This past season, the New England Patriots saw a major uptick in pass coverage, hinted at in the second half of the 2012 year (basically as soon as Aqib Talib came aboard). That uptick may not leave as good an impression on Patriots fans, mostly because of their last performance against Peyton Manning.
But the numbers support it: in 2012, New England gave up 4342 passing yards (7.7 y/a), good (bad?) for 29th in the NFL. In 2013, the Patriots gave up 3824 yards (7.0 y/a), for 18th in the NFL. Those numbers are a tad deceptive, as the losses in the front line prompted teams to run wild on the Pats, and the total defense actually gave up roughly the same yardage (5969 to 5972). With the healthy returns of Wilfork and Mayo, it’s not impossible to think those numbers might improve, but the other possibility is that teams will start picking on the secondary more.
Luckily, the defensive back group for the Patriots is made up of established veterans and young talent looking to make another jump. The cornerback position will be looked at in another column. For now, let’s take a look at the safety position.
The Captain: Devin McCourty
There are few players more important to the Patriots than Devin McCourty. The former Rutgers grad went from stud rookie in 2010, to a shakier cover corner in 2011, converted to safety in 2012, where he has been one of the best in the game. (It is positively insane that McCourty is only 26 years old). McCourty has awesome playmaking range (the tip interception to Marquice Cole was the defensive highlight of the season), plays well in deep coverage, and is a smart and steady tackler.
The Brainy One: Steve Gregory
Gregory has been universally lauded by teammates and sportswriters as one of the most cerebral players to play in New England in a long time, able to dissect routes early in plays. It’s this ability that overcomes his smaller frame (5’11, 200) to get to the ball carrier quickly. However he had some bumps this season, missing 10 tackles on the year, and was plagued by a broken thumb injury. It will be interesting to see where Gregory fits into the Patriots long term plans.
The Missed Opportunity: Adrian Wilson
It’s hard to watch the Seahawks defensive prowess, and not sigh about the case of Adrian Wilson. Dubbed “Incredible Hulk” by his teammates because of his 6-3, 230 frame, Wilson brought in to be the thumper that the Patriots secondary lacked, able to shift from a strong safety spot to a linebacker-type in sub packages. But Wilson wasn’t his usual self in preseason (whether from rust, age, or injury seems uncertain) and was placed on season-ending IR before seeing a regular-season snap. Wilson himself seems uneasy about his prospects of returning to the Patriots next season, which is a shame, since he is ideally what the team needs in its secondary. But if the Pats feel he’s not athletically fit to help out, he may find himself on the bubble again.
The Rook: Duron Harmon
To all who inquired via email, no I never finished my bronze statue of Duron Harmon, but only because I couldn’t re-use most of the bronze from my Zach Sudfeld statue. But there’s still time. And possibly much cause: Harmon had a wildly impressive rookie season, struggling a bit as he was thrown into the fire during McCourty/Gregory injuries, but was for the most part consistent in both pass and run coverage. He’s also the type of high-character, practice junkie player that Belichick loves, and certainly justified what seemed like a reach in the draft. Harmon’s second-year-improvement could be a huge boon to this team.
The Tweener: Tavon Wilson
Speaking of perceived reaches in the draft…well, the Patriots may want a mulligan on this one (a Matthew Mulligan…). The second-round pick hasn’t amounted to much more than a special teams player, unable to make the leap to a starter many had hoped for. To be fair, Wilson was an impressive special teams player, and his struggles have nothing to do with a lack of effort. The 6’0, 215 Wilson is still a useful player, and, like Harmon, fits the Belichick locker-room mold.
The Rugby Player: Nate Ebner
If you’re a Patriots fan, you love Nate Ebner, plain and simple. Drafted in 2012 to be a core special teams player, Ebner has stepped up as a fearless kickoff/punt defender, taking his hard-headed, rough-and-tumble rugby ways onto the football field. He has a great nose for the ball, and made a lot of big plays (including being first to the ball in the Wes Welker/Tony Carter fumble). While his role so far has only been on special teams, I would love to think that Belichick is also grooming the Ohio State product on the more cerebral defensive ways of the game to match his rugged athleticism. If so, we may see Ebner take some more snaps this season at the safety position.
