From the moment the clock read 00:00 at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5th, the attention of most New England Patriot fans turned to upgrading the team, and contemplating what would be the best method of improving the team’s chances for a championship in 2012. Even though the offense carried the squad throughout the year while fans and media alike disparaged the team’s defense, once the playoffs were finished the focus of that wrath turned to the other side of the ball; specifically to the production of the x-receiver (split end) who typically works outside the numbers more than any other receiver. The phrase “we need a deep threat” has been uttered thousands of times by Pats fans over the last several weeks, and as a result much, if not most of the attention of the fan base has been focused on soon to be free agents such as Mike Wallace, Brandon Lloyd, Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston, Reggie Wayne, Robert Meachem, and others. People want more production then what they feel Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco, Tiquan Underwood, Matthew Slater, and Julian Edelman can provide next year, and many are convinced upgrading that position is the difference between hoisting a Lombardi next February and coming up just short once again.
I for one do feel that the position is in need of an upgrade, but I prefer to also consider, and perhaps weigh more heavily the much larger sample size of the entire season. To me the number one position in need of betterment is not wide receiver, it is the defensive secondary; specifically the safety position, but cornerback as well. The problem with improving this area of need is twofold: first, there isn’t much available in free agency at either position, and as a result the price is probably going to be high – making it a poor value. A corner like Cortland Finnegan is vastly overpriced, while a safety such as LaRon Landry is injury prone. Second, the same goes for what may be available in the draft, which is compounded by possessing picks that come very late in the round. Does the team really want to enter the draft feeling like they absolutely have to take a safety at a certain point, or even worse, a specific player (e.g., Mark Barron) with their first pick? That kind of game plan results in reaches and poor value.
There is however one player available that has flown way under the radar for quite some time, while most of the discussion has been focused on the previously mentioned wide receivers, or the prize of free agency, Mario Williams. He is in my opinion the best cornerback in the NFL not named Darrelle Revis (at least for the 2011 season), and a player that fans of the Patriots should be familiar with from the AFC Championship Game: Lardarius Webb.
Webb is probably not discussed much for a couple of reasons. First, he’s a restricted free agent as opposed to an unrestricted free agent – though that distinction has not slowed down any of the speculation regarding Mike Wallace. He’s also part of a team that has much more well know players, such as Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata on their defense. But make no mistake, Webb is an exceptional player. He had five interceptions, 21 passes defensed, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, 59 tackles and 15 assists this past regular season. When the stakes got higher in the playoffs he certainly rose to the occasion, with the interceptions in January. On top of that he also handles the team’s punt return duties quite well: 30 returns for an average of just a shade over ten yards per return. Webb also had two touchdowns this year: a 68-yard punt return and a 73-yard interception return.
Consider this: not only did opponents complete just 54% of their passes thrown his way despite nearly always covering the opposition’s best receiver, but zero – ZERO! – touchdowns were thrown on Webb this year.
Now I realize that Bill Belichick has a propensity to effuse praise on every opponent so one should take his comments with a grain of salt, but this is what he had to say about Webb:
“Webb is a real good athlete,” Belichick said. “He’s fast, he’s quick, he’s a tough kid. Not the biggest guy, but he’s strong and he tackles well. He definitely will throw his body around in there and be physical, which you don’t see from every corner.”
“He’s got good ball skills…obviously has good hands and has real good ball skills,” Belichick said. “He’s made some real good plays on the ball down the field. He’s got real good quickness and can run.”
Under the new CBA the highest tender a team can place on a restricted free agent is at the first round level; formerly it had been a first and a third. This is perhaps part of why there hasn’t been much buzz about Webb; in the past it simply wasn’t worth it to go after another team’s best RFAs. But who would you rather have on the team next year: Webb or the 31st player in the draft? I cannot possibly imagine a raw rookie would deliver more than Webb can; it’s almost a no-brainer to try and sign him.
Adding Webb would obviously improve the cornerback position immensely, but what about the safety position that I mentioned earlier? Here’s my thought: Devin McCourty appeared to play much better in his rookie year as well as last year at safety when he was facing the quarterback, with the the whole field in front of him. Last season he was asked to play up close to the line of scrimmage and use a trail technique on the opposing receiver. His back was to the quarterback and at times he had trouble turning around and locating the ball. Why not use him instead in a position where he is more productive, with the play in front of him?
Obviously the Ravens are not about to just roll over and let some other team scoop up Webb without a fight. However, even after some recent cuts they are just $5.7 million under the cap. If the Pats make an offer that is relatively front loaded, it will be very difficult for Baltimore to match that offer.
As for the wide receiver position, the Pats could still upgrade with a player such as Laurent Robinson or Josh Morgan, and add another player with a pick from the second or third round of the draft. The positions would look something like this heading into training camp:
CB: Lardarius Webb, Kyle Arrington, Sterling Moore, [edit: Ras-I Dowling*], Antwuan Molden, late pick, UDFA or FA
S: Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, James Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown, Ross Ventrone, Brett Lockett, Josh Barrett
WR: Wes Welker, Laurent Robinson/FA, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, draft pick, Chad Ochocinco, Matthew Slater
* do we want to count on him playing a full season, or just consider any contribution an unexpected bonus?
As you can see from this highlight video, Webb also adds the extra dimension of being an exceptional return man along with being a ball-hawking defender.
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