Devin McCourty returns as the undisputed leader of the Patriots secondary. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2015 Patriots. We started with the wide receivers and moved on to the tight ends, offensive line, quarterback and running backs. After a check on the cornerbacks, here’s a look at the safties.
Depth chart: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner, Jordan Richards (R), Dax Swanson
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. Unlike the cornerbacks, the safeties seem to be as close to a sure thing that there is on defense. That starts with Devin McCourty, fresh from signing a five-year, $47.5 million deal, with $28.5 million guaranteed. Since moving from corner to free safety full-time in 2013, the 27-year-old Rutgers product has been a staple in the Patriots secondary. He has taken over calling all coverages and, perhaps just as importantly, providing leadership in the secondary. Darrelle Revis often pointed to McCourty’s direction and calmness as a reason for the secondary coming together the way it did in 2014.
2. Patrick Chung has emerged as a solid piece in his second go-around in New England. When Chung left after the 2012 season, there were those in New England who openly wondered exactly what the Eagles were thinking. That thought grew around the NFL when Chung struggled in Philadelphia in his lone season as a free safety, the Eagles cut him loose. Bill Belichick saw this as a chance to bring back a player with understanding of his system. He made one tweak. He gradually eased Chung back into the defense in training camp and preseason as a strong safety, a position he hadn’t played on a regular basis since his second season in 2010. It paid big dividends last year, as he made 62 tackles, starting 15 of his 16 games at strong safety. With Revis on board, Belichick was able to take a lot of deep zone pass defense responsibilities off his plate and play him in the box. There were several cases where Chung lined up as a linebacker to support in run situations. He was sixth on the team in defensive snaps in 2014.
3. Versatility is the name of the game. Belichick has always asked his young safeties learning the system to earn their roster spots by showing they can fill numerous roles, i.e. special teams. This is how Nate Ebner and Tavon Wilson have hung around so long, especially Wilson. There have been times where Wilson’s days seemed numbered given his inability to earn regular defensive snaps. But that’s not where Wilson has shown his true value. “The more you can do, the better you’re going to be,” Wilson said after being drafted by Belichick in 2012. “I just come in, play special teams, be the best whatever position they play me as; just try to be the best I can. I love to play special teams. It’s a part of the game. I played it in college, I love to do it.”
1. How much of a role will rookie Jordan Richards have? This has the potential to be most intriguing player to watch in the secondary this camp as the rookie out of Stanford was taken in second round. Again, there were the draft gurus who thought Belichick over-drafted the smart, well-respected player. But we’re about to find out what he can do in the Patriots’ system. He is considered not only a team leader (and Belichick loves his college captains) but a quick study. It seems like the perfect fit. But Richards isn’t just about brains and leadership. He was a first team All PAC-12 player last season.
2. How much will the safeties help the corners? This seems like a no-brainer, especially with McCourty playing center field. McCourty came up as a corner and he can provide valuable assistance in helping with pass coverage. When Darrelle Revis was taking care of his man on his island last year, it was McCourty who would often help over the top with Brandon Browner on the opposite side. If McCourty was going to help with a corner like Browner, it would certainly seem likely that he’s capable of doing the same for a DB like Bradley Fletcher or Tarell Brown. Remember, it was safety Duron Harmon who helped out Logan Ryan and picked off Joe Flacco in the waning moments of the AFC divisional game at Gillette last January.
3. How often will opposing teams test the Patriots over the top? This may seem like it’s a bit of back to the future, like 2011 before the arrival of Aqib Talib. But you certainly don’t have to go back that far to see an opponent testing the Patriots secondary and their safeties deep. Remember Super Bowl XLIX against Seattle last February? Russell Wilson had success throwing deep on the Patriots, recording passes of 45, 33, 31 and 25 yards. It may have been purely the scheme and the Patriots not being fully prepared for a quarterback attacking Revis and Browner so openly. But whatever it was, the Seahawks continued a trend that began late in the regular season.
By the numbers: 13 — The combined years of experience between McCourty and Chung. There’s little doubt Belichick values not just the quality of play from both of his veteran safeties but their knowledge of the system. Belichick knows that with that type of experience, he can throw more responsibilities and exotic looks in the secondary that might help to compensate for some cornerback inexperience in the system.
Key new player: Jordan Richards. See above. The rookie out of Stanford joins a group that is filled with veterans and players very familiar with the system, at least at the start of camp. In addition to McCourty and Chung, there’s Duron Harmon, Wilson and Ebner, all of whom could provide valuable insight to the defensive scheme and leverages Belichick uses when deploying safeties. Richards played primarily strong safety at Stanford, and while not a big guy (5-foot-11), he is strong, 211 pounds, and banged out 13 bench press reps. His 3-cone and 60-yard shuttle drills at the combine were outstanding, catching the eyes of the Patriots. He will certainly push Tavon Wilson and couldn’t even wind up taking Wilson’s spot on the roster if Richards can show he can be a consistent force on special teams. But that will take some doing.
The skinny: The Patriots bring seven safeties to camp and figure to keep just five. Barring injury, there’s little doubt that McCourty and Chung are at the top. But exactly where Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Richards and even Nate Ebner fit in really bear close attention. We probably won’t see too many exotic looks (if any at all) in the preseason from the safeties. But come the regular season, there is always the chance that the Patriots use a “Big Nickel” look, with three safeties or “Giant Dime” with three safeties and three corners. This came into play last year, when the Patriots inserted Chung or Wilson down in the box as a linebacker. While the cornerbacks provide a huge question mark entering camp, the safety position appears to be a position of strength heading into 2015. And Bill Belichick will take full advantage.