FOXBORO -- When Patrick Chung returned for his second go-round with the Patriots in 2014, anyone who was paying attention could see he was playing in a different role, nearer to the line of scrimmage. He'd tell anyone who asked about it that he enjoyed being closer to the action.
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Since then, his career has enjoyed a total resurgence. He's played in every game but one in the last four seasons, and he's started in every game but nine. He's been touted by Bill Belichick as one of the best tacklers Belichick has ever coached, he's a core special-teamer, and he's been a versatile safety-slash-linebacker-slash-slot-corner hybrid who has been key to New England's three most recent Super Bowl appearances.
"The guy is a really good football player," Belichick said of Chung earlier this month. "He’s one of the best players in the league, one of the best players on our team. He does a lot of things very well and has done them that way for a long time. We’re lucky we have him. He’s an outstanding player in all the things that he does. We put a lot on him, and he always comes through."
Chung's full array of skills was on display in the AFC title game as he stepped up to make tackles on Jacksonville's 230-pound running back Leonard Fournette, he covered tight ends in the passing game, and he rushed quarterback Blake Bortles on back-to-back snaps in the third quarter to help force an incompletion and a Lawrence Guy sack.
His role now is far different from the one he held in New England from 2009-2012. At that point, the second-round pick out of Oregon was often used as a versatile piece in the team's split-safety looks, covering deep sections of the field with fellow safeties Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, James Ihedigbo and Tavon Wilson. By the end of the 2012 season, though, Devin McCourty had been relocated from corner to safety, and veteran Steve Gregory became a starter at the other safety spot. Chung played a total of three snaps in two postseason games that year.
He signed a three-year deal with the Eagles the following offseason and started in 11 games before being released the following March. Less than a month later, he re-signed with the Patriots on a one-year contract.
"We took the guy in the second round," Belichick replied when asked when he realized Chung was so versatile. "But it just -- for a combination of reasons, I'd say a big part of it [being] mistakes that I personally made -- it didn’t work out the way that we hoped it would. But we got it right the second time. I think we've been able to utilize him. I wish we had been able to do that when we initially got him, but it didn’t work out that way. Like I said, I think we finally got it right."
And that's not just coach speak. The Patriots gave Chung a three-year extension at the end of the 2014 season for $8.2 million, and he picked up another one-year extension after the 2015 season for $5.7 million.
In the Patriots defense, where versatile players can be utilized to handle multiple responsibilities -- and confuse opponents in the process, as Chung did when he rushed Bortles and ruined Jacksonville's protection scheme -- Chung is worth his weight in Super Bowl tickets. Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty -- even Jordan Richards and Nate Ebner, as Belichick pointed out -- are also capable of handling a variety of responsibilities, making it hard to decipher what any one player will do during any one particular snap.
"They can all do a lot of different things," Belichick said. "That gives us some interchangeability and some flexibility, so it's been a huge luxury. We've been able to maintain that group, the consistency of that group, including Nate even though he’s not on the roster right now, the active roster, but his role that the consistency that we've had from those five guys including Nate, the last three-plus years has been great."
Belichick noted that due to free agency and the tendencies for players to change teams from year-to-year, it's rare to see a group remain so consistent for so long.
"It’s hard to get in this league," Belichick said. "That’s the way it was back when I was with the Giants, when you had the same guys for six, seven, eight years in a row. You had a different level of consistency, and performance, and confidence and trust in each other that the way the game is now just it's hard to get that.
"You get it in a few spots occasionally, but there was a different point in time where that was kind of the norm, and the teams you played against, it was a lot of the same matchups. But we've been very fortunate at that position. Those guys are durable. They’re tough. They show up every day. They’re ready to go every day, and they perform well."
When it comes to Chung specifically, those qualities are part of what makes him, in Belichick's eyes, one of the best in the business.