FOXBORO -- Devin McCourty could be on the verge of making history.
The defensive back made it to the Pro Bowl in 2010 as a rookie corner -- that year, he finished with seven picks, which was good enough to get him to Hawaii. After a sophomore season in which he suffered a dip at corner, he split time between corner and safety in 2012 before moving full time to the back end of the defense late that season.
This season, his steadiness and consistency through the first eight games of the season have some wondering if he can make it back to Hawaii as a safety. While he wouldn’t be the first Patriot to make the Pro Bowl at two positions -- several defensive players have done it, including Willie McGinest (defensive end, outside linebacker) and Vince Wilfork (nose tackle, defensive tackle) -- McCourty would be the first to play two substantially different positions.
At least through the first half of the season, McCourty has been one of the premier safeties in the league, not because of any sort of highlight-reel material but because of a steady consistency and durability, two assets that have become his trademark.
According to Pro Football Focus, McCourty has played 588 defensive snaps, second only to Chandler Jones (589). While some of those have come at corner (in an extremely limited role), the majority of his work this year has been at safety. In eight games, he has 44 tackles (28 solo), to go along with five passes defensed. PFF has him graded out as the best safety in the league at +16.2 -- quarterbacks are 12-for-18 for 137 yards when passing in his direction, some of the best numbers in the league for any safety who has been on the field for at least 500 snaps.
He’s as good a tackler as the Patriots have, he remains competitive in coverage, and while he isn’t necessarily a feared hitter in the same vein as some of the more classic safeties, his intelligence and savvy rarely allow him to get beat over the top. And while he doesn’t have the interception numbers of some other elite level AFC safeties this season, his ball skills have been a major part of his game since he arrived as a rookie in 2010 -- he has 14 picks in his three-plus seasons in New England.
But it’s not just his on-field contributions -- with the recent run of injuries to important vets like Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Aqib Talib, the 26-year-old McCourty has emerged as a key part of the New England defense. McCourty’s reliability along the back line has provided a stabilizing force for a Patriots defense that’s still trying to find its way.
“Devin has done a good job for us, like he always does,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of McCourty’s performance over the first half of the season. “He’s very well prepared. He’s been real durable, been out there every day and has given us good communication and leadership, along with Steve [Gregory].
“Devin is a great example for all of us with his work ethic, his toughness, his consistency. He’s just a solid worker, great kid, communicates well, he’s smart and he’s been a very dependable guy for us, like I said, as Steve has at the other safety position. We’ve been fortunate all year for what those two guys have given us and how that extends to the rest of the secondary, and even at the linebacker level and some coverage adjustments.”
Said Gregory: “Dev is a great athlete. He’s fast, physical. He tackles well. And he’s smart. He’s a very unselfish guy. He puts the team first. He’s easy to work with. He takes pride in what he does. And he cares about it. Any time you put those types of combinations together, you’re going to get a guy who is pretty passionate about football and a guy who will go out there and give you everything he’s got. And he does that on a weekly basis.”
The last two weeks -- without Talib in the lineup -- he’s flashed his ball skills in dynamic fashion. Against the Jets, he drew a big pass interference penalty in the end zone and had an amazingly intuitive pass breakup in the end zone on a ball intended for Stephen Hill.
But his finest moment likely came last week against the Dolphins, when he teamed with veteran corner Marquice Cole on one of the most artistic plays of the season. On a deep ball from quarterback Ryan Tannehill aimed for Mike Wallace, McCourty made a great read on the ball and broke up the play. He tipped the ball to Cole, who managed to stay inbounds and come away with the pick.
While McCourty's steadiness goes a long way, the breakup against Miami is the sort of signature moment that could help separate him from the rest of the field when it comes to his Pro Bowl chances. It’s a group of players that includes Eric Berry in Kansas City, Earl Thomas in Seattle, Reggie Nelson in Cincinnati, T.J. Ward in Cleveland and old reliable Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh.
McCourty's teammates -- including one who goes up against the best safeties in the league on a regular basis -- think he is every bit the equal of any safety around.
“Devin is a great player,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “Sometimes you have safeties that are guys that play in the box and guys that are going to run-force, support at the line of scrimmage. And you have other safeties that really roam the deep part of the field. Like the play that was made the other day with he and Marquice, that was an amazing play. Devin was basically on the other side of the field and took off running. To be able to cover that much ground and have that kind of range as a post safety is remarkable.
“I see that every day in practice. You really have to look Devin off. He’s really smart -- he sees combinations, and sometimes you try to look him off and he knows you’re trying to look him off so he doesn’t take it. There are other times he gets great jumps on the ball. The longer he’s been at safety, the better he’s done. He’s really been a consistent player for our team. He knocks balls away, covers guys in man coverage and then has that range in the deep part of the field where he truly plays like a safety.”
If McCourty is able to make it to the Pro Bowl at a different position this time around, he would join some ridiculously elite company. Historically, the players who have made the Pro Bowl at two defensive back spots -- specifically going from corner to safety -- are some of the best in the history of the game. Rod Woodson and Ronnie Lott made the transition and enjoyed great success over the course of their careers after they moved to the back end of the defense. (Lately, Charles Woodson and Ronde Barber also moved from corner to safety.)
No one is saying that McCourty is on the same career path as those Hall of Famers. But just to be considered as a candidate to make the Pro Bowl at two positions in his first five years in the league is an accomplishment. It speaks to McCourty’s versatility, dependability and consistency, and could be the precursor for McCourty to eventually make the leap to truly elite status.
“He’s a great guy to have around, a great guy to play next to and a great guy to play with,” Gregory said. “I’m glad he’s on my team.”