After losing Ryan, who will play slot corner for the Patriots?

After losing Ryan, who will play slot corner for the Patriots?

Logan Ryan played more snaps last season as a slot corner, or "star," than any other Patriots player in the last decade.

His 309 snaps in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus, were more than the team-leading 201 snaps in the slot that safety Patrick Chung saw in 2015. They were more than the 251 that Chung played inside in 2010. The player who came closest to Ryan's 2016 mark was Kyle Arrington in 2012 (265) and 2013 (260).

So how will the Patriots defend the slot without Ryan, now that he's a member of the Titans? While the Patriots have depth at the cornerback spot with Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler as one of the top corner tandems in the league (backed up by Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones), there is still some uncertainty as to which player will replace Ryan as the primary "star" on the Patriots defense.

Chung (147 slot snaps in 2016), Butler (52), Justin Coleman (43), Cyrus Jones (40), Rowe (35), Jonathan Jones (33) and Devin McCourty (30) all saw time inside last season, per PFF. But is there one player who's best suited to take on those duties more regularly?

To answer, let's first take a look at what kind of players the Patriots typically like at that position.

Off the top, you have to be an effective tackler. That goes for just about any defender under Bill Belichick, but slot guys in particular have to possess good playing strength and a certain measure of aggression that allows them to finish plays. The team's top slot defenders over the years -- Ryan and Chung, in particular -- have been above average in that regard. 

Quickness, instincts and an ability to recognize a variety of routes while inside are also vital for anyone taking on the "star" role. Belichick said as much last season when he was asked about Ryan's skill set.

"Because you’re so much closer to the ball, and there are a lot of different players that can get to you and your area, and the number of routes that an inside receiver can run compared to an outside receiver is different because he’s closer to the middle of the field and there’s more space available to him," Belichick said. "It’s a different game in there. It’s a game within a game.

"People that are good in that area like Logan . . . a lot of it is physical characteristics. A lot of it is the feel and instinct and quick reaction, recognition to all of the things that are happening in there and there are a lot, and they happen a lot faster than they do out on the perimeter . . .

"Logan, he’s very good at those things, the instinctiveness, the recognition, the playing with the proper leverage, the communication and the relationship that he has to the people that are around him, the defensive ends, the linebackers, the safeties, even the corners. That all plays a part of it, too."

For this exercise, as we project out and try to find the best fit for the "star" role, it's difficult to quantify a defensive back's instincts or his route recognition. But there are some measurables we can turn to in terms of size and quickness that the Patriots have favored in their slot defenders. 

Ryan (5-foot-11, 195 pounds), Chung (5-11, 215) and Arrington (5-10, 190) all provided solid frames at the position. And while they may not have been long-speed burners, their shiftiness inside had value. Ryan was particularly quick at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2013, running a tight 6.69-second three-cone drill and a very strong 4.06-second short-shuttle. Chung's 7.11 three-cone and 4.24 short-shuttle at his pro day in 2009 were also impressive, particularly for a player his size.

Who, then, on the current roster checks the "star" boxes? Who will be the primary slot defender in 2017?

Chung would have to be a candidate. The Patriots obviously like him defending near the line of scrimmage and have used him over the years inside against a variety of pass-catchers. Maybe they'll use him in that fashion more often in 2017, but he played 95.5 percent of the defensive snaps last season and if he's to fill a similar role then he won't be able to make up for Ryan's lost "star" snaps on his own. 

It could be Cyrus Jones. The former second-round pick will be the first to admit his rookie season did not go as planned. But perhaps with Ryan out of the mix on the inside, Jones could seize the opportunity to create a regular role for himself defensively. Considered a tough player and a willing run-defender at Alabama, the 2016 second-round pick has the size (5-10, 197 pounds) and quickness (6.71-second three-cone, 4.21-second short-shuttle) to work in the slot. 

