One of the many position groups in which the New England Patriots have experienced unique stability is safety.
For a six-season span from 2014-19, the top three players on the depth chart for the Patriots always included Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon.
Top 2022 NFL free agents by position: QB | RB | WR | TE | OL | DL | EDGE | LB | CB | K | Top 25 overall
But Chung opted out of the 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic before ultimately retiring. Harmon also left after 2019, traded to the Detroit Lions before winding up with the Atlanta Falcons, leaving only McCourty in the fold.
Both Chung and Harmon have been replaced by more-than-capable players in Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips, respectively. With McCourty set to become an unrestricted free agent, do the Patriots have another replacement lined up?
Re-signing McCourty should absolutely be a priority for New England, but if he were to wind up elsewhere -- or retire -- there's several other intriguing options set to hit the open market. Here's a look at the top 10 safeties set to become free agents this spring.
10. Jabrill Peppers
2021 stats: 29 tackles, 1 pass defended, 1 sack (6 games)
Peppers will be a low-risk, high-reward signing for whoever takes a chance on the former Cleveland Browns and New York Giants playmaker. Still only 26, Peppers is coming off of a torn ACL injury which cost him the final 11 games of the 2021 season. His abilities on special teams, primarily as a punt returner, will increase his value, as should his knack for jarring the ball loose (he has four forced fumbles and 17 passes defended since the Giants acquired him in the Odell Beckham Jr. deal prior to the 2019 season).
9. Kareem Jackson
2021 stats: 88 tackles, 1 interception, 2 passes defended
Following nine years as a cornerback for the Houston Texans, Jackson made the switch to safety for the Denver Broncos in 2019 and has continued to play at a reasonably high level ever since, though he did have a slight dip in production in 2021 in pass coverage. Drafted seven spots ahead of Devin McCourty in 2010, Jackson has never made a Pro Bowl, but has recorded at least one interception in 11 of his 12 NFL seasons.
8. Marcus Maye
2021 stats: 46 tackles, 2 passes defended (6 games)
When healthy, Maye has been a rare bright spot for Gang Green over the last five seasons since the Jets drafted him 39th overall in 2017. But after missing 10 games in 2018 due to various ailments (foot, shoulder, thumb), Maye tore his Achilles and missed the final 11 games of the 2021 campaign after New York had placed the franchise tag on him last offseason.
Quarterbacks completed less than 50 percent of their passes on Maye this season when he was on the field, and he's just a season removed from having 11 passes defending while playing in 100 percent of the Jets' defensive snaps. If he can prove he's healthy, Maye can help a team.
7. Terrell Edmunds
2021 stats: 89 tackles, 2 interceptions, 6 passes defended, 1 sack
The Pittsburgh Steelers somewhat surprisingly declined the fifth-year option on Edmunds, the 28th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, before last season. He responded with yet another solid campaign for the Steelers, appearing in 98 percent of the team's defensive snaps -- a career-best -- and recorded eight tackles for a loss, also the best mark of his career.
Edmunds has played in 64 of a possible 65 games for Pittsburgh while grading out as a solid performer in coverage. Per Pro Football Reference, opposing quarterbacks completed just 56.6 percent of their passes on Edmunds in 2021, the third time in four seasons he's allowed less than a 60 percent completion percentage. Quarterbacks compiled an abysmal 63.7 passer rating when targeting Edmunds in '21, yet another career-best mark.
6. Jordan Whitehead
2021 stats: 73 tackles, 2 interceptions, 8 passes defended
One of many pending free agents for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Whitehead has been the epitome of consistency since he was selected in the fourth round (117th overall) of the 2018 NFL Draft. Whitehead wasn't the primary target for any touchdown pass thrown against Tampa Bay this season, per Pro Football Reference, and held opposing quarterbacks to a dismal 62.6 passer rating -- a number which has continued to shrink in all four seasons, down from 100.7 as a rookie to 92.7 to 86.5 and ultimately this season's mark.
5. Quandre Diggs
2021 stats: 94 tackles, 5 interceptions, 7 passes defended
Since escaping Detroit, Diggs has made the Pro Bowl at safety in each of his first two full seasons for the Seattle Seahawks. After coming up with six interceptions in 65 career games for the Lions, Diggs has 13 picks in just 39 appearances for Seattle.
Unfortunately for Diggs, he suffered a broken fibula and a sprained ankle in the last game of the season for the Seahawks, when they had already been eliminated from postseason contention. Given he's still on the right side of 30, Diggs will be in good position to bounce back from injuries; he was at the very least able to make the trip to Las Vegas for the Pro Bowl along with his Seattle teammates.
4. Jessie Bates III
2021 stats: 88 tackles, 1 interception, 4 passes defended
A strong showing in the Super Bowl, complete with an interception of Matthew Stafford in the first half, will have Bates' already-soaring stock growing even more. In four postseason games for the Bengals, Bates had two interceptions, six passes defended and 20 combined tackles while playing every defensive snap but one for the AFC champions.
UPDATE (March 7): The Bengals have placed the franchise tag on Bates.
3. Devin McCourty
2021 stats: 60 tackles, 3 interceptions, 10 passes defended
His legacy in Patriots history secured, McCourty doesn't have much left to prove after three Super Bowl titles and only five games missed over 12 seasons.
But he continues to churn out quality season after quality season for New England, leaving no reason to believe he's nearing the finish line. McCourty allowed only nine completions on 26 attempts in coverage this season, holding quarterbacks to a microscopic 17.6 passer rating in the process, per Pro Football Reference.
2. Tyrann Mathieu
2021 stats: 76 tackles, 3 interceptions, 6 passes defended
Honey Badger doesn't seem to care that he's approaching his 10th NFL season, coming off a stretch of perhaps his best three-year stretch with the Kansas City Chiefs that's included a pair of Pro Bowl berths (2020, 2021) and First-Team All-Pro nods (2019, 2020).
A member of the Hall of Fame All-2010s Team, Mathieu has missed only two games over the last five seasons and is in line for one last big payday in his career. Can the Chiefs afford to keep him?
1. Marcus Williams
2021 stats: 74 tackles, 2 interceptions, 8 passes defended
The ball-hawking Williams is hitting free agency at the perfect time for the New Orleans Saints, coming off the best season of his career at an age where he can still command top dollar on the open market. Pro Football Focus graded Williams as the seventh-best safety in the league in 2021.
Williams, the 42nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, limited opposing quarterbacks to a 48.8 percent completion rate in 2021, the lowest number of his career, while holding QBs to a respectable 85.5 passer rating. Injuries have never been an issue for Williams, either, having played in 76 of a possible 81 games to begin his career.
He's certainly rebounded nicely from a tough ending to his rookie season with the Saints.
Honorable mentions: Anthony Harris, Duron Harmon, Lamarcus Joyner, Ronnie Harrison