Rare is the NFL player who, at the mere mention of his name, has the ability to elicit tears from a veteran teammate. But that's exactly what happened when David Andrews was asked about potentially having played his final game with Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty back in January.
In a small room in Orchard Park, New York, soon after the Patriots season had officially ended with a loss to the Bills and the sting still fresh, Andrews -- a longtime captain -- was overwhelmed when asked about the two elder-statesmen of the Patriots locker room.
Slater will be back. McCourty won't.
The 13-year veteran, 12-time captain and three-time Super Bowl champion announced his retirement Friday on Instagram with his brother Jason.
"It has been a great ride," McCourty said. "I got the opportunity to talk to Mr. [Robert] Kraft. To talk to Bill [Belichick]. A lot of the guys on the defensive staff. Unbelievable ride, man. It's always tough to come to the end... This whole offseason has been so much back and forth for me mentally. Probably not even sharing as much of the thoughts as I was going between from one day to the next day. Ultimately I think this is the best decision for me, my family, my career is to now look back at my 13 years and just enjoy it."
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McCourty has been the ultimate torch-bearer for Patriots culture during the second iteration of their dynasty. Drafted in the first round in 2010, he had a Pro Bowl year as a rookie corner and then transitioned to safety in Year 2. A captain from that season on, he has been the shining example of consistency, on-field excellence and off-field impact in Foxboro and beyond.
"Through his individual performance and overall leadership," Kraft said in a statement, "Devin has been such an important part of the success we have enjoyed over the past 13 seasons, including each of our last three Super Bowl championships.
"As great as his contributions were on the field, he made an even greater impact in the community, taking a leadership role in his advocacy for finding a cure for sickle cell anemia, effecting legislative change for criminal justice reform, and championing countless other educational and economical advancement initiatives. We couldn’t have asked for a better leader and ambassador, both on and off the field."
McCourty will continue to spend his time and energy to make an impact in the community -- as he was this week before making his retirement announcement -- but the void he will leave in the locker room will be noticeable.
"It is a rare group of players who win games at a historic rate, exude team culture, lead, win awards, and win championships," Belichick said in a statement. "And then there is Devin McCourty. Devin did all of those things as a player and more. But, what I think of first when I think of Devin is the type of man he is, his character, his values and how high he raised the bar for spreading goodness and justice in the community.
"For 13 years, Devin made everyone in our organization feel better and be better because of who he is – a pillar of professionalism, unselfishness, work ethic, preparation, intelligence and performance. I am excited to see him bring those same traits to his next chapter and brighten the lives of even more people."
NFL Twitter pays tribute to McCourty after his retirement announcement
What's next, then, for the Patriots?
There is no replacing McCourty's level of leadership, but perhaps his departure clears the way for a burgeoning leader to take on more responsibility -- as McCourty did when players like Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo finished their playing careers.
Jonathan Jones is a free agent, but if he returns to New England, he would be a logical choice to try to help fill in behind McCourty as the veteran voice in the secondary.
"It's hard to put a value on Devin McCourty," Jones told me this week on Early Edition. "From a football player, from the things he's done in the community, just who he is as a mentor -- for myself and other guys who've come in, guys he's left an impression on who may not have been on the team more than a week. He's that type of guy who can leave an impression on them... He's paved the way for me, and I'm just trying to fill those steps."
Kyle Dugger is an up-and-coming player who could be a fixture in New England for years to come as well. Perhaps Mac Jones, a captain last year, will take another step from a leadership standpoint in Year 3 and help make up for McCourty's loss. Ja'Whaun Bentley and Deatrich Wise are young captains who may be asked to do more in 2023. Andrews remains a staple. And Slater, of course, will continue to be leaned on as the locker room's emotional beacon.
On the field, McCourty could be equally hard to replace.
Jonathan Jones would represent a logical fill-in at free safety if the Patriots wanted to go that route. Most importantly, he understands every position in the secondary, having played every position in the secondary -- from the "star" spot in the slot, to along the boundary (as he did this year), to safety (as he did in Super Bowl 53). But he also has the speed, ball skills and tackling ability that would make him a fit there, seemingly.
Defensive back Jalen Mills had extensive free-safety experience with the Eagles before coming to the Patriots and primarily taking on a boundary corner role. Dugger played free safety as a collegian at Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne. Second-year talent Marcus Jones seems to have the tools -- speed, intelligence, hands -- to make an impact in the deep part of the field as well.
There are also options in free agency. Jessie Bates of the Bengals is the best of the bunch, having established a reputation as one of the most dependable deep-field defenders in football in recent years. Jordan Poyer of the Bills, CJ Gardner-Johnson of the Eagles, Julian Love of the Giants, Taylor Rapp of the Rams, Juan Thornhill of the Chiefs and former Patriot Duron Harmon of the Raiders are all available. Love would be an intriguing option given his versatility and background with Patriots assistant Joe Judge.
Whoever ends up as the last line of defense at GIllette Stadium, he'll have impossibly-large shoes to fill. Same goes for the player who takes the freed-up seat in Patriots captains meetings. On the field and off, McCourty was truly one of one.