The Patriots have faced three consecutive seasons in which the team's passing defense has ranked an abysmal 30th, 31st, and 29th overall. Whether it was because a certain head-hunter in Brandon Meriweather was back deep or a patently unwise decision to use Matthew Slater as a defensive back, the Patriots have had a parade of players move in and out of the unit that have underperformed worse than “Life of Pi” has during the awards season. It all makes for a yearly ritual to revamp the group, hoping among other hopes for the defense that this unit is better than the last – and remains healthy.
That’s why what’s going on with Alfonzo Dennard in Nebraska is so concerning.
Dennard is facing a felony charge for allegedly assaulting a police officer and misdemeanor charges for resisting arrest and assaulting another man. He is facing up to seven years in prison and a $12,000 fine if found guilty of all three charges. He took the stand in his case on Friday. Closing arguments are expected on Tuesday.
What he’s facing and the prospect of his playing are two incomparable affairs. But the repercussions of his loss must be explored.
Dennard is a rising star. The seventh round draft pick – whose draft stock dropped because of this incident in Nebraska – developed quickly on the field, showing good aggressiveness in coverage despite being outsized at a generously listed 5-feet-10 inches. And he wasn't afraid to battle with the best receivers and quarterbacks in the game. In his starting debut against the Denver Broncos, he batted down one throw from Peyton Manning to his side and broke up another. In the AFC championship, he gave up only one pass to the dangerous Torrey Smith. For his rookie season, in which he started seven games and played 601 snaps, he allowed only 31 receptions on 61 targets in his direction. He gave up four touchdowns, picked off three passes, and recorded seven passes defensed.
An incarcerated Dennard would certainly put a crimp in any plans to upgrade and improve the roster. The team is already faced with losing Aqib Talib to free agency. And Kyle Arrington, who was solid in his role as a slot corner this season, is an unrestricted free agent as well. While the Patriots have continually appeared to be one good player short of a solid unit, they could possibly see a complete overhaul again. Whether that is a good thing is unknown.
Could the team overreact to losing Dennard and overpay for Talib, or even Arrington? How will this affect the team’s draft strategy? Could Devin McCourty move back to cornerback? How will this affect the rest of the team’s 18 free agents?
What we all saw this year, despite the final statistical ranking, was a mild improvement in the team’s defense in the back end of the season. When Dennard was inserted into the cornerback position, he brought a toughness that was needed. Then the Patriots traded for Talib, a player that can function as a shutdown corner when healthy. McCourty shifted to safety. The end result was a pass defense that wasn’t remarkable, but was certainly solid. Better backups, both at corner and safety, are what the Patriots need to take the next step forward.
But losing one, two, or all three of these players would be a giant step backward and would force the team to proceed in a reactionary manner, rather than a planned one.
What Dennard is facing is a serious crime. What the Patriots are facing is uncertainty.