Patriots

Patriots Roster Reset: Reinforcements at safety behind Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung

Patriots Roster Reset: Reinforcements at safety behind Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung

For the better part of the last decade the Patriots have had a pair of decorated safeties leading their secondary: Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. That'll continue this upcoming season as both recently agreed to new contracts with the team. 

For those who'd argue stability is key to success on the back end — and we've pointed out that shared playing experience is one of the reasons the Patriots have been so effective in coverage in recent seasons — having both veterans back in the mix will be critical to the performance of the Patriots defense in 2020.

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But lower on the depth chart there's been turnover. Those fresh faces will be expected to contribute in some to-be-determined capacity. And at some point, some of those fresh faces will likely be expected to take the torch from McCourty and Chung as the leaders in the safety meeting room. 

Who will those players be? What will be their roles? Let's dig deeper as we take a look at the state of the depth chart at the position...

LOCK 'EM IN

Chung and McCourty are locks, but you already knew that. McCourty received $13 million guaranteed when he re-signed this offseason. Chung got $4 million by signing a one-year extension in April.

Veteran signee Adrian Phillips will see $3 million in guarantees as part of the two-year deal he signed in free agency. Not going anywhere. Second-round pick Kyle Dugger clearly is part of the long-term plan in Foxboro as well. 

ON THE BUBBLE

Terrence Brooks was a nice addition to the Patriots roster last year. The veteran was clearly going to contribute in the kicking game, and he did. But he also stepped in to help spell Chung in spots as a box safety in the Patriots defense. His best game came in Philly where he helped beat the Eagles by slowing down Zach Ertz and helped prevent him from hurting the Patriots in critical spots.

His spot might be in jeopardy now though that Phillips was signed and Dugger was drafted. All depends on how many spots Bill Belichick wants to reserve for core special-teamers. He made the roster in our very early 53-man projection earlier this offseason. 

I like Cody Davis' chances of making the roster as a core kicking-game player — the Patriots lost important special-teams contributors Nate Ebner and Duron Harmon this offseason — but he may be on the bubble as well. He signed a one-year deal with $300,000 guaranteed in free agency.

LONG SHOTS

Malik Gant was a fascinating player coming out of Marshall last season. At 6-foot-2 and a shade over 200 pounds, he relished contact and had a bio that gave him the look of a Patriot on paper. Walk-on. Tackling machine. Nose for the ball. He didn't light it up in camp, but he saw quality kicking-game reps in last summer's practices. He was placed on injured reserve at the end of August and will have another crack at the roster this summer.

Veteran safety option Ardarius Pickett also has to be considered a long shot, though he did spend time on the Patriots practice squad late last season. 

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NEWCOMER TO WATCH

How the Patriots decide to use Dugger as a rookie will be fascinating. Coming from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, the jump he'll have from college to the pros will be tougher than it is for most. Add on top of that the fact that access to players has been limited for teams this offseason, and Dugger could be looking at a "red shirt" season.

His athleticism, on the other hand, is so striking that it might be worth it for the Patriots to have him on the field in limited spots. As a punt returner, he's certainly capable, which he showed at the Senior Bowl. He also played as a deep safety and a box safety in Mobile, Ala., that week. Looking more natural as a running-game player in the box, perhaps he could position himself for defensive reps should the Patriots experience an injury at the position. 

X-FACTOR

"He's the kind of guy that would not only know what to do, he would put other guys in position on defense."

That's what Jeff Miller of the L.A. Times told our Tom E. Curran recently about Adrian Phillips. Sound like the kind of guy who would fit in with the Patriots safety group? That quality — understanding not only your role but all the roles around you — is what has helped make McCourty and Chung the staples they've been in New England. Cut a whopping eight times by the Chargers over the years, Phillips eventually worked his way off the practice squad to become one of their best defenders. So it's not just his football I.Q. There's a chip there that Belichick must appreciate, too.

We know he'll contribute in the kicking game. He was an All-Pro and Pro Bowler for his work on special teams in 2018. But, as more of an in-the-box player, how will he contribute alongside Chung? Same way McCourty did when Duron Harmon was playing starter snaps for the Patriots.

