On Saturday Ty Law became the first — second if you count Randy Moss — member of the New England Patriots’ two decade-long, 21st-century dynasty to be named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His emotional speech was one of the better presentations of the past few years. He was apart of a fitting class that included the only higher-rated cornerback of the 2000s, Champ Bailey, and the game’s best safety of all-time, Ed Reed. Add in legendary safety Johnny Robinson and this draft class became the first to include four defensive backs, while also adding league architect and historian, Gil Brandt, perhaps the greatest tight end of all-time — with Rob Gronkowski — Tony Gonzalez, rough and tough center Kevin Mawae, and the late, great Broncos owner, Pat Bowlen.
Law’s ability to shutdown opposing team’s top receiver was matched only by his knack for playing his best in the biggest games. Law played ten seasons in New England, with his prime being from 2001 to 2003, when Law was arguably the best player on a team that won two Super Bowls during that time.
Since then Bill Belichick has shown an affinity for building his defense partly around a true No. 1 cornerback.
This piece will focus on breaking down each of the following shutdown cover men that have donned a Patriots uniform in the last 20 or so years —
Ty Law (1995-2004)
Asante Samuel (2003-2007)
Aqib Talib (2012-2013)
Darrelle Revis (2014)
Stephon Gilmore (2017-present)
Drafted by Bill Parcells in the 1995 NFL Draft, Law earned a starting role in Week 12 of his rookie season under Parcells and then-Patriots defensive coordinator Bill Belichick. By 1998, Law became one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks under Pete Carroll, earning a First-team All-Pro nod while also leading the league in interceptions.
But it was his play under Belichick from 2001 to 2003 in which his Hall of Fame resume was built upon. Law dominated in key moments — coming away with a Super Bowl XXXVI pick-six off Kurt Warner, and three interceptions versus the NFL’s co-MVP, Peyton Manning, in the 2003 AFC Championship Game.
Law could play both man and zone coverage and was often asked to shadow the opposing team’s best receiver, many times in press coverage situations — examples including Law matched up with Isaac Bruce in Super Bowl XXXVI and Marvin Harrison in the aforementioned 2003 AFC title game.
Usually, Belichick would ask Law to shut down one side of the field, leaving the likes of Otis Smith or Tyrone Poole to cover the other side with help, while cover men such as Terrell Buckley and Asante Samuel working of the slot.
Perhaps more than any other cornerback in NFL history, Law elevated his play in the clutch. Additionally, Law thrived in two different eras, one where physicality and ‘defensive holding’ calls were fewer, and afterword, when former Colts GM Bill Polian pushed for an increased emphasis on holding calls to make things easier for receivers and the passing game in general.
And perhaps one of Law’s greatest achievements came after he was jettisoned from the Patriots in 2005. He led the league in interceptions (10) with the Jets the next season, and even returned an interception for a touchdown versus former teammate Tom Brady. After that, Law signed with the Chiefs for one more soldi season in 2006 before finishing his career with the Broncos.
Law intercepted future Hall of Fame passer Peyton Manning nine times throughout his career, with five of those picks coming in the postseason.
It took three tries and personal letters from Brady and Manning to convince voters to put Law in the Hall of Fame, but it shouldn’t have come to that. Now Law’s place in history will deservedly shine even brighter — as will his place in Patriots lore as the template for one of the most important roles on one of the best sports dynasties in history.
Asante Samuel was drafted by New England of the fourth round in the 2003 NFL Draft, and immediately showcased his affinity for pick-sixes in victimizing Vinny Testaverde and the Jets for a game-winner in his second career regular season game.
After New England released Law in 2005, the Patriots relied on Samuel to step into the team’s true No. 1 role after two seasons of productive play as a No. 2/3 CB who played both in the slot and on the perimeter.
Samuel’s prime began in 2006 and lasted until roughly 2010. The final three seasons of that stretch he spent with the Eagles after the Patriots were unable to come to terms with a deal in 2008 after franchising him for the prior season.
In 2006, Samuel burst onto the scene with 10 interceptions, tying Champ Bailey for the league lead. He added two pick-sixes in the postseason, which included a 33-yard run back versus Peyton Manning, who was looking for Marvin Harrison on a long comeback route.
