The New England Patriots, in a roundabout way, showed a lot of faith in Duron Harmon when they released last year’s starting strong safety, Steve Gregory, in February. The Patriots proved how invested they are in last year’s third-round pick when they didn’t sign a high-priced free agent or select a top pick at the position.
Harmon hasn’t earned the starting role yet, however, and for now, it appears he’s competing with Patrick Chung for the spot next to Devin McCourty. Harmon started three games for the Patriots last season, two at strong safety and one at free safety, while Chung started 1o games for the Philadelphia Eagles before getting released this offseason.
Every roster spot and starting role is up for grabs on the New England Patriots, and as training camp nears, NESN.com will review the team’s biggest battles. This week, we’re tackling the starting strong safety role.
OVER THE TOP
If Harmon wins the starting job, he’ll likely spend most of his time “in the box,” covering tight ends and running backs and taking the shallow zone. But the Patriots expect their safeties to play both roles, and they’ll likely spend some time in a Cover-2, with both safeties playing back deep.
Harmon proved he could play free safety last season when McCourty suffered a concussion in Week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens.
On the play below, Harmon started the play at the 37-yard line, was smooth in his backpedal to move back to the 30, read that wide receiver Marlon Brown could break past cornerback Kyle Arrington on a corner route, moved well on the play and broke up the pass. It was one of Harmon’s best plays of the season, and flashed not only his strong instincts, but also some underrated closing speed and ball skills.
Harmon was typically strong instinctually, but he doesn’t have elite speed for a free safety. On the play below against the Buffalo Bills, Harmon couldn’t travel across the field in time to help out cornerback Logan Ryan on a 41-yard completion to wide receiver T.J. Graham. It would have been a tough play for most NFL safeties, but McCourty, with 4.3 speed, might have made it over to Graham in time.
Chung proved during his time with the Patriots that he isn’t an ideal free safety, regularly allowing wide receivers to get past him on deep routes, but he made a great play in Week 9 against the Raiders. Bradley Fletcher was covering Denarius Moore, but Chung cut off the Raiders’ wide receiver’s route, nearly made the interception and had the wherewithal to knock the ball back to linebacker Connor Barwin for the pick.
IN THE BOX COVERAGE
Harmon said one of the key aspects he’s working on this offseason is man coverage. Harmon showed improvement in one-on-one situations as the 2013 season progressed. Below, we see Harmon taking on current Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell in Week 11 against the Carolina Panthers.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton targeted tight end Greg Olsen in the end zone in the play below, but Harmon had perfect coverage, blanketing Olsen throughout the play. Harmon could be a valuable asset if he can regularly cover tight ends throughout the 2014 season. He’s bulked up this offseason, and he already had good size as a rookie at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds.
Man coverage has never been Chung’s strong suit, especially against speedier wide receivers. Below, we see Chung try to take on Minnesota Vikings receiver Greg Jennings one-on-one and get burned for a 57-yard touchdown. Chung was temporarily benched after the play.
AGAINST THE RUN
Harmon was solid against the run as a rookie for the Patriots and helped stop Jonathan Stewart for no gain on the play below, once again showing off plus instincts and closing speed. Harmon missed just four tackles last season.
Chung missed 13 tackles for the Eagles in nearly twice as many snaps, but made some plays when he was close to the line of scrimmage. He helped stop Raiders running back Rashad Jennings for a two-yard gain on the play below, taking a direct route to the runner and zooming past his blocker.
Harmon had a great rookie year for the Patriots and should earn the starting strong safety job out of training camp, as long as he doesn’t suffer any injuries or setbacks this summer. Harmon showed progress through the year for the Patriots and turned out to be a dependable fill-in starter.
Chung showed some of the issues with the Eagles that he suffered through with the Patriots, but playing strong safety next to McCourty could mask some of his flaws. Chung isn’t an ideal starter, but he would be fine as a fill-in and has experience playing both free and strong safety.
Harmon might not be an elite NFL strong safety in his second year, but he should have a strong season playing in one of the best secondaries in the NFL.
Previous Patriots film studies: third-down pass rusher
Screenshots via NFL Game Rewind