Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Safeties
By Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry
This is the first in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots by Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry as we head into the offseason. Today's position: Safety
Patrick Chung, 28 (signed thru 2017)
Nate Ebner, 26 (signed thru 2015)
Duron Harmon, 25 (signed thru 2016)
Brandon King, 22 (signed thru 2015)
Devin McCourty, 28 (signed thru 2019)
Jordan Richards, 23 (signed thru 2018)
Tavon Wilson, 25 (signed thru 2015)
Headline reads: TOM'S OPINION
The Patriots smartly constructed the safety position with players that satisfy the intricate job demands of playing at the back of the New England defense. The guys at the top of the pecking order – Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards are all above-average tacklers. McCourty and Harmon have excellent and good range, respectively; Richards and Chung can drop down and play at the linebacker level in run support and Chung in particular was terrific in coverage on tight ends in 2015. When you look at the youth of the group – none of them are over 30 – and the fact that the top-four guys are all tied down contractually at least through this year, this is a very solid spot. The guys further down the depth chart are mostly special teams staples – Nate Ebner, Brandon King and Tavon Wilson. Wilson and Ebner are both up this year. King was really good in his first year with the team. Expect the team to let either Wilson or Ebner go to free agency and let King take over. Wilson definitely hasn’t panned out the way the Patriots would hope a second-round pick would, so that’s been a swing-and-a-miss. Going forward, the top concern would be seeing Richards develop as a possible replacement for Chung, whose deal expires after the 2017 season. This isn’t a spot the Patriots are likely to chase in free agency. The draft is a different story because Bill Belichick loves safeties.
The Patriots have to like how they're set up here. Take the quarterback position out of the conversation for a second, and there's an argument to be made that what coach Bill Belichick and his staff have assembled at safety makes it the deepest position group on the roster. Not only do they have Pro Bowl-caliber players at their two starting spots in Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung (yes, he was that good in 2015), they also have capable backups for both of those players in Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards. I thought Harmon showed in his third season that he's capable of playing the team's deep safety role on a snap-to-snap basis when needed. The Patriots clearly trusted him there. Though that's where McCourty thrives, in instances when defensive coordinator Matt Patricia asked McCourty to cover a tight end or play in the slot, Harmon took over seamlessly. He's not yet the tackler McCourty is -- Belichick has called McCourty and Chung two of the best tacklers he's ever coached -- but he's working on it, and he's already come a long way in terms of understanding angles and offensive tendencies. Given the average age and the depth at this position, there's not much to be done here in the offseason: Re-signing Nate Ebner to continue to be a special teams mainstay won't break the bank; Brandon King (second on the team in "teams" tackles this season) used his combination of size and speed to have an impactful first season; and Richards should only continue to get better after contributing mainly in the kicking game as a rookie. The Patriots may add a low-cost player or two for depth, either via the draft or free agency -- 32-year-old former Patriot James Ihedigbo will be a free agent this offseason . . . would he get a look from his old employer? -- but the core of this group will be largely unchanged by the time training camp opens.