The Practice Squadder: Kanorris Davis
Kanorris Davis was one of the more productive practice squad players this past season, adding depth when injuries hit the secondary, and playing exceedingly well in special teams. Another one of those typical Patriots players who will never put up huge stats, but satisfy whatever role they’re given with aplomb.
Will Everyone Be Here Next Year?: McCourty, Harmon, and Ebner are all total locks to be on the team next season. McCourty may be in line for an extension, not only to keep one of their top players in uniform for a few more years, but also to give New England some cap relief. Tavon Wilson and Davis are both relatively cheap, young, and are worth keeping around, certainly. Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson are the two question marks here. The Patriots would save about $2.2 million by cutting Gregory, which isn’t a lot of money, but with Talib/Edelman needing to be resigned, New England may be in an “every penny counts” state of mind. If the Patriots feel they can get almost the same production out of Harmon, Gregory may find himself a cap casualty. Wilson, however, has an even bigger chance of being cut, as the team could shave $3.6 mil off their cap by releasing him.
Personally, I’d rather see both back, as Gregory is the type of refined veteran presence the young secondary could still do with. Wilson, if healthy, would be an intriguing and versatile addition to the team, as well as a key locker-room figure. But I would never bet on their return.
Upgrades Through The Draft?
This NFL Draft looks to have a deep safety class, with WalterFootball listing 13 safeties possibly drafted before the 4th round, and CBSSports with 9. It’s unlikely that the Pats would spend anything more than a late-round pick on a safety at this point, but then again drafting Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon was unlikely. If they specify their need for a strong safety who can deliver some blows and help in run coverage, there are a few fits. Ahmad Dixon out of Baylor (3rd-4th) walloped ball carriers in college and has great speed to make plays across the field, but could use some work in coverage. Same goes for LSU safety Craig Loston and Louisville safety Hakeem Smith, who could be around in the later rounds. My favorite prospect for the Pats might be Vinnie Sunseri out of Alabama, who, like Steve Gregory, is an incredibly instinctive defender, and whose technique and eyes make up for his average athleticism. Even if he isn’t a starter, he’d be a top-notch special teams player.
Upgrades Through Free Agency?
Ideally, the Patriots would want to see players like TJ Ward, Donte Whitner, or Major Wright jump in immediately as the physical, mean strong safeties that they are. Of the three, Wright is the most likely to be available, but all will be almost certainly out of the team’s price range. Signing Bernard Pollard may be the safest thing for the Patriots to do, but he’s a liability in coverage and has, troublingly, played for four teams in only 8 years. There are some lower-level safeties that the Patriots could pursue, however. One player that I’ve always liked, and suspect Belichick and the Patriots front office does as well, is former Bill and Jet Jim Leonhard, who, at 31, may have seen his best days, but is a hard-working, well-spoken locker-room leader looking for another chance. Nate Allen, from the Philadelphia Eagles, could be another low-risk, high-reward type, though he’s more of a free-safety type. Taylor Mays has been a bust so far in Cincinnati/SF, but at 6-3, 231, he may be a prime candidate to invest in based on the potential he turns it around. And, just maybe, Ryan Clark wants another go and won’t mind playing for the Pats.
Need To Upgrade?: 5/10
I’d argue that the Patriots have their starters and depth settled between McCourty, Harmon and Gregory. The main questions are whether they’d want to go for a big-hitting safety in the offseason, and whether Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson will be released.
Patriots go all-in on Duron Harmon, let Gregory and Adrian Wilson go, while signing or drafting a low-cost safety to add depth/physicality. I’d guess one out of Sunseri, Leonhard, or Mays.
Keep your eyes out here, or on twitter @isportspeters, for the next installment of this series (wide receiver) And I love what y’all are sending me at email@example.com and on twitter, so keep it up! Hopefully I’ll get around to putting out a reader-mail column soon.