Patriots

Bills coach says this Pats team is the best he's seen

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Bills coach says this Pats team is the best he's seen

FOXBORO - Sean McDermott's in his first year as the coach of the Bills, but he's been around a while now. 

His NFL career began in 1999, and over the course of 12 years, he rose from scouting administrative coordinator to defensive coordinator. After six more years running the defense in Carolina, he's circling the wagons in Buffalo. 

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We lay all that out for you as context -- proof McDermott's seen some things -- before highlighting a statement he made Wednesday morning that was particularly suspect.

Asked on a conference call if this year's Patriots team is any different than the ones he's seen at previous stops, McDermott took an unexpected turn.

"Well, I think they're better, honestly," McDermott said. "This is an outstanding football team - not that the other ones weren't. It just seems like now with the addition of some of other players that they've added to on the roster, with the addition of [Brandin] Cooks and some of the other player's they've been able to add the last really X amount of months, I think this is a dynamite football team."

Better than any Patriots team he's seen. Really? 

Even if we eliminate the championship Patriots teams McDermott never saw as a direct opponent -- 2001, 2014, 2016 -- he's still run into some damn good ones that most objective observers would say have this year's Patriots unit beat. 

McDermott was a defensive assistant for the Eagles in 2003 when Philly lost a regular-season matchup with New England, 31-10. That group featured three first-team All-Pros (Rodney Harrison, Ty Law and Richard Seymour) and a Pro Bowler (Willie McGinest) on defense. Offensively, Tom Brady maintained the 2-to-1 interception ratio he established for himself the year prior throwing to Deion Branch, Troy Brown and Daniel Graham. That team, of course, won the franchise's second Super Bowl in three years. 

McDermott was the assistant defensive backs coach when one of the most well-rounded teams of the Belichick-Brady Era beat the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Brady established himself as one of the game's best that year, making it to his second Pro Bowl. Corey Dillon was a star. Adam Vinatieri had one of his best seasons. The defense was second in the league in points allowed, and as a team, they were tops in point differential. There's an argument to be made that this was the best team in Patriots history. And McDermott studied them closely for two weeks with a Lombardi Trophy on the line. 

McDermott coached the Eagles secondary in 2007 when one of the best teams in NFL history squeaked out a 31-28 win over Philly. Think he remembers that record-setting passing game? 

In 2013, with Carolina, McDermott had to scheme up a plan to stop Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and LeGarrette Blount. That group was later decimated by injury, and it probably doesn't fall in the top 10 of Belichick-coached Patriots teams. But even they were just a game away from making the Super Bowl. 

The 2017 iteration of the Patriots is a very good one, obviously. Before the season began -- back when Julian Edelman and Dont'a Hightower were healthy, back before the defensive end group was quickly dismantled -- we did an entire series on how this year's team might be better than the 2007 group. Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran surmised it was "likely" they would go 16-0.

Even now that we know they aren't perfect, they still look exceptional. Brady is having one of his best seasons, with a completion percentage, yards-per-game average and quarterback rating that would all rate in the top-three for his career if the season ended today. Gronkowski is playing like the game's best tight end. Cooks gives them a vertical threat they haven't had since Randy Moss. The defense has kept opponents in the teens for two months. 

But is this a group that's better than any McDermott's seen? Offensively, maybe. Overall? No.

Here's how I'd line up the top-10 Patriots teams under Belichick. 

1. 2007: One helmet catch away from perfection.
2. 2004: The definition of complementary football.
3. 2014: Star-studded roster saved by a no-name rookie.
4. 2016: No Gronkowski, but Brady at the height of his powers.
5. 2003: Suffocating defense, toughness in abundance.
6. 2001: Not "great," Belichick has admitted, but at its best in big spots.
7. 2011: One Wes Welker catch away from No. 4.
8. 2012: Weapons upon weapons before Gronkowski's broken wing.
9. 2010: Brady takes second MVP, Jets spoil things in Divisional Round.
10. 2015: Injured Solder, Edelman too much to overcome in Denver.

If 2017 goes as the Patriots hope it will, I think it could potentially fall in between 2016 and 2014 -- a tick below two of the teams you couldn't blame McDermott for wanting to forget.
 

McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

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McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

Devin McCourty said immediately after Super Bowl LII that players knew Malcolm Butler's role had changed. Two weeks later, that story hasn't changed.

After falling to the Eagles, 41-33, and while making his way from his media availability period to the Patriots buses, McCourty said he and his teammates weren't surprised that Butler's workload had been scaled back for the final game of the season. 

His explanation made it difficult to understand, though, why other players were so surprised to see that Butler wasn't a part of the defensive game plan. The corner who started in Butler's place, Eric Rowe, said he didn't know until right before kickoff that he'd be on the field instead of Butler. 

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McCourty reiterated his point when asked about the situation during a recent event to benefit Tackle Sickle Cell, founded by McCourty and his twin brother Jason to help families dealing with sickle cell disease.

"As far as I know, all of that is the furthest thing from the truth," McCourty told NJ Advance Media when asked if Butler's benching was disciplinary in nature. "We all knew he wasn't starting all week. That wasn't a secret to the guys on the team.