Like Law, Samuel was a big-time player. His seven career postseason interceptions rank second to just Ed Reed (9) this century.
Samuel’s smaller frame (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) than the the other players on this list make him a slightly different defensive chess piece. Although he excelled some in man coverage, Samuel was a much better in zone. In fact, Samuel was the best zone coverage cornerback in football for most to 2006 to 2010.
His phenomenal instincts, quickness and innate toughness for his size made him the perfect December-January cornerback for a team that resides in the northeast.
Samuel was also one of the few players let go by Belichick that thrived for multiple seasons.
After Samuel left in 2008, the Patriots received a somewhat stellar season from former Browns cornerback Leigh Bodden in 2009, and a successful rookie campaign from rookie Devin McCourty in 2010, before he struggled in 2011 and was switched to safety.
So entering 2012, New England was reliant on 7th-round rookie Alfonzo Dennard and nickel back Kyle Arrington to be the team’s top two cornerbacks. Already a few seasons removed from having a true, top-flight cornerback, Belichick realized their defensive struggles over the past few seasons might have been somewhat equated to the absence of an All-Pro caliber cover man.
Enter, Aqib Talib.
Big (6-foot-1, 209 pounds) and physical, Talib was a bully in press man coverage against receivers and tight ends of all sizes.
At one point during a road win versus the Falcons in 2013, Talib successfully defended Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzales in the red zone.
Coming over during the midway point of the 2012 season, Talib instantly helped a Patriots defensive backfield turn a corner from one of the league’s worst units to a somewhat respectable group.
It’s not surprise that New England’s defense crumbled in the 2012 and 2013 AFC Championship Games after Talib left both contests with injuries.
In Talib, Belichick had a chess piece that was able to take away any opposition’s best playmaker, making it easier for New England’s other defensive backs to key on other team’s No. 2 and 3 targets.
Talib entered free agency in 2015 and signed a lucrative deal with the Broncos, forming perhaps the best cornerback duo of the decade with slot defender Chris Harris Jr. Talib also faced the Patriots as the Rams’ No. 2 CB in Super Bowl LIII this past February.
But as we travel back — New England had someone in mind to replace Talib for the 2014 season. One of the best cornerbacks of all-time.
From 2009 to 2012, Revis was unquestionably the best cornerback in the NFL. In fact, his stretch of seasons is some of the best cornerback play in NFL history.
‘Revis Island’ is what his side of the field was dubbed. Revis is perhaps the best man coverage cornerback in NFL history, and also excelled in Cover 3 zones.
Even after being traded to Tampa Bay in 2013, Revis quietly adapted to the Buccaneers’ ‘Tampa 2′ scheme, and remained one fo the league’s better defenders.
So after Talib left for the Broncos, Belichick was in need of a stalwart at cornerback. Like when the Patriots admitted their lack of receivers in 2007 — where they acquired Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth — Belichick signed Revis and Seahawks’ cornerback Brandon Browner (6-foot-4, 221 pounds) in the 2014 offseason, in hopes of bolstering an important position.
Like Law, Revis was from Alquippa, Pennsylvania, and wore No. 24. Adittionally, Revis would finish his career playing for the Jets, Patriots and Chiefs, thr
After struggling the first few weeks, Revis than re-ascended to becoming the top cornerback in the NFL, helping the Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX. Belichick let Revis shadow opposing team’s best receiver, or stuck Revis on an opposing team’s No. 2 pass catcher, while keying on a bigger No. 1 target with Browner and a safety over top in a double coverage.
Down the stretch, Revis was one of the Patriots’ three best players — along with Brady and Rob Gronkowski — on one of the best teams of the past decade.
But Revis commanded a big deal the next offseason, and returned to the Jets, the team that drafted him. He had one more season at an elite level.
Although Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan combined for a formidable duo in the place of Revis and Browner the next two seasons, New England was without a true shutdown cornerback. They’d have to go to free agency once more.
With tension surrounding a potential long-term deal for fan favorite, Malcolm Butler, the Patriots instead chose to pay Stephon Gilmore a five-year, $65 million contract in free agency. Butler’s big deal never came.
