Today we’re taking a closer look at the last line of defense — the safeties.
It was somewhat surprising to see the Pats bring back Duron Harmon on a four-year, $20 million deal, but it’s hard to complain about keeping a trio of veteran safeties together who have been amongst the best in the league since 2014.
The rotation is clear now. Devin McCourty plays on the back end on early downs but has been used more and more in coverage closer to the line of scrimmage on passing downs. Patrick Chung rarely comes off the field now as well and spends his time mostly in the box or in man-to-man coverage on tight ends.
It’s Harmon’s back end ability that allows the defense to move McCourty around and that kind of flexibility is invaluable.
We know what we’re getting with McCourty, Chung and Harmon, but it’s then bottom of the roster that might be the most intriguing for training camp. The team brought in a trio of rookie safeties who should push third-year player Jordan Richards, who fell off the radar in 2016.
An injury to one of the top three would immediately change the dynamic of the defense on the back end that we’ve gotten comfortable with for the last three seasons. So while it’s easy to just assume everything will be great at safety the complexion can change quickly and suddenly, and the lower end players could end up getting called upon to contribute.
Let’s take a closer look at the safeties and how rookies David Jones and Damarius Travis could be the undrafted rookie(s) to make the team this year.
Devin McCourty – McCourty played 97.8 percent of the defensive snaps in 2017 and was the back end glue that kept one of the league’s best secondaries on the same page. His stats won’t jump off the page, but what makes McCourty so good is done off the scoresheet. On early downs he plays free safety, but the Patriots used him more and more in tight end coverage on passing downs as the season progressed. He’s a true multi-tool defensive back who can do everything. He arrived early in the defensive rebuild, starting as a corner before transitioning to safety. Over that time the Patriots have gone from one of the most porous pass defenses in the league to one of the best and much of that should be credited to McCourty.
Patrick Chung – Chung continued his torrid redemption tour since spending one year in exile in Philadelphia. Most impressive is how Chung has overcome the injuries that killed him early in his career. He didn’t miss a game and played 96.3 percent of the defensive snaps along with 45 percent of the special teams snaps. 2016 was the first time in his career he didn’t miss a game. Chung’s role is primarily as a strong safety, playing in the box while also taking on a fair share of coverage responsibility, usually on tight ends. He’s one of the best tacklers in the league and truly embodies everything that makes the Patriots’ defense so fundamentally sound.
Duron Harmon – Harmon re-signed with the team this offseason in what was a bit of a surprise considering the Pats were already paying McCourty and Chung significant money. This shows just how valuable the free safety is and how much freedom he creates for McCourty to play a number of roles closer to the line of scrimmage. His four-year, $17 million deal keeps one of the strongest safety trios in the NFL intact for their fourth-straight year.
Jordan Richards – Richards played in 11 games in his second season after being a second round pick in 2015, but saw limited time on defense early in the year and was inactive for all three playoff games. His job is very much on the line this summer which is disappointing given his draft status. Still, there’s limited strong safety depth behind Patrick Chung so Richards will be given every chance to show some improvement, but if he can’t get on the field playing special teams his time in New England will soon be over.
Brandon King – King once again had a strong year on special teams for the Pats, registering 10 tackles. On the year he played 66 percent of the ST snaps and should once again be considered a near-lock to make the team. He will be playing on a one-year RFA tender contract before hitting free agency next offseason.
Nate Ebner – After a stint with the US Olympic Rugby team, Ebner returned to the Patriots and led the NFL in special teams tackles (22). He’s one of the most interesting players on the team and has slowly made himself one of the tone-setters for the team. He’s in the last year of a two-year extension he signed in 2016.
Damarius Travis – An undrafted strong safety out of Minnesota, Travis has good size, instincts and physicality having played both safety spots and in the slot. Can play special teams and a high character player who plays with high effort. He could push Jordan Richards for a backup/special teams spot and is one of the rookie free agents to watch.
Jason Thompson – An undrafted rookie out of Utah, Thompson has experience both at linebacker and safety and can play on all special teams. The Pats don’t shy away from college special teamers and that’s what Thompson is.
David Jones – An undrafted rookie out of Richmond, Jones has excellent speed (4.43) and height at 6’3”. Those specs point more toward a free safety, as does Jones’ intelligence and ball skills. Durability is a concern, but he checks a lot of boxes.