Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made some curious decisions with his safeties early in the 2011 season, and it caught up to them over the course of the year. Belichick released James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather, but the Patriots also couldn't come to terms with Dashon Goldson, who met with the team before returning to San Francisco to have a Pro Bowl year.
From there, Patrick Chung missed eight games due to injuries, and Josh Barrett landed on injured reserve. James Ihedigbo took on more responsibility than he's ever had in his career, and wide receiver Matthew Slater and cornerbacks Nate Jones, Sterling Moore and Devin McCourty took on added roles at safety to handle the depth issue.
Belichick must address this position going forward, either by shifting McCourty there full-time or adding another player or two.
Safeties on Final Roster: Chung, Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown, Ross Ventrone (practice squad), Bret Lockett (injured reserve), Barrett (injured reserve)
Key Statistic: Ihedigbo was fifth on the team with 72 total tackles, and he was fourth with 50 solo tackles.
Hot Topic: Chung couldn't take a big step forward this year due to a pair of injuries, including a foot ailment that sidelined him for seven games at the end of the regular season. Chung was expected to take on a major role with the defense after Sanders and Meriweather were cut, and it just never panned out. The three-year veteran has an obvious playmaking ability, which he showed in the Super Bowl with a major sideline hit to jar the ball free from Hakeem Nicks, and he'll be counted on to add a physical edge to the defense in 2012.
Offseason Question: How can the Patriots improve the position?
During the 2010 season, a source indicated the Patriots were going to head in a new direction with the position and, well, that obviously turned out to be the case early in 2011. However, the biggest names on that transaction wire were the departures, not the additions. If Belichick decides to pair up Chung with McCourty, the Patriots won't really need to make a big splash in the safety pool this offseason.
However, if they're looking for an upgrade over Ihedigbo and Barrett, there are a few intriguing free agents, including Goldson (again), Tyvon Branch, Jim Leonhard, Michael Griffin and LaRon Landry. Potential draft targets would be Alabama's Mark Barron, who could be off the board in the top 20, Notre Dame's Harrison Smith, Boise State's George Iloka, South Carolina's Antonio Allen and Oklahoma State's Markelle Martin to name a few.