INDIANAPOLIS – The Patriots have a major decision to make in the next few weeks, and it's one that could significantly impact their draft and free agent plans as well. Among the Patriots 12 potential free agents, Aqib Talib is far and away the most important. He's also the most difficult case to consider.
Talib is clearly the team's best cornerback, and when he's on the field he impacts the entire defense. Over the first month of 2013, he was arguably the best defensive player in the league. His ability to man up on the opponents' top receiver allowed others to employ double coverage elsewhere while offenses were left to search for alternatives while their top weapon was consistently taken out of the game.
Never was that more evident than against New Orleans, when Talib impressively blanked All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and forced Drew Brees to find other receivers. It wasn't the only time Talib's dominance basically won a game for New England over the first month-plus of the season either.
The problem, of course, is his durability. In each of his two seasons with the Patriots, Talib failed to stay on the field, particularly when those two campaigns ended in AFC Championships Games. Hip injuries derailed him both times, and his health remains a huge concern for anyone who signs him. The results without him on the field were drastically different. Denver's Peyton Manning was hardly affected when Talib was in the lineup, but when he left he simply tore the replacements apart.
That glimpse of life with the likes of Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan as the team's corners was not a pretty one, so either the Patriots must find a way to re-sign Talib or find a suitable replacement.
According to the Boston Herald, Talib was in town at the Combine to meet with Patriots representatives. While no additional information is available, it would appear that Talib would at least want to test the market and get to free agency with less than a month to go before the start of the new league year on March 11.
Last year he signed a one-year, $5 million deal that was enhanced a bit by incentives. He may be looking for something more long-term this time around, but given his tenuous health the Patriots may not want to give it to him. He could be in line for something in the $8 million-per-year range, and if he's able to find someone who'll commit to those kinds of dollars for multiple years, his days in New England could be over.
Depending on Talib's future, the Patriots could be very much in the market for a corner at or near the top of their draft. It is not a star-studded position, but it does have some depth with NFLDraftScout.com listing 39 players with potential draft grades and four – Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard (5-11, 197), Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert (6-0, 200), TCU's Jason Verrett (5-10, 176) and Florida's Marcus Roberson (6-0, 195) – have possible first-round grades and the latter two are listed as first/second possibilities.
Dennard is cousins with Alfonzo, although he stresses the latter half of his name in his pronunciation as opposed to the first like the Patriots corner does. He allowed just three passes of 15 yards or more on 31 attempts during his senior season with the Spartans and plays with tremendous physicality and aggression.
Gilbert is a bit bigger and considers himself a student of the game. He said he's constantly working and refining his technique and believes teams will see his work ethic as a huge plus.
"I think they'll see my dedication to the game," Gilbert began when asked about how he wanted to be perceived. "I'm going to come in and go to work day and day out. I love watching film and I'm always looking for ways to improve. I'm always working on transitioning out of my breaks and backpedaling, always trying to be more fluid."
Interestingly, when Gilbert was asked which NFL corners he thought he compared to he mentioned Cleveland's Joe Haden, Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Seattle's Richard Sherman. When asked if he watched Talib, he said he wasn't familiar with the Patriots Pro Bowler.
Roberson is one of three Gators corners to receive draft grades, joining Loucheiz Purifoy (6-0, 190/second-third) and Jaylen Watkins (6-0, 194/third-fourth). Like most Gators – and corners in general – Roberson doesn't lack confidence.
"I play like Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis," he began. "Sherman because of my length and bump-and-run style and Revis because I'm a lockdown corner. I like me over any cornerback in this draft. I love playing man-to-man and feel like I can do that better than anyone."
There is a large group of corners who projects as second-to-fourth-round picks. Ohio State's Bradley Roby (5-11, 192), Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner (5-8, 190), Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller (6-0, 194), Purifoy, South Carolina's Victor Hampton (5-10, 202) and Clemson's Bashaud Breeland (6-0, 185) head that list.
Joyner is an interesting prospect. He played virtually everywhere in the Seminoles secondary, spending two seasons at safety and working both as an outside corner and in the slot. His size would seem prohibitive for a permanent move to safety but his reputation as a hitter is well-known.
"The passing game is all about timing so it's all about getting into the receiver and disrupting that timing," Joyner said. "Whether I'm playing safety, corner or nickel it's all the same. You have to make sure you're not letting guys run free."
Hampton is another player not lacking for confidence. He attended four high schools – two in Charlotte and two in South Carolina – before playing for Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks. He's enjoyed the Combine process thus far and looks forward to talking to coaches.
"The best part for me is meeting with all the teams so they can really get a great feel for who I am and seeing my personality and the type of guy I am," Hampton said. "I'm very physical, smart, know the game, preparation, put the extra hours in, lot of film work, good tackler, just going to be in the wide receiver's face all the time."
Fuller has solid bloodlines as his brother Vincent played for Tennessee and Corey is currently a wide receiver for the Lions. All three were Hokies and Kyle is hoping to extend the run, and respected draft analysts Mike Mayock believes he is the best nickel corner in the draft.
Moving further down the line there is still plenty of talent to be had. The start of Day 3 should find several productive players remaining on the board. One of the more intriguing is Lindenwood's Pierre Desir (6-1, 195), who has a great combination of size and athleticism but is largely untested coming out of the Division II ranks.
Desir began his career at Division II Washburn before transferring to Lindenwood to make life easier for his fiancé (now wife) and two daughters. The lack of competition will hurt him as he tended to get by on his athleticism, but he did record 25 interceptions during his career.
"The Senior Bowl experience was really important for me," said Desir, who was born in Haiti before moving to the U.S. at age 4. "It showed the teams that I could compete with a higher level of talent than I played against and gave me a lot of confidence in my game."
A bit further down the line is Fuller's college teammate Antone Exum (5-11, 213), who is projected as a fifth-round pick. His size could have him moving to safety in the NFL, a possibility that suits him just fine.
"I like to make plays in the running game, plays in coverage, plays at safety, plays at corner," Exum began. "I'm big but I think the teams I've spoken with think I'm a corner. I'm able to body guys around and be disruptive. Big cornerbacks are becoming more valuable in the NFL so they're looking for guys like me."
The late rounds also have some interesting names like Vanderbilt's Andre Hal (5-11, 190), San Jose State's Bene Benwikere (5-11, 194), Notre Dame's Bennett Jackson (6-0, 187), Oklahoma's Aaron Colvin (6-0, 186), Nebraska's Ciante Evans (5-10, 193) and Northwest Missouri State's Brandon Dixon (6-0, 204).
Colvin is coming off a torn ACL and might not be ready to play in 2014 but was encouraged by the plight of former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who was drafted by San Francisco last year despite not being physically able to play.
Dixon may not have the resume of many of the other corners but that hasn't affected his confidence. (Of course, none of the corners lack confidence. All either claimed to be the best cover guy in the draft or compared themselves to Sherman and Revis). Despite being listed as a potential seventh-round pick/undrafted free agent, Dixon believes he belongs on the stage with anyone.
"I definitely have a chip on my shoulder," Dixon began. "I feel like I could have played at any Division I school in the country. I'm the best press/man corner in this draft."
If he comes close to living up to his own hype he could be an intriguing diamond in the rough.