"I get why people are fishing. The guy played 98 percent of the plays. I just hate that for him character-wise going into free agency. It's just not true. As far as I know -- and I was there all week -- not one time did anything come up."

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Butler took to social media in the days following the loss to dispel any rumors that he was being punished by Belichick and the rest of the coaching staff. He pointed out that he had not attended any concerts during the week, as had been theorized online, and that he spent his free time with family. 

"It sucked for him," McCourty said. "He put a lot of time and effort in. However it falls, the last thing you want to do is not play a snap. To me, the worst part was to see all that (anonymous) stuff come out after."

McCourty called Butler a "great teammte" and appreciated the way Butler grew as a player during his four years in New England. 

"It's been great to watch him develop," McCourty said of Butler. "To watch him, maybe, be late one day his rookie year, and say, 'Hey Malc, you can't do that.' And then becoming a guy you can count on who is very dependable.

"If he decides it's hard to come back after that, anywhere he goes, the guy is a great football player and probably one of the most competitive people I've been around. With all my guys, we're teammates and friends for life."

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With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at the position group that received more attention than any other during Super Bowl 52: Cornerback. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


No single position group experienced as many dips, climbs and dives as Patriots corners did during their rollercoaster season. In September alone, the communication was a mess, Malcolm Butler got benched, Stephon Gilmore got benched, and Eric Rowe suffered a serious groin injury that allowed Gilmore to quickly get his job back. Second-year special teams standout Jonathan Jones might've been the team's best cover man at that juncture. Then, as soon as Gilmore started to find his footing, he was diagnosed with a concussion. The group started to put it together in the second half with solid performances against the Raiders in Mexico City and the Bills in Buffalo. Gilmore was particularly strong as the season wore on, showing the man-to-man cover skills and the knack for getting his hands on footballs that made him one of the highest-paid players at his position last offseason. But in the end, in the Super Bowl, with Butler benched again, the group (outside of Gilmore, who played well against Philly) had too many letdowns in what was arguably the team's worst defensive performance of the season.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Gilmore, Rowe, Jones, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz

WHO ISN'T?
Butler, Johnson Bademosi

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?

The Patriots played Rowe in prominent roles in each of the past two Super Bowls and he seems to be first in line to take over No. 2 duties with Butler certainly headed on to a new chapter in his career. Jonathan Jones showed in spurts that he could be an effective slot corner, but he suffered a season-ending injury in the Divisional Round and it's unclear what the Patriots will be expecting from him in 2018. Cyrus Jones is coming off of a torn ACL, and even before his injury, it looked like he may have a hard time cracking the regular rotation. This is one position -  like tackle  - that the Patriots don't want to be left thin. If we had to rank it, the need for another capable body would probably come in at about a 7 out of 10. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There are a handful of relatively big names who will be on the market come March, including Butler. Trumaine Johnson of the Rams figures to be at the top of the class. Vontae Davis of the Colts is 29 and often injured, but in a corner-needy league, he shouldn't have much trouble finding a team. EJ Gains of the Bills could leverage his inside-out versatility to come away with a deal worth almost $10 million per year. Aaron Colvin of the Jaguars, Patrick Robinson of the Eagles, Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams and Leonard Johnson of the Bills give teams in need of slot help some options. Kyle Fuller of the Bears and Morris Claiborne of the Jets are two former first-rounders who've had up-and-down careers but showed last season they have still value on the outside. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?

It feels like the best athletes at the high school and college levels are getting smarter. Or their coaches are. Once again, there's a deep group of athletes peppering the incoming draft class at corner, which is, of course, one of the highest-paying positions in football. (Why so many top-tier athletes are still playing running back, on the other hand, is beyond me.) Alabama's hybrid star in the secondary Minkah Fitzpatrick will be long gone by the time the Patriots pick. Same goes for Ohio State's undersized burner Denzel Ward and Iowa's ball-hawking 6-foot-1 cover man Josh Jackson, in all likelihood. At the bottom of the first round, though, players like Auburn's Carlton Davis (who has drawn comparisons to Richard Sherman because of his length and ball skills) and Colorado's Isaiah Oliver (a one-time Pac-12 decathlete with a 6-foot-1 frame) could be available. Would the Patriots want to invest a first-round pick at that spot? If they feel like they have good depth at the position already on the roster but want to take a flier on a mid-round selection, they could hope Louisville's Jaire Alexander (who dealt with injuries in 2017 that will probably hurt his draft stock) lasts into the third round. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


One name that's sort of intriguing on the free-agency market is Davis'. You've heard tales similar players ending up in New England before. He's spent the majority of his career without much of a shot at a title - though his Colts made the AFC Championship Game in the 2014 season. He should be low-cost. He had season-ending groin surgery last year, was released in November and went unclaimed. He'll be 30 before the start of next season, but he may be worth a roll of the dice to help a relatively young Patriots secondary. If he doesn't pan out, no harm done. Hard to envision Belichick and Nick Caserio investing big money into this position with Gilmore on the roster, but maybe they'll deem one of the free-agent slot options worth a shot if he's cost-effective. Otherwise, the Patriots may try to take advantage of a draft that seems - at least right now - as if it's deeper at corner than it is at some other spots on the defensive side of the ball, like on the edge.

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