FOXBOROUGH — If there seemed to be an overload of cornerbacks on the field during the New England Patriots' 42-35 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, that's probably because there was.
At times, the Patriots were rolling with an all-cornerback secondary featuring All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler, former cornerback-turned-safety Devin McCourty, and Kyle Arrington in his new spot at strong safety.
Logan Ryan got some opportunities at strong safety during the course of the game, as well.
"It's interchangeable parts, and you gotta be versatile in our scheme, and our team," Ryan said after the game. "It makes you more valuable. It definitely — they all play off each other."
It may be more accurate to say that you have to be versatile in today's NFL, and that — perhaps — the definition of the strong safety spot is beginning to change. With new rules that favor passing and limit heavy hits, and a surplus of athletic pass-catching tight ends, it's no longer about finding a safety who can "lay the wood" as much as it is about finding one who can run and cover.
Why not try a cornerback at that spot?
As Ryan said, versatility is the name of the game with the Patriots, and both men showed it on Friday night. They each started out at safety, then moved down to the slot when the team went with an extra defensive back in the nickel defense.
The ability to play in space is paramount to both spots, but the differences run far deeper than that.
"There's a lot more responsibility," Arrington said. "You have to be in tune with the corner on your side and the linebackers. You have to be a little more vocal, but most guys know a lot of the positions on the field."
The revolving door continues at safety, with Arrington, Ryan, Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon, and Patrick Chung all getting opportunities in several defensive looks. Who will be the Week 1 starter is anyone's guess, but it may be safer to say that things will change week to week — or perhaps even play to play.
Here are some more notes from the Patriots' win over the Eagles:
— Attendance: WR Aaron Dobson, S Tavon Wilson, RB Tyler Gaffney, S Kanorris Davis, CB Alfonzo Dennard, TE D.J. Williams, LB Cameron Gordon, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, LB Jerod Mayo, LB Ja’Gared Davis, LB James Anderson, DL Ben Bass, C Bryan Stork, OL Chris Martin, DL Dominique Easley, WR Jeremy Gallon, TE Rob Gronkowski, DL Chris Jones, DL Sealver Siliga, and DL Jerel Worthy were not dressed for Friday's game.
— Starting offense: QB Tom Brady, RB Stevan Ridley, FB James Develin, TE Steve Maneri, WR Kenbrell Thompkins, WR Julian Edelman, LT Nate Solder, LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Connolly, RG Jordan Devey, RT Sebastian Vollmer
— Starting defense: DE Tommy Kelly, NT Vince Wilfork, DE Joe Vellano, OLB Rob Ninkovich, ILB Jamie Collins, ILB Dont'a Hightower, OLB Chandler Jones, CB Darrelle Revis, CB Malcolm Butler, FS Devin McCourty, SS Kyle Arrington
— The most notable names in the starting lineups are Kyle Arrington at safety and Jordan Devey at right guard.
— Arrington has played sparingly at safety over the past week-plus at training camp, but this was his first game action at the new position. He made a nice read on a screen to wide receiver Jordan Matthews and close on the play before Matthews could get moving, bringing him down for a gain of four yards.
— When the team went to the nickel defense, Arrington moved to his original position as a slot ("star") cornerback, while Patrick Chung filled the void at strong safety. When Ryan was at safety, he moved to the star position in the nickel defense and Nate Ebner filled in at strong safety.
— Duron Harmon has become close to a forgotten man in the strong safety battle, but he came in for the second half and immediately had an interception he returned for 33 yards. He made a nice read on the post pattern by the wide receiver, and was able to get in the right spot before the pass made it there. He has shown off his ability to diagnose plays and his quick reaction time in limited action, and both were on display here.
— In-game thought shared between colleague Zuri Berry and myself: The tight end position has been devalued tremendously in the Patriots offense. If Rob Gronkowski is not on the field, the tight end will most often be an extra blocker, whether it's James Develin, Michael Hoomanawanui, Steve Maneri, or someone else filling the role. The phrase "[insert offensive lineman] has reported as an eligible receiver" — signifying that the Patriots had put an offensive tackle at tight end in a jumbo package — echoed through Gillette Stadium time after time on Friday night. Give Develin credit for his toughness, blocking ability, and hands, but he's just not explosive enough to pose any real threat to stretch the seam. Maneri didn't do much more than block when he was on the field, and the one time he was targeted, he turned the wrong direction resulting in quarterback Tom Brady's pick-six. In passing situations, the Patriots may be better off going to a four-receiver set if Gronkowski misses time.
— When the Patriots were in a four-receiver set, it was no surprise to see Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Brandon LaFell as the top choices.
— LaFell recently said he hopes he can become a red zone target for the Patriots, and he got his wish on Friday night. Jimmy Garoppolo hit him in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, with the receiver running from right to left with a defender draped on him while making the catch. It wasn't the spectacular leaping end-zone grab that truly shows off a bigger-bodied receiver, but he did show off the toughness, concentration, and strong hands to make the catch in traffic, which can be just as important.
— As has been the case through most of training camp, Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell were splitting time at center. For awhile in the first half, they were alternating series, with Connolly getting the start and Wendell coming in after that for the next series.
— Running back Roy Finch continues to get opportunities as a kickoff returner, but his performance in the second half was more about his work on the offensive side of the ball. He was particularly impressive on his 15-yard reception on a screen pass, showing the sure hands to make the catch away from his frame (on an off-target pass) and the balance and toughness to slip off and run through several tacklers. He whiffed badly in pass protection on a sack by Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham, looking to block someone through the middle instead of finding Graham rushing off the perimeter. He'll have to do better in pass protection if he's going to be trusted in any sizable role on passing downs.
— It may mean nothing, but Brandon Browner and Logan Ryan were playing deep into the second half of the game. To be fair, so was Malcolm Butler, who got the start opposite Darrelle Revis; however, the prevailing thought headed into training camp was that the top of the depth chart was comprised of Revis, Browner and Ryan, and that line of thinking has been called into question for the time being.