The battle for the starting spot at safety next to Devin McCourty is far from over.
While the Patriots don’t give traditional position names to their safeties, McCourty will serve the role generally given to the free safety. During Cover 1 looks (with one safety deep), McCourty is the player covering the back end of the field. And despite his one practice playing strictly cornerback, it’s looking extremely likely McCourty will be one of the team’s starting safeties.
The other spot is very much up for grabs, though. Adrian Wilson, Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon have all worked next to McCourty in the first team during training camp, although Adrian Wilson and Gregory have received the most reps. That will likely continue as the summer progresses. It might even continue into the season.
That’s because each safety on the team has his own specific strengths and weaknesses. Four or five will make the team at the position in September, and it’s possible every player will receive quality snaps during the season.
Adrian Wilson has received the most work next to McCourty during training camp. He’s been playing both strong safety and in a hybrid-linebacker role while the team plays nickel. When he is in the linebacker role, there’s a third safety back deep with McCourty.
Wilson’s best strengths at this point in his long career are tackling and zone coverage when he can keep the play in front of him. He’ll struggle playing the deep half of the field and he’s been beat a few times by faster pass catchers when covering in man during training camp.
Even with those limitations, it’s likely Wilson will get a lot of snaps this season both at strong safety and linebacker. He can still cover ground better than some of the linebackers on the roster and he’s an imposing figure over the middle at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds.
Gregory’s strengths are similar, but he’s not as good of a tackler as Wilson. Though his size and physicality don’t suggest it, he’s better in the strong safety role than free safety.
Gregory does possess some versatility, though. In a pinch, he can play back deep with McCourty in a Cover 2, though he did struggle in that role early last season. He’s best, like Wilson, when he’s able to keep the play in front of him. Gregory has also covered the slot in the past.
Gregory is decent depth at the position if the team doesn’t decide his skills are redundant with those of the Wilsons.
Tavon Wilson’s biggest strength last season was playing the “money” role in dime. He lined up on the opposite side of the slot cornerback to cover tight ends and running backs.
Wilson’s mostly been used in the strong safety role in camp and he’s been working with the second and third team mostly. It doesn’t appear he’s made the progress many expected out of the second-year safety.
Wilson has decent upside at the position, though, and he’ll likely get playing time in that “money” role in the dime. So even if he can’t take the starting spot, he’ll still have a role on the team. Wilson is a solid tackler and can play either in the box or back deep, though he’s better closer to the line of scrimmage.
Harmon is the most intriguing player if the team decides to use their cornerbacks in zone. That would mean the team would be running Cover 2 and they would need another safety back deep to play next to McCourty.
Since Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan are better zone cornerbacks than man, and Talib can play either scheme, going to zone may be New England’s move if Alfonzo Dennard has to miss any time.
Harmon played both back deep and up in the box at Rutgers, but during training camp, he’s been mostly playing the traditional free safety role. When the team showed some Cover 2 and quarters (six defensive backs) looks Monday, Harmon was next to McCourty back deep.
Harmon has been impressive during training camp thus far, too. He’s had some nice pass deflections and seems to have a nose for the football.
If McCourty stays healthy, he’ll play almost every snap this season. But depending on the situation, it’s likely he’ll have to communicate with another player in the safety slot next to him. While the team has certainly improved the position from last year, there’s no perfect player to play 1,000 snaps next to him and it’s looking, so far, like either Tavon Wilson or Duron Harmon will need another year, or at least a couple months, to grow into a starting player.
But the preseason is still in its infancy. There have been no preseason games played and there’s still more than a month before the regular season starts. That means there’s still time for Harmon or Tavon Wilson to grab the starting job next to McCourty and run with it.