Gilmore was successful in Buffalo, but now, he’s unquestionably the best cornerback in the league heading into the 2019 season.
It didn’t begin like that in New England for Gilmore, though. Gilmore is the best press man cover cornerback in the league, but often finds himself out of place in zone coverage. Gilmore struggled out the gate trying to play in zone coverage before the Patriots shifted to more man coverage down the stretch of the 2017 season.
It was then when Gilmore tourney flourished. With big plays like his skying knockdown of a Blake Bortles pass in the 2017 AFC title game, and the game-sealing interception in Super Bowl LIII, Gilmore has shown shades of Law in a Patriot uniform in the postseason.
It helps that he also dons jersey No. 24.
“He’s the best corner in football right now” Law said of Gilmore to the Boston Herald’s Karen Guregian.
“He’s really confident, and he’s taken his game to the next level. He’s first-team All-Pro. I think he’s going to continue to do that this year. He’ll be ready to roll.”
The two have developed a close friendship, and spent a lot of time together on Robert Kraft’s annual trip to Israel this summer.
“We talk regularly during the season, get together when we can, and we’re going to continue to do so,” Law said. “Any way I can help him, I’ll offer advice.”
Law may be one of a few cornerbacks that have ever played the game that can offer Gillmore advice, since it seems like he doesn’t need it. Belichick is currently creating an ensemble of defensive backs of all different sizes and skills, but it’s Gilmore that makes things a lot easier. With No. 24 on the field, Belichick can use him to take away an opponent’s top-notch pass catcher with ease.
With Gilmore’s recent level of play and upward curve, could he be destined for eternal greatness in Canton, Ohio?
Gilmore was one of a few Patriots present at Law’s induction ceremony over the weekend and afterword the two shared an exchange while posing for a picture by Law’s bust.
“Guess what?” Law said pointing at Gilmore, “Next up, in a couple years, I’ll be standing here next to Stephon Gilmore’s bust…real deal. I promise you that.”
NFL’s latest offensive trend?
Could the NFL’s latest trend on offense be lying in the weeds as a soon-to-be revisited approach?
NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah and NFL data analyst Warren Sharp spoke on the subject via Twitter over the weekend, as Jeremiah says he’s sensed a trend of team’s using more 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE — 2 WR) over his tour of training camps.
Of course, team’s already employ this grouping fairly regularly, but no team has used it seemingly as it’s base approach. At least not since the 2010 to 2012 Patriots flourished with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez playing the majority of the team’s snaps.
When using this personnel it’s best to used two different types of tight ends. At the beginning of the decade, New England had that in Gronk and Hernandez. Gronk is basically an all-around tight end who could block, but also act as a big wide receiver who could spread out wide or in the slot.
Hernandez was one of the most unique offensive players to ever play because he could line up all over — including as an H-back, wing back, slot receiver, out wide and in the backfield. What he lacked in pass blocking, he made up for it in quickness, strength, hands and after-the-catch ability. His versatility made him a mismatch versus but defensive backs and linebackers.
Later in 2016, the Patriots attempted to pair two ‘Y’ tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. The Patriots averaged 33.4 points per game and a produced a 4-1 record with Brady and the twin towers before Gronkowski was lost for the season. That combination was rare as the Patriots held the best tight end in the NFL, along with a top-5 tight end of the same mold.
No team in the NFL has anything close to that at the moment, so teams switching to ’12’ personnel more regularly will be look to use two different sets of tight ends if they can.
Looking back to Sharp’s quote tweet of Jeremiah posted above, Sharp explains that the Eagles are currently the best team in this grouping. It’s no surprise they have two different set of tight ends capable of performing different tasks.
Zach Ertz is the third best tight end in football after only George Kittle and Travis Kelce. He plays much smaller and more fluid than his frame (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) suggests, and that’s clearly a compliment. Ertz is the Eagles’ No. 1 passing option in a star-studded offense that includes Alshon Jeffrey and now DeSean Jackson. Ertz is not the most dominant blocker, but is always a passing threat, no matter where he lines up — which could be as an H-back or in the slot.
