Patriots

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.

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