As the NFL calendar officially flips to 2021, we?re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots? roster. We?ll examine which players stood out in 2020, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.
Next up: the safeties.
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
2020 SEASON REVIEW
After trading away third safety Duron Harmon and then losing Chung, a longtime starter at strong safety, to a COVID-19 opt-out, the Patriots got creative on the back end this season.
Cornerbacks Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty — and eventually undrafted rookie Myles Bryant, too — played both corner and safety.
Dugger, New England’s top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, was a promising playmaker in a hybrid safety/linebacker role. He should be a fixture in the Patriots’ defense for years to come.
Phillips, an important free agent pickup, essentially became a full-time inside linebacker, starting nearly every game there alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley despite weighing just 210 pounds. The majority of his 746 defensive snaps came at the second level. (Phillips played more snaps as an edge rusher (163) than he did in the defensive backfield (132), per Pro Football Focus.)
Brooks also played a variety of roles but lost snaps to Dugger and Phillips and sat out three late-season games as a healthy scratch.
Directing it all was Devin McCourty, who started every game for the fifth consecutive season and played more than 100 snaps more than any other Patriots defender. The veteran captain scored two touchdowns (one on a pick-six, one on a blocked field goal) and, with the Patriots lacking experience at linebacker, served as the team’s primary defensive communicator for much of the year.
Davis didn’t play a snap on defense but was a top-tier special teamer.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
It’ll be interesting to see how Chung slots back into this group, assuming he does, in fact, return this offseason. (McCourty recently said all eight Patriots opt-outs are expected back.) Chung battled a multitude of injuries in recent years and will be 34 when the season begins. The presence of Dugger and Phillips should allow him to take on a smaller, more specialized role.
Speaking of Phillips, the Patriots must make the necessary roster additions to ensure he does not have to be a starting linebacker. The soon-to-be 29-year-old enjoyed a career year in that role — he led the team in both tackles (107) and tackles for loss (seven) and started all 16 games — but his lack of size (5-foot-11, 210 pounds) was a detriment at times. Phillips is entering a contract year.
The Patriots will be looking for continued development from Dugger, who, as one of last year’s oldest draft prospects, turns 25 next month. The uber-athletic, hard-hitting Lenior-Rhyne product rarely played near the line of scrimmage or covered tight ends in college, so there were some expected growing pains as he adapted to his “chess piece” role in New England’s defense. But overall, he handled the daunting jump from Division II to the NFL with aplomb as a rookie, starting seven of the final eight games.
While the Patriots are well-stocked at strong safety, they should begin planning for the future at free safety. McCourty continues to play at a high level, but he’ll be 34 this summer, and his contract automatically voids after the 2021 season. Unless the Patriots plan on moving Jones or Bryant to safety full-time (which is a possibility), they should be on the lookout for an eventual McCourty replacement either in free agency or through the draft.
Notably, Harmon — a key contributor and interception magnet during his seven years in New England — is an impending free agent after spending 2020 with the Detroit Lions. Would the Patriots entertain a reunion?