When the New England Patriots cut Steve Gregory in February, it showed that they had confidence in one of their young players to step up and start next to Devin McCourty at safety in 2014.
The Patriots also decided not to spend on a high-priced free-agent safety, and they didn’t use a draft pick on a defensive back until the sixth round of the 2014 NFL draft.
Over the last two weeks, NESN.com has looked at each position to see how the Patriots’ depth chart stacks up now that the draft and the undrafted free-agent signing periods are over. We broke down roster locks, players on the bubble and practice-squad candidates.
Check out our final installment on how the Patriots’ depth chart stacks up at safety.
Roster locks: Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Logan Ryan
On the bubble: Patrick Chung, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner
Practice-squad candidates: Kanorris Davis, Jeremy Deering, Shamiel Gary
McCourty, coming off a second-team All-Pro season, obviously is a lock for one of the two starting roles. It should be a battle between former and current teammates, Harmon and Ryan, for the second starting role.
Harmon played in 15 games last season, and started in three when Gregory and McCourty were injured. Harmon performed well in his starting and reserve roles, and if he shows some improvement in Year 2, the Rutgers product shouldn’t be a drop off from Gregory last season. Harmon was a third-round pick in 2013 and immediately began receiving praise from head coach Bill Belichick.
Ryan played cornerback at Rutgers and as a rookie in 2013, but Belichick mentioned in his post-draft news conference that the 5-foot-11, 195-pound defensive back could see time at safety in 2014. Ryan proved to be a playmaker as a rookie in 16 games and seven starts, intercepting five passes and recording 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble.
If Ryan doesn’t beat out Harmon, he likely would serve as the Patriots’ No. 4 cornerback for the second straight season, which is a waste of his talent.
The Patriots’ depth gets shallow after McCourty, Harmon and Ryan. Chung likely would be the next man off the bench if the season started today. He struggled at times in his first four years with the Patriots before spending a year with the Philadelphia Eagles, but he also has been used in a Cover-2 defense or playing free safety for most of his career — both roles forcing him to play deep. Chung would be better served to play strong safety in a Cover-1, allowing him to patrol the shallow portion of the field.
Wilson has been a slight disappointment since being selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, though he’s carved out a role as the “money” defensive back in the Patriots’ dime packages. If he makes the roster, he likely will serve the same role in 2014.
Ebner and Davis are strictly special-teamers for the Patriots. Davis spent most of last season on the practice squad, but he appeared in five games, including both playoff match ups.
Deering isn’t limited to his role as a safety, having also played offense and as a returner at Rutgers. Since he’s versatile but raw and athletic, Deering likely would benefit from a year on the practice squad.