Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.
The passing game is king in the NFL, and the 2019 New England Patriots were built to combat it defensively. Their strength was in the secondary with highly-paid players at corner and safety, where some talented pieces couldn't get on the field for consistent reps because of the depth at those positions.
The Patriots could've used a little more bulk against opposing run games from Tennessee and Baltimore, but on the back end they used their combination of speed and experience to create tight windows for quarterbacks to navigate week after week.
The issue headed into 2020? Their most experienced player and the nerve center of the secondary is headed to free agency.
Devin McCourty: McCourty wasn't named to the Pro Bowl, but he had a Pro Bowl-caliber season with five picks and two forced fumbles. He'll turn 33 in August but still has good speed. His value in Bill Belichick's defense is his understanding of each position and its responsibilities on a snap-to-snap basis. Bringing him back as a free agent -- or before he gets to free agency -- would be key in allowing Patriots coverages to return to form in 2020.
Jason McCourty: The McCourty twins aren't necessarily a package deal, but they'll tell you that they'd ideally be playing together in 2020. And they both plan on playing. The Patriots have the option to bring Jason McCourty back for next season on a base salary of $2.65 million and a roster bonus that'd pay him $500,000. His cap hit would be $5.75 million. If the Patriots opt not to pick up his option by March 17, they'd save $4 million in cap space. He split No. 2 corner duties last year with J.C. Jackson.
J.C. Jackson: Arguably the most cost-effective deal on the team at the moment, Jackson is under contract for 2020 at a $663,334 cap hit. No corner with at least 50 percent of his team's snaps had a lower quarterback rating when targeted in 2019 (37.0). Stephon Gilmore was close behind at 47.4, fourth-lowest in the NFL.
Stephon Gilmore: The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is one of New England's most expensive pieces, with a $10.5 million base salary and a cap number exceeding $18.6 million, but he's worth it. His man-to-man coverage skills allow the Patriots to play the aggressive style Bill Belichick has favored in recent years. He has two years left on his deal.
Jonathan Jones: Jones has quickly become one of the most important players in the Patriots secondary. Locking down the slot corner role -- a role that has become more important in recent years in the NFL given the proliferation of talented and efficient slot receivers -- Jones is under contract for three more seasons. Jones has some positional versatility, having played as a safety at times over the last two seasons. He's locked into a spot for 2020 after signing an extension last year. His cap hit is right around $6 million.
Patrick Chung: A few days younger than Devin McCourty (though he came into the league one year earlier), Chung is headed for his age 33 season in 2020. He signed an extension last spring that will likely keep him in the fold for another year at a $5.9 million cap hit. If released prior to June 1, the Patriots would save $2 million in cap space but eat $3.9 in dead money. When healthy, he plays a unique role in the Patriots defense as a linebacker-safety hybrid. Perhaps the Patriots will eye the next in line at this spot during this year's draft. Unless that next player is Terrence Brooks.
Terrence Brooks: It was Brooks who ended up taking on some of Chung's responsibilities last season when Chung wasn't fully healthy. He handled Eagles tight end Zach Ertz in a win in Philly. Later in the season, in a similar role against the Titans in the Wild Card Round, he was beat in coverage by accurate strikes from Ryan Tannehill. A key contributor in the kicking game and a strong locker room presence in his first season in New England, Brooks is under contract for 2020 at a cap hit of $1.8 million. If released, he'd save the team $1.6 million.
Duron Harmon: The 29-year-old is also headed into a contract year in 2020. He's scheduled to count $5.5 million against this year's cap, though none of his salary is guaranteed. He'd be the logical fill-in for McCourty as the team's single-high safety should McCourty leave via free agency. A pre-June 1 release would save the Patriots $4.25 million.
Joejuan Williams: It's been a less-than-ideal first 12 months as a pro for Williams, who was drafted in the second round out of Vanderbilt last season. He played just 80 defensive snaps, buried on a deep cornerback depth chart, and he was arrested in January for drug possession. He looks like a reserve piece in 2020 -- Gilmore and Jackson will likely have the top outside-the-numbers corner jobs locked down -- but he could work his way up the ladder should the Patriots part ways with Jason McCourty.
Obi Melifonwu: The 2017 second-round pick of the Raiders has rare size and athleticism for the safety position. He just hasn't been able to crack New England's rotation. The Patriots liked him well enough early last season to pay him as though he was on the active roster, even though he was on the practice squad. He ended the season on p-squad injured reserve and signed a future contract to remain with the Patriots to begin next season.
DeAngelo Ross: Undersized coming out of New Mexico as an undrafted rookie, Ross impressed with his ball skills in training camp. He was placed on IR before we had a chance to see more. Might he be the next undrafted rookie gem at corner to land on the Patriots roster?
Malik Gant: An undrafted safety out of Marshall, Gant hit IR before the end of training camp last season. He profiles more as a box safety than a free-safety type.
POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES
Anthony Harris: Versatility? Production? Harris had both in Minnesota, where he turned himself into one of the game's best players at his position. The 28-year-old could pull in close to $14 million per year as a free agent after showing he could play deep as well as in the box and as a coverage player in the slot. He's a sure tackler and he has nine picks and seven pass breakups over the last two seasons. Sounds like a Patriot. It'll cost them, though, should they lose McCourty to free agency and replace him with Harris.
Justin Simmons: This Denver Bronco and Boston College product would be another high-priced fix at the position if the Patriots wanted to go that route. Simmons broke up 11 passes last year. Like Harris, he's versatile. Would the Patriots want more of a single-high specialist if McCourty walked out the door? McCourty has plenty of versatility himself so adding someone with Simmons's versatility -- who might, like Harris, cost about $14 million per year -- would make sense from an on-the-field standpoint. The only question is how much does Belichick want to pay a newcomer at that position?
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: Interested in more of a one-trick pony? What you lose on the field, you'll make up for in salary-cap space. Clinton-Dix isn't going to be an impact player in the box, but proved during his one season in Chicago last year that he could hold his own in coverage. The former Nick Saban pupil might cost somewhere in the range of $10 million per year. Tre Boston, the former Panther and Charger, is another player who won't be the most versatile in Belichick's defense -- he's strictly a free safety -- but he could fill a role at a relatively reasonable price. He should slot in at his new club for less than $10 million per year.