It could be Eric Rowe. Another former second-rounder, Rowe is athletically gifted enough to play just about anywhere in the secondary. He played safety and corner in college, an indicator that perhaps his skill set would be a match inside. (The Patriots worked out both Arrington and Ryan at safety at different points during their Patriots careers. And, obviously, Chung is a safety who's sometimes asked to handle corner responsibilities.) At 6-1, 205 pounds, Rowe ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash, a 6.70-second three-cone drill and a blazing 3.97-second short-shuttle at the 2015 combine.

Who knows? Maybe the Patriots believe Stephon Gilmore could bump inside when a third corner comes onto the field. He's a prototypical outside-the-numbers type and only averaged 27 snaps in the slot per season over the course of his career. But perhaps his new team thinks that the physical tools he brings with him from Buffalo (6-foot-1, 190 pounds, 6.61-second three-cone, 3.94-second short-shuttle at the 2012 combine) are enough to drop him into Ryan's role from last season. 

The reality is it could very well be that the "star" will change from week to week based on who's playing as the slot receiver on the opposite side. 

If it's a tight end? That could be Chung's matchup, or maybe McCourty's. If it's someone like Miami's Jarvis Landry, Denver's Emmanuel Sanders or Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown? Then Butler would probably get the call. Others who might not warrant coverage from Butler could be divvied up by Jones or Rowe, depending on the matchups.

However the Patriots choose to make up for the vacancy Ryan leaves behind in the slot, they'll have options.

Who will be the Patriots’ biggest challenger in the AFC?

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Who will be the Patriots’ biggest challenger in the AFC?

Covering the NFL for almost 20 years allows you to make relationships with a bunch of people. So I thought I'd tap into some of those people as we gear up for New England Patriots training camp for a series of pieces about topics we've been kicking around.

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The panel consists of one former Pats player still in the game, two scouts of AFC teams, one front-office member in the AFC, and one NFC scout. They all requested anonymity for obvious reasons (as the player said, "hey, I might want to end up back there!") I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I had talking to these guys.

Today's topic: Who will be the Pats’ biggest challenger in the AFC?

Scout 1: Themselves. Honestly. There’s too much there for them not to roll through the AFC with relative ease. I’m not saying they’re going undefeated. Let’s pump the brakes on that one, shall we? But when you start running down the list of AFC teams, there isn’t one that doesn’t have a glaring weakness as we sit here mid-summer. The Steelers? Ben [Roethlisberger] wasn’t sure he wanted to play, their most talented receiver can’t stop smoking weed [Martavis Bryant] and that defense gets carved up by [Tom] Brady repeatedly. The Texans? Do they have a quarterback? That’s kind of a big deal. The Ravens? I think that window closed. The Bengals? Lot of talent, sure. But the coach/QB combo doesn’t exactly make you crap yourself. I like [Trevor] Siemian in Denver but that’s still asking a lot. Oakland may be the one team that appeared poised but that defense wasn’t good a year ago. So chip Khalil Mack all night and watch Brady throw for 400-plus.. I just think if the Pats stay healthy and stay together, they’ll be in Minnesota playing for back-to-back titles.

Scout 2: Pittsburgh’s the one team that can match them point for point, assuming everyone is on the field. But is Ben still vertical in late January? Is Bell burned out (as of this piece, Le’Veon Bell remained a holdout). Antonio Brown is a talent but is a Facebook Live video more important than putting in your work and respecting those you work with, and against? Mike [Tomlin] should have reeled that in a long time ago. Bill would have. Hell, any coach with a clue would have. They’d win in spite of Mike, not because he matches wits with Bill.

Scout 3: Seattle. (I meant AFC) AFC?? Geez . . . I guess Houston, if I have to stay in conference. That is the one organization that seems like it may be on to something. They’ll stand in there and land all kinds of body blows on Brady. That divisional game was the worst one I’ve seen him play since the start of the 2014 season. They can get after him with four people. They have good corners. But you can’t make mistakes. On either side of the ball. Defensively, can [new defensive coordinator Mike] Vrabel make them an even more disciplined bunch? I like Tom Savage. I think he’s smart. I think he’s poised. But the drafting of DeShaun [Watson] means he doesn’t have much time. Watson is poised too. And god knows he’s played in a ton of big games. But New England in January? Do that, and they’ll erect a statue of him in Houston. 

