Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month in Indianapolis, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2019, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.
Next up: the safeties.
Obi Melifonwu (practice squad)
Adarius Pickett (practice squad)
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
McCourty played at a Pro Bowl level in his 10th NFL season, intercepting five passes — including one in each of New England’s first four games — and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ eighth-highest-graded safety. His five picks surpassed his total from the previous four seasons combined. No NFL defender tallied more than six.
Harmon continued to provide steady play as New England’s third safety (No. 18 on PFF), and Brooks was a pleasant surprise in his first year in Foxboro. Though he allowed two costly receptions in the team’s first-round playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, the 27-year-old journeyman emerged as a solid No. 2 behind Chung after being relegated to special teams duty in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
No one in New England doubts Chung’s toughness or importance to the Patriots’ defense, but this was a tough year for the veteran strong safety. Chung missed three games with various injuries and was limited in at least four others, including the Titans loss, which he exited after just 12 snaps.
All told, Chung was on the field for just 64 percent of New England’s defensive snaps this season, by far his lowest play time percentage since he rejoined the Patriots in 2014. He’d played at least 77 percent of snaps in each of the previous five seasons and 85-plus percent in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Given his age (he and McCourty both turn 33 in August), growing injury history (he underwent forearm and shoulder surgeries last offseason) and issues in coverage this season (he’s no longer the tight end eraser he was a few years ago), it’s fair to wonder how much more Chung has left.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. What happens with Devin McCourty? McCourty confirmed he plans to continue his NFL career, and the 32-year-old proved this season he still can play at an extremely high level. Will he be with New England in 2020? McCourty, who likely will have a spot in the Patriots Hall of Fame one day, said during Super Bowl LIV week he does not know what his future holds.
“I think for right now, I can’t answer that,” McCourty told NESN.com when asked whether he’d like to re-sign with the Patriots. “I would be crazy to be like, ‘Yeah, I did that for 10 years, I want to leave.’ Leave and go where? I don’t know what that looks like. So we’ll see how it goes. We’ll see what the interest is from the Pats. Like, a lot of times players get asked, but a lot falls on whoever your employer becomes. So we’ll see.”
McCourty, who tested free agency in 2015 before choosing to stay put, possesses a blend of leadership, versatility and durability that would be difficult for the Patriots to replace. He’s a nine-time team captain, can play both safety positions and hasn’t missed a game since 2015. His twin brother, Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty, has a team option in his contract for 2020.
2. Who’s out there? Even if McCourty re-signs and Chung comes back fully healthy, the Patriots need to begin planning for the future. If they look to do so through the draft, that could mean using their first-round pick (No. 23 overall) on a player like Alabama’s Xavier McKinney or LSU’s Grant Delpit, both of whom have been mentioned as potential Patriots targets.
On the free agency front, PFF’s first-, second- and sixth-ranked safeties (Minnesota’s Anthony Harris, Denver’s Justin Simmons and San Francisco’s Jimmie Ward) all are set to hit the open market next month, as is Chicago’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (19th).
3. Will Melifonwu ever reach his potential? This summer might be the final stand for the wildly athletic UConn product, who has appeared in just seven games since being drafted in the second round by the Oakland Raiders in 2017. Melifonwu spent the entire 2019 season on the practice squad or practice squad injured reserve, but they Patriots paid him like he was on the 53-man roster and then signed him to a future contract last month.
Bill Belichick and his staff clearly still see something in the 25-year-old, but his chances of becoming a viable NFL player are dwindling. He and Gant — a hard-hitting 2019 UDFA who landed on IR last August — will be two roster bubble players to watch in the coming months.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images