It seems like the go-to criticism of the Patriots this offseason is that the team can’t develop a cornerback or wide receiver. Not to pile on, but let’s not forget about their recent trouble at safety, either.
Since Rodney Harrison retired following the 2008 season, the Patriots have had trouble finding a decent set of safeties that can threaten opposing players over the middle and cover the deep half of the field. New England found a star at the position last year when they put Devin McCourty deep, but now the team is looking for his partner in crime — and they have plenty of options.
Bill Belichick likes his safeties to be able to play both the strong and free positions. And that may be to blame for some of the trouble they have had over the years at finding the right fits. Patrick Chung had injury and coverage issues, Brandon Meriweather was too busy freelancing and James Ihedigbo and Brandon McGowan weren’t starting-caliber players.
Now over the past two seasons the team has brought in veterans Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson and draft picks Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon. And with so much talented stacked at the position now, the Patriots should be able to find one player to fit next to McCourty.
Gregory got the most snaps at the position last season, but he was forced into a less comfortable role once McCourty was swapped from cornerback to safety. Gregory is better in the deep half of the field, but since that’s McCourty’s strength, the former Charger was forced to play more in the box in the Cover 1 scheme that the Patriots were running. Gregory’s not the type of player who will typically lay the lumber on opposing players, and while he had spurts of genius at the position (including the butt-fumble game), it’s obvious Belichick wanted to get stronger at the position.
Gregory should still serve as great depth at safety with his ability to play either position. Gregory can also serve as a slot corner or in the “money” role in dime.
Adrian Wilson would be great at the traditional strong safety position if the Patriots are leaning toward running a Cover 1 scheme with their cornerbacks in man, rather than zone. Wilson could also serve in a hybrid role as a linebacker/safety, since his strengths as a player these days are in run defense, tackling, rushing the passer and covering the shallow middle of the field.
Wilson may be 33 years old, but his talent hasn’t dropped off much in the last few years. He can still deliver a hit over the middle, and he can still stick with quicker running backs and tight ends.
If Tavon Wilson develops as the team hopes, it would not be surprising to see the second-year player starting next to McCourty to start the season. He projected well as a free safety coming out of Illinois, and if the team hopes to run more zone looks with two safeties back deep, he may be the best option.
Belichick thought highly enough of Wilson to take him No. 48 overall in 2012, and the pick paid immediate dividends. Wilson played heavily in the “money” role in dime — as essentially a second linebacker — but he also started four games in the middle of the season while Gregory was out. Wilson’s biggest strength as a rookie was in covering tight ends, an area the team otherwise struggled in.
Harmon is the wildcard at the position in 2013. New England surprised most by taking him in the third round, but he certainly seemed ready to work during rookie mini-camp.
Harmon may start his career in a special teams role, but with a wide-open competition in Patriots training camp for the second safety position, Harmon could grab the reins. He had experience at Rutgers as a deep safety and playing down in the box, and that versatility could earn him some snaps in what’s likely to be a rotation at the position this year, especially if the Patriots are switching between Cover 1 and Cover 2 looks.
Whoever emerges to grab that starting spot will have the luxury of playing next to one of the best cover safeties in the NFL in McCourty. The fourth-year player showed natural tendencies at free safety late in 2011 and during half of the 2012 safety, and advanced stats confirm his abilities.
McCourty allowed just five receptions in 307 cover snaps, the best percentage among any player with at least 200 reps at the position. Opposing teams rarely threw deep on McCourty, and when they did, he made them pay with three interceptions.
Regardless of who gets the second-most snaps at safety this season, the position (and secondary as a whole) should be improved thanks to McCourty. Having Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard starting on the outside will only help the safeties, and having Kyle Arrington in his natural role as a slot corner will solidify that part of the field, as well.
The final question mark in what should be an improved pass defense is at cover linebacker. The Patriots drafted two players in April that should help in that regard in Jamie Collins and Steve Beauharnais. As mentioned earlier, Adrian Wilson could also take on some snaps in that role in a hybrid nickel/dime.
The Patriots defense may not be back to the level it was at in the early aughts, but it’s getting there. Slowly.
Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon photos via Facebook/New England Patriots from B/R