Ex-Patriot/Current NFL player: “It’s us. No doubt in my mind. (Hey, I can’t tell them who you are and where you play, remember?) Fine. But remember I said it. (Note taken!)

Front Office Exec: I think there are a handful of teams capable. January is a long time away. I’d put it like this: a) give me a coaching staff that has experience and can adjust. You have to against that team because they can dial up so many different ways to beat you, b) a quarterback who is accurate and protects that football. You can’t give Brady a short field. And you can’t waste opportunities +50. Mistake free football is critical. c) Brady is almost human if you hit him early and keep that pressure on him. That’s every quarterback in this league, by the way. In conjunction with that, mix and match coverages. You can’t get comfortable in that regard. He and Josh [McDaniels] are too smart, d) confidence. It sounds stupid, but it’s true. Teams I’ve been a part of that have beaten the Pats or the so-called favored team believed. Plain and simple. And one bad play, or two, wouldn’t change that confidence. The urgency, maybe. But never the confidence. 

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Pats have history of acquiring players they face in joint practices

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Pats have history of acquiring players they face in joint practices

Now is when things get interesting. 

On Wednesday, the Patriots finished up their joint practices with Houston. Last week, they wrapped up three days of work with Jacksonville before their preseason opener. They have a one-day walkthrough scheduled with the Lions next week, but for all intents and purposes their joint practices for 2017 are over.

MORE PATRIOTS

So why is now when things get interesting? Because now we can start taking stabs at which Jaguars and Texans will someday be Patriots.

If history is any indication, at some point Bill Belichick and his staff will be more than willing to work with players who participated in the joint sessions. Just have a look at Patriots joint-practice opponents year by year. Using the practices as a chance to do a little advanced scouting, they've plucked at least one player from every joint-practice opponent they've seen since 2010

Last year, the Patriots worked against the Saints and the Bears. No one remembers former Bears tight end Rob Housler's brief tenure with the Patriots after he signed a future deal with the club last winter. But how about Brandin Cooks? The Patriots got their second close look at Cooks in 2016 -- he was with the Saints during joint practices with the Patriots in 2015 -- and then traded a first-round pick to acquire him the following offseason.

Here's a full rundown of the Patriots joint-practice opponents who were eventually acquired by New England . . .

2016 vs. Saints: WR Brandin Cooks, acquired in a trade in 2016.

2016 vs. Bears: TE Rob Housler, signed to a future contract in 2016.

2015 vs. Saints: DL Akiem Hicks, acquired in a trade in 2015; LB Ramon Humber, signed as a free agent in 2016; Cooks.

2014 vs. Redskins: DL Frank Kearse, signed as a free agent in 2016; CB EJ Biggers, signed as a free agent in 2016.

2014 vs. Eagles: CB Bradley Fletcher, signed as a free agent in 2015.

2013 vs. Buccaneers: LB Jonathan Casillas, acquired in a trade in 2014; TE Tim Wright, acquired in a trade in 2014.

2013 vs. Eagles: S Patrick Chung, signed as a free agent in 2014; WR Damaris Johnson, claimed on waivers from Houston in 2015; CB Bradley Fletcher, signed as a free agent in 2015.

2012 vs. Saints: RB Travaris Cadet, signed as a free agent in 2015; Casillas; LB Ramon Humber, signed as a free agent in 2016;  DL Akiem Hicks, acquired in a trade in 2015.

2012 vs. Buccaneers: RB LeGarrette Blount, acquired in a trade in 2013; CB Aqib Talib, acquired in a trade in 2012; Biggers; LB Dekoda Watson, signed as a free agent in 2015.

2011: No joint sessions following NFL lockout.

2010 vs. Saints: Humber; DE Will Smith, signed as a free agent in 2014.

2010 vs. Falcons: WR Michael Jenkins, signed as a free agent in 2013.

