FOXBORO -- This time last year, the Patriots secondary was swimming in questions. The most pressing was who would step up as the team's two starting cornerbacks?
Eventually Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan filled those roles that had been left vacant by Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, and their play on the outside became one of the defense's strengths. Butler was named to the Pro Bowl for his efforts, and Ryan was graded as the 12th-best corner in the league by Pro Football Focus.
This year, there aren't nearly as many certainties associated with the Patriots defense. Ten of their 11 starters return -- Chandler Jones, traded to the Cardinals, was the lone departure -- which should allow coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to feel as though they can essentially pick up from right where they left off last season.
Though new pieces like defensive end Chris Long, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and linebacker Shea McClellin have been added to the mix, safety Devin McCourty explained on Thursday that having so many returners will provide a hard-to-replace level of continuity to the unit.
"I think it definitely helps, coming in last year, losing guys and not knowing where guys are gonna be," he said. "Obviously 10 starters, we all gotta make sure we get our starting jobs back first. But I just think that experience in coming back with knowledge and experience of being out there in big games and seeing things, I think it enables you to start, when you start actually Xs and Os football, you can start a little ahead and rely on guys that have been out there to help other guys out. Whenever you have guys out there that have played, it helps your football team."
Butler and Ryan in particular have seen a signficant bump in terms of their on-the-field comfort level, McCourty said, which could lead to even more improvements on their end.
"Guys like Logan and Malcolm, who have been out there previously but are out there on an every-down basis, those guys come back I think with a world of confidence," McCourty explained. "Knowing that they just have to keep getting better and better. They know that they can do the job and I'm excited for us as a secondary, as a unit, going through last year and going through a phase at this point in time that's a big unknown and now having a core group of guys that can help bring other guys along the way.
"[We'll ] get guys like [corner] Justin [Coleman] who came in late, now he'll get a full offseason. [Corner Rashaan] Melvin, [safety Jordan Richards]. All those guys now will be here full-time and have a full offseason. It's encouraging. Your unit just keeps getting stronger and stronger."