RICHMOND — The biggest free agent moves of the offseason for the New England Patriots came in their secondary, as they remade a group that ranked only 18th in the league in pass defense last season and surrendered 400 passing yards by Peyton Manning in a loss at Denver in the AFC title game.
The reshuffling included the loss of cornerback Aqib Talib, who signed with the Broncos in free agency, and the additions of veteran cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Revis was signed to a contract potentially worth $32 million over two seasons after he was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Browner was added for a three-year, $17 million deal even though he is to miss the first four games of the season under the terms of his reinstatement after he was suspended for a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
The two former Pro Bowlers give the Patriots a potentially imposing defensive backfield as they pursue what would be their first Super Bowl title since the 2004 season.
“We can be a pretty good secondary, I think,” safety Devin McCourty said following Tuesday’s joint training camp practice here with the Washington Redskins. “The beauty of it is we’ve been putting in a lot of work, especially Revis and Browner coming in [with a] new system. They’ve been great players their whole career. But they’ve really put a lot of time and effort into learning the system and getting caught up to everybody else. And I think that’s what’s been able to make us pretty good the first couple weeks of training camp.
“I feel like we’re not just a bunch of individuals that had good careers so far, but we’re actually turning into a unit. I think we have a lot of potential. But it happens each day out here in practice, out there on the field making plays and trying to get big stops out there. So I’m excited about it.”
McCourty said he didn’t necessarily know entering the offseason that the Patriots would make such a strong push to upgrade their secondary.
“You never know here,” he said. “It’s always exciting. I tell people all the time, when you add good football players, you give yourself a good chance to win. The good thing, I think, about the guys we got is they’re hard workers. They fit right into what we do here and it’s been a joy just having those guys here for the little bit that we’ve been together.”
Revis has reached five Pro Bowls in seven NFL seasons with the New York Jets and the Buccaneers. He has been widely regarded as the league’s top cornerback for much of his NFL tenure, although Seattle’s Richard Sherman now has emerged as a strong challenger for that distinction. Revis’s deal with the Patriots is to pay him up to $12 million this season, with his potential $20 million income for the 2015 season creating the distinct possibility that the Patriots will allow him to go back on the free agent market to avoid paying that much.
Browner reached one Pro Bowl in three seasons with Seattle, although he played only eight games last season and missed the Seahawks’ postseason run to a Super Bowl title. He was sidelined by a groin injury when he was suspended. His appeal was denied in December but the NFL reinstated him in March.
Browner said Tuesday that he signed with the Patriots for “the chance to win football games,” adding: “They’re known to get into the playoffs. And then I liked the acquisition of Revis. I like Devin McCourty. And I met the coaches when I came on my visit. I liked what I heard from them. Those were the big factors in deciding to come play for these guys. Winning is important to me.”
Coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots won their third Super Bowl title in a four-year span in the 2004 season, and at the time there was no telling how many more Super Bowl triumphs they might pile up before Belichick and Brady were done. Brady was only 27. But since then, the “Spygate” scandal and a lost season for Brady when he was sidelined due to a knee injury have come and gone, and the Patriots are yet to win another Super Bowl. They have lost two Super Bowls, both to the New York Giants, and three AFC championship games since their last Super Bowl victory. They have lost the past two AFC title games, first to the Baltimore Ravens and then to the Broncos.
Brady turned 37 this week. There is no way to know how many more viable Super Bowl chances he will have. While he has chased a fourth Super Bowl title in tandem with Belichick, his supporting casts haven’t always been all that impressive. That could be different this season, especially if the revamped secondary comes through.
But that is a matter for January and beyond, not August. The Patriots aren’t getting ahead of themselves.
“We’ve still got to get better every day,” Browner said when asked about the group’s potential. “It’s still just training camp. We’ve got 17 weeks and then hopefully a playoff. So you don’t want to toot your horn too early.”