While the New England Patriots reloaded in the defensive backfield this offseason by signing free agent cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, the team is still thin at safety with little proven depth behind All-Pro free safety Devin McCourty. Earlier in the offseason the Patriots released Steve Gregory, their starting strong safety of the past two seasons. In his place the Patriots are expected to have serious competition for the strong safety position.
With a high salary cap number, Gregory’s production did not match his 2014 salary. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he was second on the team with ten missed tackles last season. The Patriots also released veteran strong safety Adrian Wilson after he spent all of 2013 on injured reserve and never played a defensive snap in the regular season. Second-year safety Duron Harmon was a surprise draft pick last year by New England in the third-round of the NFL Draft with the 91st overall pick. After a slow start with only 38 defensive snaps played through week six, Harmon began playing more at safety in the second half of the season with starting strong safety Steve Gregory missing time with various injuries.
Despite playing just two snaps on defense in the postseason, Harmon is the prohibitive favorite to be the starting safety alongside McCourty. With Harmon’s strong coverage and ball skills, he projects as a free safety rather than a hard-hitting strong safety. At six-foot-one, 205 pounds, Harmon could finally be the solid tackler with strong coverage skills to complement McCourty. Head coach Bill Belichick has repeatedly stated his preference for his pair of safeties as “left” and “right” safeties rather than “free” and “strong”.
Patrick Chung was the only free agent brought in to compete at safety. The former 2009 second round draft pick came home to New England after he spent 2013 with the Philadelphia Eagles, playing for Chip Kelly. Chung was a surprise release by the Eagles as he was a regular in the defensive backfield when healthy last season. While he failed to impress in Philadelphia, a review of the Eagles game film reveals that Chung was often lined up at free safety in their base defense rather than at his more natural strong safety position. Chung struggles at times in the deep middle of the field and is best as a strong safety mixing it up with running backs and tight ends.
There has also been much talk in the media of New England moving cornerback Logan Ryan to safety this offseason. As the Patriots figure to play an adapted cover-2 shell, with Revis manning his “island” in man-to-man coverage on the opposing team’s top wide receiver, the second safety could serve as a second free safety and play over the top in the deep third. In this role Ryan would be an excellent fit and where he lines up in training camp will be heavily scrutinized.
In addition their remains a dark horse candidate for the safety position. Despite his disappearance last season, the Patriots did select a strong safety in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. As much as a surprise that Harmon was to the draft prognosticators in 2013, Tavon Wilson was twice the surprise in 2012. He did play 500 snaps as a rookie but was injured in week one against Buffalo in 2013 and struggled to get back on the field. He only played on defense in four regular season games and playing a total of 19 snaps. Wilson is on the bubble heading to training camp and will be competing for playing time at strong safety with Harmon.
The Patriots also have a trio of special teams specialists who can step in at safety as well if there is a rash of injuries during a game. Both special teams captain Matthew Slater and former college rugby player Nate Ebner are solid players in the “third phase” of the game. Ebner has received extensive playing time at safety in the preseason, but totaled only five snaps at safety last year in the defensive backfield. Slater came out of college with experience at safety and even had a spot start at safety against Indianapolis in 2011 when the secondary was ravaged with injuries. He ended up playing 111 snaps at safety that season. The Patriots also have undrafted free agent Kanorris Davis who was a linebacker at Troy. He was brought into training camp last year as a project and was converted to strong safety. Although he did not play any snaps with the defense, he opened some eyes at gunner on the special teams unit in the postseason.
Incumbent starting free safety McCourty is the one player at the position guaranteed of starting in 2014. An All-Pro in 2013, ProFootballFocus.com ranked McCourty as the top safety in the NFL with a +18.7 rating. McCourty’s strength is coverage in the deep middle of the field. A solid tackler, his expertise is in pass coverage after three years in the NFL at cornerback. In 2013 McCourty was credited with seven passes defended, intercepted a pass and only allowed three touchdowns in coverage.
With the influx of talent at cornerback and an All-Pro performer at free safety in McCourty, the Patriots secondary is in position to improve dramatically. However, the strong safety position remains a question mark as the team looks to take a huge step forward on defense this coming season. The Patriots need to find out who will step up at strong safety in 2014 during training camp.
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