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.
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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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.
"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.