By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
There may never be an answer for Bill Belichick's decision to bench Malcolm Butler on defense in Super Bowl LII. But there is one thing that, by the start of the 2018 season, absolutely has to be answered, unless the Patriots plan to play with 10 guys on defense. Who's going to replace Butler, anyway?
Belichick may not find a player with the same exact skill set, makeup, competitiveness, etc. that Butler brought to the table in four seasons. And it's all a matter of opinion just how good Butler really was to begin with, especially how good he'll be moving forward. But the fact is that Butler went from playing 98 percent of defensive snaps over the first 18 games of the season to playing zero defensive snaps in the Super Bowl. The players that took his place were, to say the least, not prepared and not good enough to slow down the now-defending champion Philadelphia Eagles.
The Patriots need to replace those snaps, and they need to be with something better than what they rolled out in Minneapolis.
Good news is, there's a pretty good chance that the Patriots secondary, particularly the cornerbacks, is improved upon their "performance" in the Super Bowl in 2018. The safeties enter the new season intact from last year, as Devin McCourty also needs to rebound from a bad Super Bowl and there appear to be no major roster battles (unless you count Jordan Richards vs. Eddie Pleasant). It's at corner where the team has some real questions to work through over the next several weeks.
Another bright side for the Patriots' secondary, which has largely gone overlooked in the offseason, is the emergence of free-agent acquisition Stephon Gilmore. Earning redemption after a weak first four games in 2017, Gilmore eventually established himself as the Patriots' clear No. 1 corner and perhaps their best defensive player. For the balance of the season, he was better than Butler. He was the Pats' best defender in the playoffs, too.
Could Gilmore, who turns 28 years old on Sept. 19, be on the verge of becoming a true shutdown corner in New England? He certainly didn't look capable of that at the start of 2017. But if his second-half performance is any indication, No. 24 has gotten much more comfortable in the Patriots defense and will not experience the kind of communication issues that plagued him early on.
Gilmore definitely has the physical tools and toughness to take on big No. 1 receivers, which will continue to be among the Patriots' major defensive assignments in 2018. He dominated in minicamp, as the quarterbacks barely ever even threw in his direction. It can't be overstated how big of a development it would be for the defense if it suddenly had a legitimate lockdown cornerback wiping top receivers out of games. Think Darrelle Revis in 2014, or Aqib Talib in 2012. Ty Law?
Just saying, the Pats defense is usually at its best with that kind of player. Gilmore has a legit chance to be that.
But About That Butler Replacement...
As under-appreciated as Gilmore might have become in recent months, he's not a concern entering training camp. There's not much to ask about with him. The real question is how the rest of the cornerbacks will shake out, particularly on the outside across from Gilmore.
If minicamp is any indication, the early leader for that spot could actually be an undrafted free agent, J.C. Jackson out of Maryland. The 22-year-old played two years for the Terrapins after transferring over from Riverside City College in California, after transferring there from Florida. He also had a run-in with the law after being arrested in connection with a burglary in 2015, but was eventually acquitted of all charges.
Through all this, Jackson ended up undrafted - but not necessarily because of his abilities as a player. He looked like he belonged when lining up across from Gilmore in team drills during minicamp. He's already pushing the likes of Eric Rowe for a prime roster spot, which can only be a positive development for this positional group.
Also in the mix at corner is fellow rookie Duke Dawson, whom the Patriots selected with the 57th overall pick. Dawson frequently manned the slot in minicamp, a role that he figures to be able to hold at least competently at the NFL level. Who knows how he'll perform in that spot right away, but he's certainly a better fit for slot corner than Patrick Chung and would almost have to try to be worse than Johnson Bademosi was in the Super Bowl. A third rookie corner, Keion Crossen, could land a roster spot on special teams, and his elite athleticism gives him long-term ace potential.
There are two other corners who can't go unnoticed, here: the two Joneses. One of them, Jonathan, looked to be gaining steam during the 2017 season before suffering a torn ACL. His presence was sneakily missed in the Super Bowl as well. The other Jones, Cyrus, has been an absolute lightning rod over his first two seasons in New England thanks to his struggles as a punt returner. He may yet be able to seize that role with no clear option for that spot beyond Julian Edelman, but like the other Jones, he will start training camp on the physically unable to perform list (PUP).
Finally, there's Devin McCourty's twin brother Jason McCourty. He was nowhere to be found during 11-on-11 drills, and the Patriots made a negligible swap of draft picks in order to acquire him from the Cleveland Browns. He would cost the Patriots no dead money to cut, so his roster spot should not be considered secure. However, his veteran savvy may help him grasp the playbook better than his younger counterparts, and give him an upper hand at earning a starting role opposite Gilmore. But for now, he's behind the rookies and perhaps Rowe as well.
Gilmore will be one of the elite cornerbacks in the AFC, perhaps the entire league, and it will make a big difference for the Patriots defense as a whole. ... Rowe will be one of the more surprising cuts of camp, but it may not be all that surprising once he takes the field. ... Dawson will earn the regular slot cornerback role and have the kind of up-and-down season you might expect from a rookie. ... The Joneses will both end up waived, but one of them may pass through and end up on the Patriots' practice squad. ... J.C. Jackson will win out for the second starting spot, but McCourty won't be far behind to take snaps away if the rookie isn't quite ready for the NFL stage in that role.
Ultimately, the million-dollar question is how the secondary will look without Butler and with an entire offseason & training camp to figure out the best group. It's not fair to judge this year's group based on how it played in the Super Bowl, but it doesn't make the task of finding the next Butler any less important.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].