The New England Patriots are just weeks away from the 2014 NFL Draft and as usual the team is mum about draft prospects. The team reloaded the defensive backfield by signing free agent cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. However, the team is still thin at safety as there is little proven depth behind All-Pro free safety Devin McCourty. With the pre-draft visit of top safety prospect Deone Bucannon of Washington State, it is clear the team recognizes they have a definite need at safety.
In the 2013 NFL Draft New England selected safety Duron Harmon in the third round out of Rutgers. Although draft prognosticators were surprised by the Patriots taking him so high in the draft, Harmon was a pleasant surprise stepping in at strong safety for an injured Steve Gregory. Although he had some hiccups as a rookie in coverage, taking angles, and tackling in 2013, Harmon is currently in place as the starting strong safety.
In the 2012 NFL Draft the Patriots selected strong safety Tavon Wilson in the second round. As much as a surprise that Harmon was to the draft prognosticators in 2013, Wilson was twice the surprise in 2012. Injured in week one against Buffalo, Wilson struggled to get back on the field and only played on defense in four regular season games, playing a total of 19 snaps. It was quite a drop-off after he played 500 snaps as a rookie in 2012. Wilson is on the bubble heading to training camp and will be competing for playing time at strong safety with Duron Harmon.
In the off-season New England released starting safety Steve Gregory despite him being a regular in the defensive backfield. With a high salary cap number, Gregory’s production did not match his 2014 salary. In fact, in 2014 according to ProFootballFocus.com, he was second on the team with ten missed tackles. Still a free agent, there remains a chance he may return at a drastically reduced salary. The Patriots also released veteran strong safety Adrian Wilson this off-season after he spent all of 2013 on injured reserve.
Also this off-season, the Patriots re-signed former 2009 second round draft pick Patrick Chung after he spent 2013 with the Philadelphia Eagles playing for his college coach at Oregon, 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, Chung was often lined up at free safety rather than at his more natural strong safety position.
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 also contributes as a backup wide receiver but has filled in at times at safety throughout his career. He 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.
Behind them fighting for a roster spot, the Patriots have undrafted free agent Kanorris Davis. Davis was a linebacker at Troy who was brought into training camp 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. Another potential special team specialist, Davis also provides depth at a thin position.
Incumbent starting free safety Devin McCourty is the one player guaranteed a starting spot. An All-Pro in 2013, ProFootballFocus.com rated McCourty as the top safety in the NFL with a +18.7 rating. McCourty’s strength is the deep middle of the field and his exceptional coverage skills gained from his years at cornerback. In 2013 McCourty was credited with seven passes defended, intercepted a pass, and only allowed three touchdowns in coverage (again, per ProFootballFocus.com).
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 in 2014. However, the strong safety position looms as an Achilles heel that could derail the team’s defense this coming season. With the NFL Draft and cut-downs during training camp to fill the position, the Patriots need to find-out who will step-up at safety in 2014.