Devin McCourty Deserves Contract Extension Now, Even If Patriots Are Apprehensive Because of Aaron Hernandez

Devin McCourty

Much has been made about the Patriots’ 2010 draft class in recent months. Whether it be the numerous surgeries Rob Gronkowski has endured, Brandon Spikes‘ offseason rebellion (add appropriate amount of salt), Brandon Deaderick‘s departure or Aaron Hernandez‘s sudden fall from grace, the group’s once-pristine image is now largely a black stain that no amount of Tide to-go pens can clean.

That taint led to an unusual amount of criticism of Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft considering the early contract extensions given to both Gronkowski and Hernandez last summer. Now, with the Patriots’ personnel policies under review, early extensions for deserving players may be in doubt. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t happen.

The Patriots have a number of players fast approaching or entering the final year of their contracts, and this would appear to be the prime time for hammering out extensions. Last year, training camp, which we are now just days away from, was when both tight ends agreed to their extensions. So there’s no telling if there might be another pact or two in the works this summer.

Players like Devin McCourty, Stevan Ridley, Nate Solder and even kicker Stephen Gostkowski are nearing the end of their current deals and could be in line for extensions. Now seems like the right time to investigate which players might deserve new deals and how much it could run the Patriots.

First up: Devin McCourty.

Has he earned it?

With so much controversy stemming from some of the Patriots’ decisions in the 2010 draft, McCourty has emerged as the best success story of the group.

A stud from the very get-go, McCourty was a Pro Bowler as a rookie and had folks around New England evoking the name of Ty Law in comparison. McCourty was, for all intents and purposes, the savior of the secondary, and he could do no wrong — at least not then.

That praise quickly turned to angst in his second season. He struggled mightily, watching his impressive interception total (seven in 2010) come crashing back to earth. He pillaged just two passes as a sophomore, and his once radiant reputation plummeted as well.

Year three yielded a position change and a well-deserved return to glory. McCourty was promoted to captain of the secondary — even if the “C” wasn’t visible on his jersey — and he took on more responsibility with a midseason switch to safety, where he immediately excelled. The season was by far his best, even without the Pro Bowl honor, and he became not just one of the Patriots’ best players on the field but a leader in the locker room as well.

McCourty also developed into the Patriots’ best kick returner in 2012. He averaged more than 24 yard per return, finishing with the 14th best return average in the NFL last season. Not too shabby for a guy who had returned just one career kick prior to 2012. Even with Leon Washington now expected to handle the primary return duties, McCourty’s impact on special teams should count for something come contract time.

If you need proof, just check out his 104-yard touchdown return against the Jets in Week 7.

McCourty’s development into a premier playmaker and unquestioned leader over the past few seasons make him almost invaluable and a necessary building block for the future. Belichick clearly respects his opinion, evidenced by the long list of Rutgers players currently on the roster, and understands his importance both on and off the field.

If McCourty isn’t the next player to sign an extension, it would be not only a shock but a clear oversight. He is a terrific football mind, a perennial Pro Bowl safety and a consummate professional — all which the Patriots are in need of now more than ever.

What does he make now?

McCourty’s rookie contract was for five years and $10 million, with $7.825 million guaranteed. So far, he’s earned about $6.17 million of that.

His future salary cap hits are as follows:

2013 - $1.845 (695,000 base salary)
2014 - $2.115M ($920,000 base salary)

What could he cost?

It’s tough to gauge where to value an extension for McCourty, mainly because his position isn’t set in stone. He split his time between cornerback and safety in 2012, but, after a tremendous season playing deep in the secondary, it would seem that his future lies at safety.

Either way, we might as well exhaust all the options. The highest-paid defensive back in football right now is Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis. He signed a six-year,$96 million extension this offseason and will make $16 million in 2013. To be completely honest — and I buy into McCourty’s worth as much as anyone — he won’t get close to Revis money. So let’s move on from that notion straight away, in which case we’d be better off narrowing it down to safeties, if only for the sake of argument.

Right now, I would rate McCourty among the top 10 safeties in the NFL. Sure, that’s working off a small sample size (about 10 games) at the position, but he has proven his value in that time. The average annual salary for a top-10 safety in 2013 is set at $5.541 million, which seems to be right around McCourty’s expected value going forward. But, in the NFL, it’s less about average salary and more about the guaranteed money.

With guarantees in mind, let’s take a peek at what the contracts for some comparable safeties like Dashon Goldson, Antrel Rolle, Eric Weddle and LaRon Landry have looked like of late.

*Goldson (signed with Buccaneers in 2013): five years, $41.25 million total — $18 million guaranteed
*Landry (signed with Colts in 2012): four years, $24 million — $11 million guaranteed
*Weddle (signed with Chargers in 2012): five years, $40 million — $19 million guaranteed
*Rolle (signed with Giants in 2010): five years, $37 million — $15 million guaranteed

At this point, McCourty’s best comparison is probably with Landry. They are very different players and excel in different areas on the field, but draw similarities when evaluating value. Both are good — but not yet great — players who can be game-changers on the field, but they still haven’t established the consistency or credibility to invest top dollar. So, if the Patriots were to fork over an extension to McCourty right now, they’d probably be looking at something similar to Landry’s four-year deal with maybe a bit more in guarantees.

However, considering his quick adaptation to the safety position, McCourty’s ceiling could be somewhere closer to Goldson, Weddle or Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, who landed five years at $35 million with $17 million guaranteed this offseason.

If all goes right in 2013, by this time next year, McCourty will be in the driver’s seat pushing for a five-year deal with anywhere from $15 million to $20 million in guarantees, which just so happens to bring about the next question.

Should they sign him now?

Yes.

His small sample size at safety might give the Patriots some pause, but he is one of Belichick’s favorite players and that means he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. McCourty is on the verge of a major breakout and the Patriots would be wise to lock him up now before his price tag balloons by $10 million by this time next year.

Taking a more cautious approach with such extensions now, after what happened with Hernandez, is understandable. But, not all early extensions have gone awry for the Patriots of late. Jerod Mayo signed an extension a full season-plus before his rookie deal was set to expire, and he, like McCourty, is a player Belichick has decided to build around.

McCourty is a captain, a leader and a franchise cornerstone. The Patriots have every right to be apprehensive now, but there is no safer bet than on McCourty. He embodies everything that the Patriots’ organization is meant to stand for, and he could be just the beacon needed to project that message.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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