Bill Belichick still finds a way to surprise as head coach of the New England Patriots.
No one saw Patrick Chung — of all the available free agents — signing with the Patriots this offseason. But on Thursday, the 2009 second-round pick re-signed with the team that drafted him.
The transaction was met with guffaws. Chung played in an era when Patriots fans didn’t look at members of the secondary in a favorable light. From 2009 to 2012, the Patriots’ defenders gave up more long balls than John “Way Back” Wasdin. And Chung had his back turned on many deep completions during that era.
Chung didn’t look much better in 2013 after signing a three-year, $9 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, and his stint in the NFC ended after just one season. Now Chung is back with the Patriots, and expectations will be much lower, which should help the sixth-year pro.
There were many questions about why the Patriots brought back Chung and released veteran safety Steve Gregory. Chung is younger, faster, more adept on special teams and, perhaps most importantly, cheaper. The Patriots are bringing in Chung for depth, his special-teams prowess and his previous knowledge of the defense.
With newbies Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner expected to start at cornerback, and Gregory gone, another veteran face is needed in the Patriots’ secondary. Free safety Devin McCourty can only spend so much time answering questions from first- and second-year Patriots before he starts lashing out.
Of course, the defense likely also will look much different this season than what Chung remembers from 2012, but the terminology will stay the same. The upgrades on defense should help Chung, if he should find the field at safety. Chung has struggled in the deep half of the field since the Patriots drafted him out of Oregon, with his best moments coming near the line of scrimmage.
With Revis and Browner on board, the Patriots only require one safety — preferably McCourty — back deep, with another safety helping out in the middle of the field.
Chung is 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, and he can lay the lumber better than Gregory does. Gregory still gets the advantage defensively because he could help out at free safety when the defense required it last season. He also appeared to lose a step midway through last season, however.
Chung now joins Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner and possibly Logan Ryan to compete for the starting safety role next to McCourty. The Patriots could draft a player to join the fun, too, though that group already is getting quite crowded.
If all goes as planned for Belichick and the Patriots, Harmon will win the spot, but if he can’t, the Patriots have a player who can hit, tackle, defend the run, and know the defense in Chung. Patriots fans might guffaw if he takes the field, but it won’t take much for him to meet or exceed expectations. If Chung can’t find the field, he can help the young players evolve while contributing on special teams.