Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain were not brought in to be Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. But the two veteran cornerbacks were brought in to compete for spots in the New England Patriots’ secondary, and perhaps meaningful ones.
Only their roles will take time to materialize, if they in fact do.
The two signed cost-effective one-year deals on Wednesday, without much certainty of where they’ll coincide with the likes of Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington, Malcolm Butler, Alfonzo Dennard, Chimdi Chekwa, Daxton Swanson and Justin Green moving forward.
But before they joined the same road in Foxborough, their 2014 seasons traveled far different ones.
Fletcher allowed 61 receptions on 115 targets for a league-high 1,072 yards with nine touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus, while McClain allowed 47 receptions for 552 yards and two touchdowns on 70 targets.
Fletcher finished with 15 starts, 61 tackles, a league-high 22 pass breakups, as well as an interception for a touchdown and one forced fumble, while McClain finished with six starts, 60 tackles, one sack, five pass breakups and two interceptions.
Fletcher was inactive by the season finale, while McClain played all but one defensive snap in it.
Yet with both now the newest cornerbacks on New England’s roster, a look at why.
- Projected Fit: Press Cornerback vs. Possession Receivers
- Special-Teams Contributions: 11 Career Tackles, Forced Fumble in 2014
The 28-year-old Fletcher appeared to lose his way over his two years with the Philadelphia Eagles, similar to the story of safety Patrick Chung, his teammate in 2013.
After having a respectable campaign in the first year of his two-year deal, 2014 did not go as as Fletcher drew it up. He conceded 99 yards and a score to the Green Bay Packers’ Jordy Nelson in Week 11. He conceded four catches on four targets for three touchdowns to the Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant in Week 15. And he conceded 119 yards on three throws to the Washington Redskins’ DeSean Jackson in Week 16.
The 6-foot, 200-pound left cornerback was subject to the league’s best. And in Philadelphia’s predominant Cover-3, that left him on his own in space, subject to the deep ball against the league’s best.
Fletcher struggled to transition out of his backpedal in off-coverage, affording receivers like Jackson the opportunity to eat up ground out of stutter moves and on fades. He shielded the inside more than he did the outside as he made his way down the field, and often didn’t display the recovery speed to mitigate the damage.
The 2009 St. Louis Rams third-round pick has done some good things in his NFL career, however, despite two ACL tears early on in it. Perhaps in some variation of a two-deep or underneath scheme, he’d be allowed to leverage routes with more with trust in his hand use than his long speed, like he did in 2013 opposite another Jackson in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Vincent Jackson.
Having deep-shell insurance in Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon behind Fletcher in New England could be beneficial. He did not have that type of back line consistently in Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ system.
But while it is hard to make any definitive statements on where the corner is penciled into head coach Bill Belichick’s blueprint, some of his finest plays have arrived while playing the fine line of contact, working back to the football on crosses, comebacks and curls.
- Projected Fit: Off Cornerback vs. Speed Receivers, Nickelback
- Special-Teams Contributions: 204 Snaps in 2014, 19 Punt Returns in 2013
The 26-year-old McClain appeared to find his way with the Atlanta Falcons, despite losing out to eight-year pro Josh Wilson for nickel duties to start 2014.
The former Carolina Panther and Jacksonville Jaguar did later take over for an injured Robert Alford as a starter on the outside, though. From there, he limited yardage after the catch. But he did have some problems handling out routes before the catch.
With his hips guiding him deep, McClain occasionally showed more cushion than he probably should have in Atlanta’s scheme. Even so, he did his best not to let the play get ahead of him. And as a late-season starter along the boundary, he was able to sink and drive in his best performance of the year in Week 16 against the New Orleans Saints.
McClain was thrown at a total of nine times in his second meeting with New Orleans. And after allowing two catches for 18 yards in the slot versus Saints rookie Brandin Cooks in Week 1, he allowed only four catches to wide receivers Kenny Stills and Nick Toon on the outskirts.
McClain, who picked off quarterback Drew Brees twice in his two meetings last year, has some instincts to go with his athleticism. He’s shown ability to change direction swiftly enough to line up in the slot. And although he’s only 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, and less physical atop routes than Fletcher, he’s shown the ability to move downhill through space to stay with receivers on the outside.
The 2010 seventh-round pick isn’t Arrington, nor is he Ryan or Dennard. But he, too, has had his share of positive moments being both parts of the cornerback position. It just remains unclear whether or not he’ll be able to be one in New England.
There’s a reason Fletcher and McClain are now members of the Patriots’ makeshift cornerback group. There is little risk in finding out.