2007 Patriots versus 2017 Patriots: Secondary
The similarities are obvious.
Both teams loaded up in the offseason, willingly parting ways with draft picks to bring aboard more experienced talent. Both teams went into their respective seasons with an embarrassment of riches offensively. Both teams assembled defenses that combined savvy veteran leadership and younger athletes in their physical primes.
Despite having nothing but a few spring workouts under its belt, the current iteration of the Patriots roster has already drawn comparisons to its 2007 counterpart -- the one that went 18-0 before losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Sports books have Bill Belichick's club favored to win each of its 16 regular-season games. Tom Brady is considered the early front-runner for MVP, an award he first won a decade ago. Here at CSN, we've wondered if the NFL has a "Patriots problem" because of what looks like a widening gap between them and their competition.
Perhaps in light of some of the hype they've received, Patriots coaches seemed to do what they could during OTAs last month to keep players humble. They called it a "teaching camp," as they always do, but substitution infractions meant laps. Matt Patricia blew a gasket or two. And during one press conference, Belichick took a moment to remind anyone listening exactly how much this year's group had accomplished.
"We’ve had enough parades, enough celebrations and enough everything," he said. "This ’17 team hasn’t done anything yet. None of us have."
Yet here we are, with the entire league off for the summer and little in the way of events to cover, so why not compare one team that hasn't done anything to another that's considered one of the best of all time?
The similarities are there. We've got the time. And it might spark some debate to keep us occupied until camp begins.
-- We'll pit Patriots players from 2017 and 2007 against one another and answer the question, "Who is the better player?" We're not judging them based on what they were capable of in their primes. We're not stacking one player's career against another's. It's just Player X in 2017 versus Player Y in 2007.
-- Players will be matched up as logically as possible based on position, but roles won't sync up perfectly . . . particularly in the front-seven. We've chosen to include the players who saw the most playing time in 2007, per Pro Football Focus, and lined them up against players on this year's roster that we believe are in line to see the most work. We realize that by the end of the 2017 season some of the names included here could look ridiculous. So be it.
-- Several Patriots beat reporters from 2007, including our own Tom E. Curran (then with nbcsports.com) and Mike Giardi (then with NECN), have been polled for their opinions, but I'll make the final call for each. Let me know if you disagree. I know you will. But obviously feel free to clog Tom and Mike's notifications as well. They'll be happy to hear from you.
Keep an eye on our @CSNNE Twitter account for polls corresponding with these matchups so that you can make your voice heard that way as well.
Patriots '07 vs '17: Breaking down the secondary
ASANTE SAMUEL VS. STEPHON GILMORE
Asante Samuel: 26 years old in 2007 / 5-foot-10 / 185 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 109 targets in coverage, 62 receptions, 772 yards, 7 touchdowns, 12.5 yards per reception, 7 interceptions, 10 passes defended, 73.6 rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.
Stephon Gilmore: 26 years old / 6-foot-1 / 190 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (with Buffalo): 68 targets in coverage, 41 receptions, 638 yards, 2 touchdowns, 15.6 yards per reception, 5 interceptions, 6 passes defended, 70.6 rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Asante Samuel never got the big-money deal that Stephon Gilmore received from the Patriots this offseason, but I still have him as the choice here in this head-to-head matchup. What Samuel gave the Patriots in 2007 while on the franchise tag -- which was worth all of $7.8 million at the time -- was legitimate "No. 1 corner" type of play. He's mostly remembered that year for letting an interception in the Super Bowl slip through his fingers, but leading up to that game he was his team's top cover man and a football magnet. His seven picks gave him 19 over the course of 2006 and 2007. He went to the Pro Bowl and he was a First Team All-Pro. Samuel didn't have the length that Gilmore does, nor is he athletically the same type of player. But he was what he was, and that was one of the game's best at his position. I think Gilmore will fit into in New England's secondary well in 2017, particularly with a number of long-limed receivers on the schedule. But what we don't know about Gilmore is what cost him this showdown. That's not fair to him, but you needed an answer so here it is.
THE CHOICE: Samuel.
ELLIS HOBBS VS. MALCOLM BUTLER
Ellis Hobbs: 24 years old in 2007 / 5-foot-9 / 195 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 109 targets in coverage, 60 receptions, 880 yards, 6 touchdowns, 14.7 yards per reception, 3 interceptions, 10 passes defended, 88.5 rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.
Malcolm Butler: 27 years old / 5-foot-11 / 190 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 105 targets in coverage, 59 receptions, 817 yards, 4 touchdowns, 13.8 yards per reception, 4 interceptions, 13 passes defended, 78.2 rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: There's really no debating this. Hobbs was a fine corner who played more snaps than any other Patriots defender in 2007, but Butler has already established himself as an upper-echelon defensive back in the NFL, he's playing in a loaded secondary, and he's trying to earn his first big-money contract as he's scheduled to hit free-agency next offseason. If he's healthy, another Pro Bowl-caliber season seems to be inevitable. Hobbs is the younger of the two in this scenario, and he provides some return ability that Butler does not. But Hobbs could not match what Butler is able to do in terms of plastering to his assignments and making plays on the football in the air. Not surprisingly, Butler was the unanimous choice of the 2007 beat reporters in this matchup.
THE CHOICE: Butler.
