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Patriots-Saints Analysis: McCourty's movements

Check out a selection of the best images from the Patriots preseason game against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday, August 22, 2015.

NEW ORLEANS –One of the biggest questions entering training camp was, "Who will start at cornerback for the Patriots?"

Very early, it appeared as if one of those jobs was locked down by Malcolm Butler. The Super Bowl XLIX star has been solidly entrenched as the left corner, where Darrelle Revis was last season. Butler got the "star treatment" in the preseason opener against Green Bay, playing a couple of series before being pulled and watching the rest of the game from the sidelines.

Then, in West Virginia, he had a terrible first practice against the Saints before rebounding the next day with a much more solid effort. He was picked on by Drew Brees several times on the fields of the Greenbrier resort, but when the Patriots and Saints met in the Superdome on Saturday night, Brees elected not to throw Butler's way. Instead, the veteran QB targeted New England's one-time Pro Bowler on the other side of the field.

It may be hard for some to remember that Devin McCourty was a Pro Bowl starter at cornerback in his rookie year with the Patriots. He was a corner coming out of Rutgers and looked to have a bright future there as a pro.

Then, something happened. All the playmaking ability he demonstrated as a rookie suddenly seemed to vanish. He gradually was moved to safety and has been there ever since.

Lately in training camp practices, McCourty has been seeing significant time at his original position, in recent practices, and against the Saints, he started at right corner opposite Butler on the left.

Early on, McCourty made a nice play, breaking up a would-be touchdown to wide receiver Brandon Coleman in the end zone on the first New Orleans possession. That forced the Saints to kick a 27-yard field goal.

He was beaten, though, by wide receiver Brandin Cooks for a long gain on the next series after Cooks made a nice spin move after the catch. And on the third Saints drive, McCourty gave up two long receptions, including a deep touchdown to Cooks, whom McCourty had allowed to run by him because he appeared to have safety help from Duron Harmon (Harmon was also beaten badly by Cooks' speed).

This all transpired while veteran cornerback Tarell Brown watched from the sideline. Brown, a free agent signed just before camp started, is still working his way back to full strength after offseason foot surgery, and New England's coaching staff appears to be being extra cautious with him.

Brown suited up against the Saints, after not dressing against Green Bay, but never saw action in New Orleans. He has been practicing regularly at right cornerback with Butler on the opposite side, and making a number of impressive plays. It is presumed by many observers that Brown is the logical choice to start at right cornerback, but thus far, he has yet to appear in the first two preseason games.

Which makes the McCourty development all the more interesting.

Are the Patriots coaches lacking confidence in the other players on the cornerback roster? Or is McCourty's sudden shift back to corner merely a preseason experiment to keep his coverage skills sharp in the event of a catastrophe in the secondary?

My instincts tell me it's a combination of both, and that Brown, once at full strength, will be in the defensive backfield along with Butler and McCourty back at safety. Because as inconsistent as McCourty might be as a corner, he's clearly the most solid safety on the team. Do the Patriots really want to remove their best safety from the equation to try to fill a spot at corner?

I wouldn't have thought so just a few weeks ago, but now, it seems like that's exactly what they're doing. I'm very curious to see how the next two weeks unfold in the Patriots secondary.

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