL, and surrendered 12 plays of 40 yards or more, tying them with the 0-16 Lions and the 49ers for the second-most in the NFL behind Jacksonville (17).
The 27-year-old Bodden, whom the Patriots signed to a one-year, $2.25 million contract that includes a clause that the team can’t use the franchise tag on him, could make the biggest impact. Bodden, who is entering his seventh NFL season, was a member of the ignominious Lions last season and had just one interception. However, the Lions had just four interceptions as a team, an NFL-record low for a non-strike-shortened season, and Bodden’s was the only one by a defensive back.
In the prior three seasons in Cleveland playing for former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, Bodden intercepted 11 passes, including a career-high six in 2007, when he finished tied for second in the NFL in takeaways with nine. Crennel said Patriots coach Bill Belichick asked his opinion of Bodden before New England signed him.
“I know Bill does his homework,’’ said Crennel, who won three Super Bowls as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator. “Bill probably figures that because he’s been in a similar system and had some success that he’d have some success there, that he would have a chance to come to New England and have success. I’m sure that’s why Bill signed him.’’
What was Crennel’s scouting report?
“I think Leigh has enough talent and enough qualities to fit in [with the Patriots],’’ said Crennel. “When he was with me in Cleveland, he proved he can play at this level and did a decent job for us. He has got some height and size. He’s got enough speed.
“He was able to cover Chad Johnson in Cincinnati for us one-on-one. They always had good battles when we played Cincinnati. We had to give him some help from time to time and give him some help to keep [Chad] off balance, but many times he and Chad would go one-on-one and he was able to hold his own pretty well. That was the thing that impressed me, that he could play some man [coverage] against a quality receiver. He did a good job for us.’’
The 34-year-old Springs was a salary cap casualty with the Redskins before signing a three-year deal with the Patriots with incentives that could push the value to $13 million. He has 32 career interceptions and led Washington with four in 2007, but he is also an aging corner who twice in the last three seasons has been limited to just nine games by injuries.
Last season, Springs missed seven games with a calf injury and had only one interception.
An AFC scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Springs is still productive when healthy. The scout said that at this stage in his career, Springs can’t be counted on to play like a No. 1 corner.
“No, he’s not,’’ said the scout. “No, there is no way he’s the replacement for Asante. You’re talking about one of the top eight corners in the league in Asante Samuel. Shawn Springs, maybe he was that earlier in his career, but he’s not that now. He provides depth and good veteran leadership to their cornerback position.’’
Crennel said Bodden, who played primarily on the right side during the offseason but played the left side last season in Detroit, is capable of being a No. 1.
“I think when he’s got his mind set on proving that he’s capable of playing in the NFL I think that he can be a top corner,’’ Crennel said. “I think that was one of the things that he had to prove to us. He proved it to us. He kind of took the bull by the horns. Our style fit him, we mixed in the zone and the man [coverages] and it worked good for him.’’
Springs and Bodden could find themselves being pushed by Butler, Wheatley, or Wilhite.
Butler appears to be one of the more athletic cornerbacks the Patriots have had in a while and showcased explosive speed and good ball skills during the offseason. The 5-foot-9-inch, 185-pound Wheatley is looking to bounce back from a disappointing rookie season that was truncated by a broken left wrist he suffered against the Colts while making his first career start. That was also Wheatley’s best game of the season, as he batted down a pair of passes.
Wilhite was the starter for the final four games of the season at left corner after O’Neal was benched. Wilhite responded well, recording his first career interception. During the offseason, Wilhite spent a lot of time as the slot corner.
“They have young talent at the position,’’ said the AFC scout. “It’s hard to come there as a young corner and just light it up. They have the talent there and it’s being able to develop that talent. These guys are still young. You can’t expect them to be Pro Bowlers off the bat.’’
The Patriots enter camp with more certainty at cornerback than last season, but it’s still not certain how much better they’ll be.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.