After having their bid for back-to-back Super Bowl titles thwarted by the Philadelphia Eagles, the New England have some questions to answer.
Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month, marking the unofficial start of the NFL offseason, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2017, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.
We finish with the safeties.
David Jones (practice squad)
Damarius Travis (practice squad)
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
It’s tough to pick just one. Safety was one of the Patriots’ best positions this season, with McCourty, Chung and Harmon all turning in strong performances. The trio combined for 21 pass breakups and six interceptions during the regular season, with McCourty and Chung also ranking 1-2 in tackles. Harmon led the team with four picks and added another in Super Bowl LII.
We’ll go with Chung, who applied lockdown coverage on tight ends all season and was a legitimate Pro Bowl snub. During a January news conference, Patriots coach Bill Belichick called Chung “one of the best players in the league.”
The clear weak link in this group was Richards, whom the Patriots tried using in several different roles this season (safety, linebacker, even edge rusher) with little success. The 2015 second-round draft pick is fine as a special teamer, but he still looks too stiff and uncertain on defense, regardless of which position he’s playing.
Belichick’s stunning decision to bench cornerback Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII resulted in an increased role for Richards, and the Philadelphia Eagles feasted on him. He played just 16 defensive snaps but allowed three catches on three targets for 81 yards, including a 55-yard catch-and-run by Corey Clement that set up Nick Foles’ “Philly Special” touchdown.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Not much uncertainty here, as McCourty, Chung and Harmon all have at least one more season remaining on their respective contracts. McCourty and Chung both were banged up by the end of the season — the former reportedly underwent minor shoulder surgery — so their injury status is worth monitoring heading into offseason workouts.
2. It might finally be time to move on from Richards, who’s shown little defensive improvement over his three NFL seasons. Jones and Travis should challenge him for a roster spot after spending the entire 2017 season on the practice squad.
3. Ebner doesn’t have a role on defense, but he’s one of the Patriots’ most important special teams players. It will be interesting to see 1) if he re-signs and 2) when he’ll be ready to play after suffering a season-ending torn ACL in Week 12.
A second-team All-Pro in 2016, he’s definitely worth bringing back.
BY THE NUMBERS
80 percent: The percentage of Harmon’s interceptions this season that came off deflections (4 of 5). Even the lone outlier, which came during a Week 12 win over the Miami Dolphins, hit cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s hands before Harmon wrestled it away from him.
Two: The Patriots were one of just two teams to have safeties as their leading and second-leading tacklers this season. The Los Angeles Chargers were the other (Jahleel Addae and Tre Boston).