2020 NFL Draft: Prototypical Patriots fits at safety
We're getting into the portion of the Prototypical Patriots series where the unusual nature of this offseason — where everything that happens both draft-related and otherwise, obviously — is colored by COVID-19. When it comes to drafted defensive backs, the Patriots have largely taken athletes who have tested very well. Athleticism matters on the back end in New England. But this year, it's harder than ever to know exactly where certain prospects fall on the athleticism spectrum.
First, there was what happened at the combine in February. With a heavily-altered schedule for prime-time television ratings, many players opted to skip certain portions of the athletic tests. Others skipped them altogether, thinking they'd have a chance to record numbers at their pro days. Then COVID-19 wiped out those pro days.
As a result, we're dealing with less information than usual at this time of year. Still, we can try to peg Patriots fits based on their heights and weights, their college résumés and the programs from which they hail. Here are the safeties we've tabbed this offseason as "prototypes" for New England.
Xavier McKinney, Alabama
6-feet, 200 pounds
McKinney dealt with cramps at the combine and cut his workout short after clocking a disappointing 4.63-second 40. No matter. His 36-inch vertical and 122-inch broad jump are plenty explosive from a Patriots perspective, and he plays faster than his 40 time. His versatility and his experience in Nick Saban's defense makes him one of the best fits for the Patriots in this class, regardless of position.
He split his time almost evenly between in the box, as a slot corner, and as a free safety. At a position where the Patriots need to get younger whenever the torch is passed from Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung, McKinney would be an ideal option to take that hand-off. Pro Football Focus compares his game to that of Malcolm Jenkins. That'd work in New England.
2020 NFL Draft Highlights: Xavier McKinney
Antoine Winfield Jr., Minnesota
5-foot-9, 203 pounds
This guy plays like he's shot out of a cannon. Though short, he's plenty athletic (4.45 40, 36-inch vert, 124-inch broad) to play on the back end for the Patriots. That size may prevent the Patriots from wanting to play him near the line of scrimmage, but he packs a punch, he's always looking to punch the ball loose, and he timed his blitzes perfectly.
"Instinctive" is a characteristic Bill Belichick loves to cite in his favorite players, and Winfield certainly qualifies. As a deep safety, he tracks the ball well and reads routes like a pro. He also returns punts and refuses to go down on first contact. A Day 2 option, he seems like the competitive kind of player the Patriots would be in on.
Ashtyn Davis, California
6-foot-1, 202 pounds
Davis was hurt at the end of last season and he wasn't able to test at the combine. Nor was he able to compete at the Senior Bowl. But the dude can play. For New England, which could be in the market for a free safety after trading away Duron Harmon for cap purposes, the former All-Pac 12 hurdler and football team walk-on would make all kinds of sense.
"He's really getting lost in this," said Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy. "I think he's the most talented safety in the draft . . . If I'm a team that plays a lot of single-high safety, he's a guy I'd really like."
He's not the do-it-all type that some others on this list could be, but what he does deep could fit exactly what the Patriots need long-term.
K'Von Wallace, Clemson
5-foot-11, 206 pounds
Wallace is one of the few players in this group — there are a couple of small-school players in the same category — who have made the most of every pre-draft opportunity. He played well at the Senior Bowl and then showed off NFL-caliber athleticism at the combine.
His 4.53-second 40 is fast enough for box and slot responsibilities. And his agilities (6.76-second three-cone drill, 4.15-second short shuttle) and jumps (38-inch vert, 133-inch broad) would indicate that he'll be a sticky coverage player in tight spaces. A big-hitter from a big-time program, Wallace could be next in line for the Chung role if the Patriots are looking to get younger at that spot.
2020 NFL Draft Highlights: K'Von Wallace
Terrell Burgess, Utah
5-foot-11, 202 pounds
Burgess, like many of the defensive backs in this class, did neither the short shuttle nor the three-cone drill at the combine. But what he did in the 40 was impressive, clocking a 4.46-second time (91st percentile) and a 1.53-second 10-yard split (93rd). He has just one year as a starter under his belt, but he was tremendous, allowing just 190 yards on 40 targets (65.6 passer rating, 4.75 yards per target).
Is he a true single-high safety for the Patriots defense? That might take some projecting. He didn't do much of that at Utah. But he can cover in the slot, and his relatively low number of snaps as a starter might indicate there's plenty of room for growth in his game.
Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne
6-foot-1, 217 pounds
Watching Dugger beat up on Division 2 opponents almost isn't worth the time. He's so much more advanced physically than his competition, it's like watching a high school senior dominate a bunch of middle schoolers. All due respect to those on the Lenoir-Rhyne schedule last season...
There's no doubt Dugger is a high-caliber NFL athlete, clocking a 4.49-second 40 and ranking in the 98th percentile with both of his combine jumps (42-inch vertical, 134-inch broad). He looks like a box safety who'll be a tackling machine at the next level. At the very least, he has the potential to be a star special-teamer as a coverage player and punt-returner.
Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois
6-foot-3, 221 pounds
Perhaps the two best athletes at the position in this year's class hail from smaller programs.
Chinn's size and athletic ability (4.45-second 40, 41-inch vert, 138-inch broad) make him a certified freak. His game needs some polish, no doubt. But as a special-teams specialist with the ability to grow into a box safety, Chinn could hold value for the Patriots.
The only problem? Chinn tested so well that some believe he has a chance to be drafted in the first round. Taking him at No. 23 overall might be a little early for Belichick.
Grant Delpit, LSU
6-foot-2, 213 pounds
Delpit's tackling isn't what lands him here. That needs plenty of work. And a team that values tackling like the Patriots might think twice about drafting him.
But what he brings to the table in coverage as a long and instinctive athlete still has plenty of value. A starter as a true freshman for the Tigers in 2017, Delpit has plenty of experience working against some of the best athletes in the country in the SEC. In an NFL where the top pass-catching tight ends are essentially big slot receivers, Delpit might prove to be the perfect eraser.
Geno Stone, Iowa
5-foot-10, 207 pounds
An instinctive free safety from a program led by one of Bill Belichick's old assistants? Stone fits the bill for the Patriots in a multitude of ways.
His 4.62-second 40 time and 29-inch arms aren't going to force anyone to jump at the chance to draft him early, but his ability to diagnose and jump routes — not to mention his affinity for contact — will be intriguing for certain clubs. He's one of Pro Football Focus' favorite safeties in the class, compiling an elite 91.8 coverage grade on 883 coverage snaps.
Brandon Jones, Texas
5-foot-11, 198 pounds
Jones won't be one of the top safeties off the board this year. He's undersized. He wasn't able to test at the combine. But he was a second-team All-Big 12 selection in 2019 and he started games in all four seasons he spent with the Longhorns.
He also has the type of versatility that the Patriots would covet, playing deep, in the box and over the slot. He also looks like he's built to be an early contributor on special teams. That's often the ticket into the door at One Patriots Place.
L'Jarius Sneed, Louisiana Tech
6-feet, 192 pounds
Sheer athleticism can be just as valid a ticket sometimes. That may be how Sneed works his way onto the roster in New England should he get a call from Belichick on draft weekend.
His 4.37-second 40 and tremendous jumps (41-inch vertical, 131-inch broad) make him look like one of the best athletes at the position this year. A converted cornerback, Sneed is no slouch as a tackler. He's only missed 11 tackles on 177 attempts, per Pro Football Focus.
J.R. Reed, Georgia
6-foot-1, 202 pounds
Reed hails from a program the Patriots respect. He has 32 starts for the Bulldogs under his belt as a three-year starter. In 2019, he was named a first-team AP All-American and a first-team All-SEC honoree. He was also a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as the country's top defensive back.
He's not the most athletic prospect on this list (4.54-second 40), but his football IQ is thought to be among the best in the class, and with a shortened offseason ahead, perhaps the Patriots will be more inclined to take safer prospects like Reed in the later rounds rather than an athletic project.
Tanner Muse, Clemson
6-foot-2, 227 pounds
Special teams. Despite being an All-ACC selection this year and grading out as the best safety in the ACC by Pro Football Focus this year, "teams" might be his best shot at an NFL roster. He's shown proficiency in that phase, earning Clemson's special-teamer of the year honors in 2016.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Muse is "an incredible leader" and has made more extra-effort plays last year than anyone on the team's defense. His 4.41-second 40 time at his size was fantastic, but he looks more like a kick-coverage player than anyone who'll be tasked with checking elusive tight ends or backs in coverage right now.
Daniel Thomas, Auburn
5-10, 215 pounds
After starting 26 games for the Tigers the last two seasons, Thomas looks like the type of player who'll likely have to become a core-four special-teamer at the next level to make an impact.
His rocked-up frame, willingness to initiate contact and combine test numbers (4.51-second 40, 37-inch vertical, 125-inch broad) would indicate he could chip in for the Patriots there. They could be looking for kicking game help after losing Nate Ebner to free agency this offseason.
Kamren Curl, Arkansas
6-1, 206 pounds
Three years as a starter in the SEC. Time spent under former Hogs coach Bret Bielema, who's now an assistant for the Giants after working under Belichick the last two seasons. Experience all over the secondary, including at outside corner, in the slot, in the box and as a deep safety. Sounds like a Patriot, right?
Well, he was suspended by the team in 2018 after reportedly being spotted talking to and taking pictures with members of the Mississippi State dance team during warmups before a game. Arkansas promptly lost, 52-6. Perfect fit? Maybe not. But maybe he's matured since then and would be viewed as a late-round flier candidate.