Because Belichick likes to use his linebackers as part of the pass-rush so often, and because he'd typically rather have those players rushing than covering, a lot falls on the shoulders of the safeties in their man-to-man looks. They cover backs. They cover tight ends. They may have to cover slot receivers at times. Phillips will find work in a defense that has enjoyed its three-safety packages in recent seasons. And if there's an injury to either of the top two guys, he'll likely be at the top of the list of replacements.

"He can play strong safety, free safety, dime [linebacker] and nickel [linebacker] for us, and we'd feel extremely comfortable if he was in any of those positions,” Gus Bradley said in 2018. That's an x-factor.

Why Cam Newton is so excited about 'surreal' opportunity with Patriots

Why Cam Newton is so excited about 'surreal' opportunity with Patriots

Cam Newton didn't particularly enjoy going unsigned for four months in free agency. But he seems very pleased with where he finally landed.

During his first video conference with reporters since signing with the Patriots last month, Newton shared his first impression of New England. Surprise: it was a positive one.

"I was just blown away by the overall professionalism of the Patriots organization, starting with Robert Kraft, with Coach (Bill) Belichick as well as with (offensive coordinator) Coach Josh (McDaniels)," Newton said. "I do know I was in L.A. (when the Patriots called me) and it kind of caught me by surprise. But at the same time, I enjoyed this whole process."

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Newton has massive shoes to fill after Tom Brady led New England to nine Super Bowl appearances and six championships over the last two decades. He also has a chip on his shoulder playing on a bargain contract with the Patriots after 31 other teams wrote him off this spring due to potential injury concerns.

For all of Newton's confidence in his ability to silence his critics, though, the 31-year-old still finds himself marveling at where he ended up.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Measuring the toll that opt-outs took around the NFL | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

"I'm still constantly -- I don't want to say in disbelief, but it's just a surreal moment," Newton said. "Nobody really knows how excited I am just to be a part of this organization in (more) ways than one.

"Following up such a powerful dynasty that has so much prestige and lineage of success -- a lot of people would hide from the notion to do certain things, but for me, I think this opportunity is something that I wake up pinching myself each and every day."

Newton has spent about a week at his new workplace as the Patriots continue Phase 1 of training camp at Gillette Stadium. And as he alluded to on Instagram last week, he's fired up about simply pulling into the parking lot.

"It's so surreal coming down 1 Patriot Place each and every day and seeing the whole ambience," Newton added. "Not only that, but seeing so much support around the city of Boston and Foxboro. It's just such a great environment."

Newton is a nine-year NFL veteran with three Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl appearance under his belt, but like his Patriots predecessor, a change in scenery appears to be giving him new life.

Bill Belichick confident in Patriots' safety protocols despite opt-outs

Bill Belichick confident in Patriots' safety protocols despite opt-outs

The New England Patriots already have had eight players opt out of the 2020 NFL season, and few would blame Bill Belichick -- the oldest head coach in the league at 68 -- if he made a similar decision.

So, did concerns about COVID-19 lead Belichick to consider not coaching in 2020? It doesn't appear so.

"I feel very good about the environment that we're in," Belichick said Friday in a video conference with reporters. "I feel fine."

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Belichick also confirmed no coaches on his staff have backed out of the 2020 season.

The Patriots are in the "acclimation period" of training camp, with players going through non-padded walk-throughs outside Gillette Stadium as they ramp up for their first padded practice on Aug. 17.

According to Belichick, the players and staff in the building feel confident in their safety so far.

"I can't speak for everybody, but I think my impression is that as an organization, as a coaching staff, the support people, the players -- there's a comfort level with what we're doing and who's doing it and how we're doing it, and we're being productive," Belichick said.

"So, if concerns or problems come up, then we'll address those. But right now, I think it's a good working environment. We're getting a lot done."

Patriots Talk Podcast: Measuring the toll that opt-outs took around the NFL | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

The Patriots, like every other team, have to follow rigorous safety protocols that include frequent COVID-19 tests, temperature checks and physical distancing measures. That "new normal" will take some getting used to, but Belichick believes the protocols have helped create an environment that coaches and staff feel safe in.

"The organization has taken a lot of steps to ensure everyone's safety and opportunity to do their job and do it safely and do it productively," Belichick said. 

"Certainly there's a lot of responsibility on each one of us to do things in a way that doesn't affect others negatively, that we take the proper precautions that we can and should, so that's what we're doing."