RANDALL GAY VS. ERIC ROWE
Randall Gay: 25 years old in 2007 / 5-foot-11 / 190 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 73 targets in coverage, 38 receptions, 395 yards, 4 touchdowns, 10.4 yards per reception, 3 interceptions, 7 passes defended, 69.1 rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.
Eric Rowe: 24 years old / 6-foot-1 / 205 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016: 62 targets in coverage, 31 receptions, 390 yards, 1 touchdown, 12.6 yards per reception, 2 interceptions, 6 passes defended, 61.9 rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: This was a sneaky close call. It's not a perfect comparison, but it's not bad. Gay was the every-week No. 3 corner for the Patriots in 2007. He was actually looking like a starter until Asante Samuel returned to training camp following his holdout. When Samuel was back, Gay bumped down inside to slot duties and handled them well. He was trusted to take on bigger receivers like Hines Ward, TJ Houshmandzadeh and Plaxico Burress, as well as tight ends like Jason Witten and Antonio Gates. One of the many undrafted gems Bill Belichick has uncovered over the course of his coaching career, Gay had what was probably his best season in 2007. Rowe came into the league with much more acclaim. He was one of the best athletes in the 2015 draft and was taken in the second round by the Eagles. Though Philadelphia moved on quickly from the safety-turned-corner, the Patriots found value in dealing for Rowe early in 2016. He wasn't active until Week 6, but he saw the third-most snaps at corner for the Patriots and was given one of the most difficult responsibilities in sports during Super Bowl LI when he was occasionally asked to shadow Julio Jones. Rowe has plenty going for him in this one-on-one. He is the more physically-gifted of the two corners we're debating here. And with a full offseason in New England under his belt, he could firmly establish himself as the team's No. 3 -- not to mention a nice backup option to the similarly long and athletic Stephon Gilmore. Plus, the game in this day and age asks much more of its No. 3 corners than it did a decade ago so Rowe may have more opportunities to make plays than Gay did. (Despite playing in seven fewer games in 2016 than Gay did in 2007, Rowe played only 35 fewer snaps.) Still, Gay's dependability inside in 2007 gives him the slight edge here. How Rowe reacts in his second year with the Patriots -- and how he factors into the play-time mix with Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones also vying for time - remains to be seen.
THE CHOICE: Gay.
RODNEY HARRISON VS. PATRICK CHUNG
Rodney Harrison: 35 years old in 2007 / 6-foot-1 / 220 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 74 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 13 quarterback hurries, 64 targets in coverage, 45 receptions, 441 yards, 3 touchdowns, 9.8 yards per reception, 2 interceptions, 6 passes defended, 92.0 rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.
Patrick Chung: 29 years old / 5-foot-11 / 215 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 77 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit, 10 quarterback hurries, 88 targets in coverage, 60 receptions, 664 yards, 4 touchdowns, 11.1 yards per reception, 1 interception, 4 passes defended, 100.8 rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Patrick Chung does a lot of the dirty work for the Patriots secondary. He plays in the box, oftentimes in a hybrid linebacker-safety role, to aid in defending the run. He plays man-to-man on massive tight ends and water bug slot receivers alike. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will occasionally let Chung loose to attack the quarterback. He's been reliable in that multifaceted role since he re-joined the Patriots in 2014. But what Rodney Harrison did for the Patriots was a little louder, both on the field and off. Harrison was a different type of player than Chung -- a rare 30/30 player, recording that many sacks (30.5) and picks (34) over the course of his career -- and retiring with the record for sacks by a defensive back. Rushing the quarterback isn't exactly a staple of Chung's game. That playmaking ability, even into his mid-30s, earns Harrison the nod here. Though Harrison's 2007 was bookended by disappointment -- he was given a four-game suspension to start the season for using a banned substance, and he was all over David Tyree's helmet catch . . . to no avail -- in between, he still showed up with the occasional loud play. All the while he helped to bring along younger defensive players like James Sanders and Ellis Hobbs.
THE CHOICE: Harrison.
JAMES SANDERS VS. DEVIN McCOURTY
James Sanders: 23 years old in 2007 / 5-foot-10 / 210 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 30 targets in coverage, 19 receptions, 206 yards, 1 touchdown, 10.8 yards per reception, 2 interceptions, 4 passes defended, 7 rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.
Devin McCourty: 29 years old / 5-foot-10 / 195 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 36 targets in coverage, 21 receptions, 186 yards, 3 touchdowns, 8.9 yards per reception, 2 interceptions, 2 passes defended, 76.9 rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Devin McCourty is one of the top free safeties in the game. He has the versatility to play the deep middle of the field on one snap, then get up on the line of scrimmage and check a tight end on the next. He is the central communicator in the back end, and his nuanced job was appreciated enough to earn him Pro Bowl and Second-Team All-Pro honors. PFF loves his work. They had him graded as the top safety in coverage last season, and his mark in coverage was the highest they handed out in four years. It wouldn't be right to sleep on James Sanders, a young player who learned from the likes of Rodney Harrison. Sanders started 15 games at safety and made more tackles than any other member of the secondary during the regular season. Bill Belichick clearly appreciated Sanders' professionalism and his steady game -- he played strong safety while Harrison was suspended to start the 2007 season and then shifted to free safety. But McCourty has the steady game with the elite athleticism and uncommon grasp of the Patriots defense to match. He's firmly in his prime and doesn't appear to be slowing down. He's the clear choice here.