The New England Patriots could still use another starting strong safety after releasing veteran Steve Gregory earlier this offseason, but there’s no doubt that they have one of the league’s most talented secondaries. Darrelle Revis is obviously an elite player and one of the best in the game at any position, but underrated free safety Devin McCourty can also be regarded as elite due to his football IQ, solid tackling, speed, ball skills, range, and run defense. Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, and Logan Ryan are all solid CBs with versatility, and now the Patriots are even more scary with the addition of Brandon Browner.
I wish the Patriots didn’t spend $17 million over three seasons ($5.6 million per year) on Browner given his suspension and the money they have tied up in Revis (they also need to give McCourty an extension), but they also had the cap room to make the deal thanks to Vince Wilfork‘s release. While the Patriots cap room will become limited again with their need for a DT and the likelihood of Julian Edelman returning, Browner can make himself well-worth the price. Plus, the Patriots are incredibly shrewd when it comes to structuring contracts, and I’m sure they have a few kicks in this one, largely thanks to Browner’s status as a suspended player.
So how does Browner fit the New England Patriots? I think it’s quite clear that he is their new No. 2 corner, and I really don’t see them using him as a strong safety. That said, the Patriots are crafty, and I think they are going to move him around a bit in order to take advantage of his physicality. Browner is a whopping 6’4″, 221 pounds, and his size can’t be underestimated. He could play some safety, and I think that will happen in certain packages. Adding Browner gives the Patriots somebody who can be used in a specialized role to stop top pass-catching tight ends, because he has the size, strength, and ball skills to beat those guys.
But make no mistake, Browner isn’t a legitimately great corner, because he’s a bit too burn prone. Aqib Talib was known for his ability to lock down possession receivers in press-coverage but also struggled a bit with speed receivers, and the disparity is even bigger for Browner (the oft-cited example is Browner’s ill-fated one-on-one matchups against Indianapolis Colts speed demon T.Y. Hilton).
But while Browner’s physical play gives him a penchant for committing penalties and his lack of speed can cause him to get burned, the Patriots have the perfect situation for him. In fact, they can pretty much do what the Seattle Seahawks did by putting one corner in an island and then giving Browner more room to be his physical self by giving him safety help. Darrelle Revis will take the opponent’s top WR out of the game, whereas Browner (when he’s lined up as a traditional CB, which should be most of his snaps) will take the other WR and have some top-notch help from Devin McCourty, who rarely ever gets burned. He’s also excellent at communicating with CBs, so blown coverage assignments are held to a minimum in New England.
Browner also makes up for giving up some big plays in coverage by generating plenty of big plays on his own. The 29-year-old defended ten passes in just eight games last season, and there’s no questioning his ball skills. He also had three forced fumbles in 2013, and the Patriots are definitely a defense that feeds off of turnovers and would like to have a guy like Browner who can take advantage of the opposition’s mistakes. Revis isn’t going to generate many turnovers with his lockdown coverage and the fear QBs have of him, but Browner will have plenty of room to go for the big play on defense.
Although he came at a hefty price, it’s important to wait until all financial details (such as possible options, bonuses, escalators, overall structure by year) before making a call on whether or not a player is too expensive. As far as pure “fit” goes, Browner fits a Super Bowl contender like the Patriots from a “need” standpoint and fits the Patriots perfectly from a “scheme” standpoint. Every smart coach knows how to put a talented defensive back in a position to succeed, and there are several ways that Bill Belichick can take advantage of Browner’s skill-set and hide some of his weaknesses. He is in a great situation in New England, and his ability to set the tone in the running game and in press coverage with his size and strength will further help him in his new environment.