Dallas Goedert.. The team’s second-round pick in 2018, is more of a traditional tight end who can block, as well as be a dominant red zone threat in the future. His size (6-foot-5, 256 pounds) is almost identical to Ertz, which makes it ironic that they are such different molds of the same position. Goedert’s athleticism is top-notch and he’ll only improve in the coming years. With Ertz at the helm, the Eagles can use him off the line while Goedert lines up as a traditional tight end. Despite not being the best blocker, the Eagles may still use their ‘Ace’ formation often. That’s where both Ertz and Goedert line up at traditional tight end at opposite sides of the offensive line.
The Eagles began to showcase a glimpse of what this offense can become last season. The Athletic’s Ryan Sasaki wrote a masterful ‘All-22’ piece on the subject early last season, breaking it all down.
With the re-addition of DeSean Jackson, and the addition of Jordan Howard for a power-running game that would welcome two tight end sets regularly for extra blocking, the Eagles are perfectly alined to have their base package look like this:
QB — Carson Wentz
RB — Jordan Howard
LT — Jason Peters
LG — Isaac Seumalo
C — Jason Kelce
RG — Brandon Brooks
RT — Lane Johnson
TE (H-back/Slot) — Zach Ertz
TE — Dallas Goedert
WR (X) — Alshon Jeffrey
WR (Z) — DeSean Jackson
Additionally, the Eagles can leaver in their two tight ends and the bigger Jeffrey (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) while pairing him with second-round rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside, a 6-foot-4, power forward-type threat to form an unstoppable red zone offense.
On paper, that looks to be perhaps the NFL’s most potent offensive package, in terms of talent relative to their role. Are the Eagles brewing up something this big on offense?
Brady’s latest contract
Alas, Brady’s sixth extension has been finalized on a week in which he not only turned 42 years old, but visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the way to join practices with the Lions in Michigan, that began today.
Still the best player in the NFL at age 42, Brady’s situation is unprecedented. He’s expressed multiple times that he would like to play until age 45, and this deal locks him up until the age of 44, meaning this may not be his last deal with New England.
To shed more light on the subject, NFL Network’s Mike Giardi expressed Brady wasn’t fighting for a long-term deal. Good news is the deal is masked as a year-to-year type move with a chance for both sides to move out and renegotiate going forward. In fact, since the deal includes a ‘no franchise tag’ clause, it essentially ends after the league year, voiding the final two years of the deal. So like Drew Brees, Brady will make $23 million in 2019 and then become a free agent (technically) for the first time in his career in March 2020. Although it likely won’t come to that. If Brady is to continue playing — which is likely — him and the Patriots will most likely come to terms before the 2020 league year.
To sum up the important details from the deal:
-Brady will likely receive a new, similar ‘masked’ year-to-year contract in roughly six months to keep him in New England for 2020.
-Brady will now make $23 million in 2019, as opposed to the $15 million he was scheduled to make.
-The extension now opens up enough cap space for the Patriots to afford Washington left tackle Trent Williams, or make additional moves with the extra room.
Going forward, deals for both Brady, Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers and possibly Aaron Rodgers (in a few years) will be fascinating to monitor considering their play into later ages. Their cases are unprecedented.
A tribute to Don Banks
I was shocked to learn that Don Banks, one of my favorite NFL writers, passed away in his sleep in a hotel in Canton, Ohio on Sunday Morning. Just 56 years old, Banks was in Canton to cover the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction as part of his brand new gig of covering the NFL on a national scale for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Prior to this, Don spent 17 years at Sports Illustrated, where I grew up reading and admiring his work. He then moved over to Patriots.com and the The Athletic Boston, two of my favorite mediums for NFL content. His ‘Snap Judgements’ column was a must-read for me after an NFL Sunday, as well as his ‘Cover 2’ podcast with comedian Nick Stevens (‘Fitzy’) discussing all things Patriots and the NFL.
The NFL writing community mourning over his loss exemplifies how many people loved Don and what type of person he is. I never met him personally but shared a few quick exchanges on Twitter with him, since I admired his work.
Don, you will be missed.
Condolences to you and your family…