Of course there's no guarantee the Patriots will ever snag any of the Jaguars or Texans they practiced with this summer. But here's a look at a handful of players Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio could be interested in trading for or signing down the line.

CJ Fiedorowicz, TE, Texans: The Patriots would probably have to pay up to land Houston's top tight end, but Fiedorowicz is in the final year of his rookie deal and Houston just re-upped with tight end Ryan Griffin on a three-year contract. Maybe the Texans would be OK with the future of their tight-end group without Fiedorowicz if they got something of value in return. The Patriots seem set at the position now with Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen and perhaps one of James O'Shaughnessy, Matt Lengel and Jacob Hollister to round things out. But as we saw last season, that depth can evaporate quickly should anything happen to No. 87. The Patriots hosted Fiedorowicz on a visit when he was coming out of the draft in 2014, and he played at Iowa under former Belichick colleague Kirk Ferentz.

Lerentee McCray, OLB, Jaguars: The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder is pretty far down the depth chart in Jacksonville behind Dante Fowler, Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell and Mallciah Goodman. He's in his fifth year out of Florida and currently on a relatively inexpensive one-year deal that he signed this offseason. McCray seems like a low-risk option to give the Patriots some depth not only on the edge but also in the kicking game, where he has a wealth of experience going back to his days with the Bills, Broncos and in college. In last week's preseason game against the Patriots, he made a tackle on Jacksonville's kickoff team, stuffed DJ Foster for no gain, recovered a Foster fumble, and sacked Jacoby Brissett. 

Hunter Dimick, DE, Jaguars: Here's another option from Jacksonville if the Patriots want some depth up front -- which they could be seeking. Dimick went undrafted this spring out of Utah despite leading the nation in quarterback pressures with 83, according to Pro Football Focus. He doesn't offer much as an athlete, and he's essentially the closest thing in this year's draft class to the opposite of Derek Rivers in terms of flexibility. But maybe the Patriots saw something in the 6-foot-3, 265-pounder's game during practices that will allow his college production to transfer to the NFL. He had two hurries in last week's preseason game.

Ufomba Kamalu, DE, Texans: With the Patriots hurting on the edge, Kamalu isn't a perfect fit, but he may be worth a closer look. The 6-foot-5, 295-pounder has 35-inch arms that could make him an intriguing match, in a similar mold to 6-foot-4, 305-pounder Lawrence Guy. Kamalu seemed to showed up with effective reps in one-on-one work this week against the Patriots, and during an 11-on-11 period on Wednesday he broke through the Patriots line to sack Jimmy Garoppolo. In last week's preseason game against the Panthers, he recorded a quarterback hit, per Pro Football Focus.

Avery Williams, LB, Texans: Bill Belichick has long liked Texans linebacker Bernardrick McKinney's game, but don't expect the Texans to be willing to part ways with him any time soon. If the Patriots are looking for some depth at that spot and in the kicking game, Williams showed them some things during this week's joint practices. He dominated a punt-team drill where he put both Patriots Nate Ebner and LeShun Daniels on their backs after squaring them up one-on-one at the line. Williams wasn't an eye-popping athlete coming out of Temple this spring, but he was productive, earning second-team all-conference honors. Dylan Cole, an undrafted rookie linebacker out of Missouri State, is a better fit for the Patriots in terms of his athletic profile, but Cole seems to have impressed coaches at Texans training camp and may not be going anywhere for a while. 

Breno Giacomini, OT, Texans: On a one-year contract in Houston, the Patriots could be interested in the veteran tackle who hails from Malden, Mass. Belichick's club has been hurting at tackle lately with Nate Solder, Tony Garcia and LaAdrian Waddle all missing time injured. The Texans have an intriguing rookie, Julien Davenport, who is currently listed as the team's backup left tackle, and whenever Duane Brown returns from his holdout, Giacomini could be the team's fifth tackle on the depth chart. Giacomini started for the Jets in Week 12 against the Patriots last season, played every snap, and held his own. 

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