Devin McCourty has to play next to someone next season.
The “other” safety will be one of the exciting training camp battles to watch this summer. McCourty should be entrenched as the starter at free safety (as long as Bill Belichick doesn’t move him back to cornerback), but the other spot will come down to Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson, Steve Gregory, Duron Harmon and Marquice Cole (who got playing time at safety while McCourty was recovering from surgery during OTAs and minicamp). Kanorris Davis and Nate Ebner fill out the Patriots’ depth at safety.
The player to watch during training camp, though, is the younger Wilson: Tavon. Wilson was a surprise second-round pick out of Illinois last season and went on to play in all 16 games, starting four. Overall, he was productive in a mostly-limited role, picking off the ball four times and taking on the “money” defensive back position in the dime (history lesson: it’s called the “money” position because that player replaces the “Mike” or middle linebacker. Belichick and Nick Saban wanted another term that starts with the letter M. It’s also why the nickel defensive back is called the “star.” That player replaces the “Sam” or strong-side linebacker). With six players in the secondary, Wilson would play in the box on the opposite side of the slot corner. He would mostly cover tight ends, running backs and shifty receivers.
In total, Wilson allowed 27 receptions on 39 targets for 309 yards, four touchdowns, four interceptions and one pass defensed in 500 total snaps with 339 coming in pass coverage, per Pro Football Focus. He ranked low in PFF’s coverage stats, but the fact that he was playing up in the box in a hybrid cornerback/linebacker role hurt him compared to other safeties (since that role would naturally mean he was targeted more often that a traditional safety that plays back deep). He graded out positively in both pass coverage and run defense.
Wilson might not have been ready for a full-time role in his rookie season (even though he played well in his four starts), but with a full season and offseason under his belt, the Illinois product could easily beat out Adrian Wilson, Gregory, Harmon and Cole for snaps.
Wilson has the most upside out of that group as a cover safety. And if the team plans to use zone coverages at corner, they’ll need another safety that can drop back and cover the deep half of the field. At this point in his career, it’s doubtful Adrian Wilson could take on that role in a full season. Gregory played fine in 2012, but it’s worth seeing what the team has in Tavon Wilson.
The team didn’t show a tremendous amount of confidence in Wilson by acquiring Adrian Wilson in free agency and drafting Harmon in the third round. But the team did need depth at the position after Patrick Chung signed on with the Eagles.
Along with watching how Wilson reacts to Tom Brady and the offense and how he looks in one-on-one coverage, it will be interesting to see what unit Wilson is running with. If he’s playing next to McCourty, it’s a great sign. If he’s stuck on the second or third team, it will depend on how he looks in the preseason for him to take on a bigger role in 2013.
One look the Patriots showed in OTAs and minicamp was placing Adrian Wilson in a hybrid linebacker role (it makes sense, the veteran is absolutely massive). That could mean the team uses a rotation next to McCourty this season, with both Wilsons getting around 700 snaps. If that is the case, Tavon Wilson could use this season to prove he’s ready for a full-time starting role in 2014.
The Patriots shocked the world, going off the board to take Wilson No. 48 overall in April, 2012. Many analysts were puzzled by the pick, and New England was heavily criticized for taking an unknown player that early. Belichick can make a lot of draft analysts look very stupid if Wilson can step into a starting role either this year or next. Wilson already outplayed how he was supposed to perform in 2012 and he showed enough promise to get hopes high for his sophomore season.
There was obviously something the Patriots liked in the former Illinois defender. And even if he only pans out as a dime defensive back (the “money” role), that’s still an important position in a defense as more teams gravitate toward spread attacks with more receivers.
Each day this week we are going to feature a different player to watch during training camp. Check out the schedule below.
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