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 New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2018, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.

Next up: the safeties.

UNDER CONTRACT
Devin McCourty
Patrick Chung
Duron Harmon
Nate Ebner
Obi Melifonwu
A.J. Howard

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
None

STANDOUT PERFORMER
Like cornerback, safety was one of the Patriots’ most effective position groups throughout the season, and it’s difficult to identify one single standout.

McCourty and Chung both played well after overcoming some early coverage hiccups, with the former’s game-sealing pick-six in Buffalo sticking out as one of New England’s best defensive plays of the year. Chung’s versatility and toughness are almost impossible to replicate, as evidenced by the fact the Patriots needed two players to replace him when he broke his arm in Super Bowl LIII.

Harmon was one of those players. His snap count dropped precipitously during the postseason, but after Chung went down, he had a hand in two pivotal plays against the Rams, nailing Brandin Cooks to break up a potential touchdown and helping force Jared Goff’s killer interception with a perfectly timed blitz. Harmon also led the team with four picks during the regular season.

Even Ebner turned in a characteristically strong special teams campaign after tearing his ACL in November 2017.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
Melifonwu played in just three of a possible nine games after signing with the Patriots in early November, but he’ll be a player to watch this summer. At 6-foot-4, 224 pounds, the 24-year-old UConn product has a blend of size and athleticism seldom seen in NFL defensive backs.

TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Will McCourty be back? He’s No. 2 on the Patriots’ retirement watch list behind tight end Rob Gronkowski, and neither has made any announcement regarding their plans for 2019. McCourty is set to earn $9 million in salary and occupy $13.435 million in salary cap space — the third-highest cap hit on the team — this coming season, so his decision will have a significant impact on the Patriots’ offseason spending strategy. The team also could attempt to negotiate a restructure.

2. Even if McCourty returns and Chung fully recovers from surgeries on his broken forearm and injured shoulder — procedures that are expected to sideline him until training camp — the Patriots need to inject some youth into their safety group.

McCourty, Chung and Harmon will be 32, 32 and 28 when the 2019 season begins, and their two younger options — 24-year-old Melifonwu and 23-year-old Howard, who was added to the practice squad ahead of the 2018 playoffs — have little NFL experience.

Look for New England to address this need in the 2019 NFL Draft, which they could enter with as many as 12 selections, depending on how the compensatory pick allotment process shakes out. The Patriots currently own three picks in the first two rounds (Nos. 32, 56 and 64) and another early in the third (No. 73).

Safeties projected to come off the board in the first few rounds include Mississipi State’s Johnathan Abram, Alabama’s Deionte Thompson, Delaware’s Nasir Adderley, Washington’s Taylor Rapp and Virginia’s Juan Thornhill. We’ll dig much deeper into this year’s draft class once the NFL Scouting Combine begins next week.

Patriots offseason preview: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Tight ends | Wide receivers | Offensive line | Defensive line | Linebackers | Cornerbacks | Specialists (Feb. 22) 

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