FOXBORO, Mass. — Entering his third NFL season, Patriots safety Patrick Chung is still a little green behind the ears. Yet, his teammates rely upon him as if he's been in the New England system for the last decade.
In that sense, his progression as a leader has been very similar to that of linebacker Jerod Mayo, who commands the locker room every time he speaks. And there's no confusion with the level of respect that the Patriots have for Chung — he has become one of the go-to guys at Gillette Stadium for just about any matter, and it's impressive how quickly his status has risen.
Chung knows the Patriot Way through and through. He'll never divulge any information about the team or its preparation for an opponent, and he can be as humble as they come. He's been pressed about his leadership abilities throughout the last week, largely due to the releases of safeties James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather, but Chung doesn't like to open up about that stuff. It's just not his style.
However, when told the rest of the locker room had been raving about him, Chung finally broke and discussed why his personality puts him at the fore.
"Being able to talk to everybody, ask questions, I'm more of a leader by example," Chung said. "I don't have to talk or any of that stuff. I'm a leader by example. But I'm not really worried about that stuff right now. I'm going to play ball, do it smart, do what I have to do for the team, do it to the best of my ability, do what coach needs. That's all you need in a leader — somebody that works hard, does what he has to do, period."
It's a strong quote, and it encapsulates Chung's personality. Young or not, he's the type of guy who other players want to follow. They look up to him behind the scenes, and he backs it up on the field.
"Chung is a guy that takes control," second-year cornerback Devin McCourty said. "No matter what the situation is, if things are going good or going bad, you're always going to hear Chung. He's always going to be that guy motivating you, making the calls out on the field. Even if you're in the locker room and something happens, Chung is always that guy in the middle trying to get guys doing the right thing. I think that's big for our team."
McCourty has only known Chung for about a year, but he knew right away where the leadership was generated in the Patriots secondary.
"When I came here, I felt like Mayo had been here for years, and it was only his third year," McCourty said. "I think guys that are coming in now, they look at Chung, and that's the way they see it. A guy only going into his third year, but it seems like he's been here forever at that safety position."
That's why it would be erroneous to think Bill Belichick has told Chung to take on more of a leadership role in the wake of the transactions with Sanders and Meriweather. Chung has always been that guy who led the secondary, and the teammates who were interviewed for this story all spoke prior to the two surprising cuts at safety.
Belichick won't need to raise his expectations for Chung because the head coach already knows what he's got.
"He's doing an excellent job growing up and growing up in the system," said Mayo, who will likely be named captain for the third consecutive season in 2011. "Chung does a great job as far as the things he does off the field as well as on the field. He's always trying to get better in the film room, always trying to get better on the field. He's a leader by example, and we need stuff like that."
It's not just the tenured, high-profile guys who rave about Chung, who will be a candidate to be named captain this week. Last month, merely a few days after signing with the Patriots, safety James Ihedigbo knew instantly about Chung's role on the team.
If Ihedigbo had any questions about the defense, he either asked Chung or safeties coach Matt Patricia. Ihedigbo praised Chung for his ability to explain coverages and pre-snap checks, noting that Chung will explain the meaning of the coverage and why it's the best option for that specific situation.
"You know a true, true leader and a person who understands the defense is [someone who] can teach it to somebody else," Ihedigbo said. "I can pull him aside and ask him questions, and he can teach me things and tell me things about the coverages and why we do things. It's very beneficial."
Chung hasn't progressed as a leader for just a simple reason or two — not after just two full seasons in the NFL. He's got a masterful understanding of the playbook, commands the defensive huddle, plays with a fiery level of passion and knows how to relate to people behind the scenes. He's easy to talk to, enjoys helping his teammates, looks out for the best interest of the organization and backs it up on the field, whether he consistently outraces everyone in sprints at practice or he turns an interception into six points on Monday Night Football.
"Even though he's young, he's been out there," McCourty said. "He knows what he's talking about. He knows what he's doing. When the younger guys come in, they see it: 'That's the way, even though I'm young, that's the guy I try to be like.'"