The New England Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions, and they might also be the most improved team in the NFL. It's almost not fair that the Pats took a team that went 14-2 last season and added several potential top-end contributors to it, but sometimes that's what happens when you are the best -- and best-managed -- team in the NFL.
A lot of the attention has gone to the New England offense, as the Pats added wide receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Dwayne Allen in trades, and snagged running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead in free agency. Their most important (and most expensive) addition, though, came on defense: former Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who came over on a five-year, $65 million contract that was the largest ever signed by a Patriots defensive back.
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Over the last few years, Belichick has mixed and matched his cornerbacks in a very interesting way. Most teams have their No. 1 cornerback either follow the opposing team's No. 1 receiver or play a single side of the field.
Much like they do on the other side of the ball, the Patriots employ a game-plan defense, not a system defense. In other words, just as the Pats might come out and run the ball 50 times in one game and throw it 50 times the next; sometimes they might come out and match up No. 1 vs. No. 1 on the perimeter, sometimes they might play sides, and sometimes they might do something else entirely like match up their No. 1 corner against the opposition's No. 2 receiver and bracket the top wideout with their No. 2 corner (usually Logan Ryan) and a safety (Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, or Duron Harmon).
Two aces up his sleeve
Now, though, Belichick has two No. 1 cornerbacks to work with. He has used Butler as a Revis-style No. 1 corner for the last two seasons, and he obviously views Gilmore as a No. 1 as well -- if the contract the Pats handed him this offseason is any indication. Having two players this talented will allow Belichick to get even more creative with his matchups and his coverages.
Both Butler and Gilmore have strong frames to press at the point of attack, long arms to challenge the ball at the catch point, and good change of direction skills to stay with anyone that might try to shake free at the top of the route. Butler is more suited to playing in the slot than Gilmore, and Belichick should feel more comfortable bumping him down inside now that he's got a physical perimeter corner to handle whoever stays on the boundary.
That should come in handy against, say, the Dolphins, where Butler can now shadow Jarvis Landry into the slot all day while Gilmore hangs with DeVante Parker or Kenny Stills. The Pats play Cooks' former team, the New Orleans Saints, in Week 2. Butler can move inside with Willie Snead while Gilmore tangles with Michael Thomas on the outside. And against teams with two primary outside threats like the Buccaneers, the Pats can now feel safe using Butler against burner types like DeSean Jackson because they have Gilmore to go toe-to-toe with Mike Evans.
They can still mix-and-match differently if they want, but having a second No. 1 outside option allows Belichick to more aggressively maneuver in order to take away the opposition's primary threat either on the inside or down the field, which severely limits the options available to the quarterback. What's more, Gilmore doesn't necessarily need full help over the top when going up against No. 1 receivers like Ryan did. That means McCourty can roam all over the back end even more than he normally does, which should give the Patriots a better chance at creating more turnovers.
The Pats finished last season first in the NFL in scoring defense and eighth in yards allowed, but they forced a turnover on only 11.2 percent of their opponents' drives -- 20th in the league. If they start creating more takeaways, that will put their explosive offense in even better position to score, which will lead to the opposing offense having to take more chances, which will lead to even more takeaways. It's a vicious circle.
In a league that is still increasingly trending toward the pass, and on a team that can be expected to almost always have a lead, filling out the back end of the defense with strong players is extremely important. The Patriots have always done well enough in the secondary, but now they have one of the very best cornerback tandems in the league, to go along with one of its best safeties. Seeing Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia work with that kind of talent is going to be quite something.