INDIANAPOLIS — The New England Patriots have enjoyed remarkable continuity at safety for the better part of the last decade.
Those days could be over soon.
Devin McCourty is set to hit unrestricted free agency when the new league year opens March 18. Patrick Chung’s body has been battered by injuries for the last two seasons, and he, like McCourty, turns 33 this summer. Third safety Duron Harmon has one year left on his contract.
Regardless of where McCourty decides to play this season, the Patriots need to begin planning for the future at the position. And the 2020 NFL Draft boasts two intriguing possibilities.
LSU’s Grant Delpit and Alabama’s Xavier McKinney are versatile, highly touted safeties who have generated considerable buzz as potential Patriots targets late in the first round. New England currently owns the 23rd overall pick.
Delpit won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back in 2019 despite playing much of the season with a high ankle sprain — an injury that will prevent him from working out this week at the NFL Scouting Combine — and seeing a drop in statistical production from his standout sophomore campaign in 2018.
He played all over the field for the national champion Tigers (385 snaps at deep safety, 149 in the box and 316 in the slot, per Pro Football Focus) and showcased phenomenal range and ball skills in coverage and frequently dished out punishing hits on ball-carriers. He’s also a skilled blitzer, tallying seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss over the last two seasons to go along with seven interceptions and 16 passes defended.
“That’s what I pride myself on: I think I’m a very versatile player,” Delpit, who measured in at 6-foot-2, 213 pounds, said Friday during his combine media session. “I think that’s probably my biggest strength on the defensive side. I’ll play anywhere in the secondary. This year, I played more free safety because that was what the team needed, so I played a lot of my snaps in the middle of the field. But we were 15-0, so I could never complain. But watch my sophomore tape, freshman tape. I played all over the box. So I think I can do it all.”
Good luck throwing the ball when Grant Delpit is in the area. pic.twitter.com/YjFISmmIWL
— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) October 13, 2018
There is, however, a clear case against Delpit as a Patriots fit. Bill Belichick and his staff require their defensive backs to be sound tacklers, and Delpit missed 20 tackles in 2019 and 36 over the last two seasons, the fourth-most among all FBS safeties, per PFF. He claimed the ankle ailment had “a lot to do” with his tackling issues and noted he improved in that area as this past season wound down.
“I get a lot of hate and slander from the media and the experts, but I think that’s just going to make the glory so much better in the end,” he said. “But they say tackling, that’s definitely a thing I can improve on from last year. I got it fixed toward the end of the season. It’s all about the approach and trying not to do too much and get him on the ground. It’s a part of football, and I know I can do it. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
Delpit and McKinney are considered the top two safeties in this year’s draft class. The latter is smaller (6-foot, 201) but boasts superb positional versatility, splitting his 2019 snaps relatively evenly between deep (271), box (285) and slot (227) alignments. McKinney is a well-rounded prospect who excelled as a cover man, run defender and blitzer at ‘Bama and ranked sixth in the SEC in tackles this past season with 95, missing 10.
In two seasons as a collegiate starter, McKinney registered 11 1/2 tackles for loss, six sacks, 15 passes defended and five interceptions, including two pick-sixes.
“I think one or two things that will distinguish me from all the other safeties is I’m very versatile,” said McKinney, who, like Delpit, left school after his junior season. “You can see that in the tape. I can do anything that you want me to do, and I do it well. I think that’s the biggest thing, just to know that no matter how the game is turning out to be whether we’re winning or losing, I’m going to go hard. I’m going to put 110 percent into every game. And you see that in my tape. I think that’s something that separates me from these other safeties here.”
Xavier McKinney 81 yards TO. THE. ? pic.twitter.com/n91fztB0de
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 23, 2019
Belichick and Alabama head coach Nick Saban have been close friends for decades. The Patriots have drafted a Crimson Tide product in five of the last 10 NFL drafts, most recently selecting running back Damien Harris in the third round last spring.
“(Saban) definitely talks about Coach Belichick all the time,” McKinney said. “He talks about the Patriots. We watch film on the Patriots sometimes. I think their relationship has brought him to talk about how (the Patriots) are and how they prepare more.”
In Indianapolis, McKinney had a formal interview with a contingent of Patriots personnel that included recently hired assistant coach Vinnie Sunseri, an ex-New England safety who worked as a grad assistant at Alabama last season.
“It was good,” he said. “I would say that was one of the harder meetings that I’ve had. It was a little tough, a little awkward. But Vinnie Sunseri was in there, so it just made me a little bit more comfortable just knowing I’ve been a room with him plenty of other times. It was a good meeting, though.”
McKinney left that sitdown unsure of whether he’d made a positive first impression.
“Just toward the end, I wasn’t sure if they enjoyed the meeting or if I did well,” he said. “You kind of walk out of these meetings kind of uncertain sometimes. But I think that’s just how it goes. You just try to do the best you can.”
It’s possible Delpit and McKinney both could be gone before pick No. 23. The Patriots also could trade out of that spot to accumulate more picks — they currently have none between Nos. 23 and 87 after trading their second-rounder for Mohamed Sanu — or use it to address a more pressing need, like tight end or offensive line.
The youth movement at safety needs to start soon, though, and either player would be an intriguing addition to the NFL’s top defense.