If Devin McCourty retires, New England might need a new free safety
As the March 15 start of NFL free agency draws near, we’re spotlighting five impending free agents at several key positions who could make sense for the New England Patriots.
Next up: safeties.
Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals
Bates played on the franchise tag this season and continued to be one of the NFL’s best players at his position, earning the 15th-highest overall Pro Football Focus grade and the fifth-highest run defense grade. Bates primarily plays as a deep safety but can handle strong safety and slot duties, as well. He’s played at least 950 defensive snaps in all five of his NFL seasons. If Devin McCourty opts to retire — he said he’ll make his final decision right around the start of free agency — Bates would be an ideal replacement. But he’s in his prime, entering his age-26 season, and should command a hefty contract.
UPDATE: McCourty on Friday announced his retirement, leaving the Patriots with a hole at free safety.
Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills
Bill Belichick loves poaching players from New England’s division rivals, and Poyer would be a good fit for its defense. He’s been one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL over the past several seasons and has the versatility to play multiple positions. The 31-year-old also brings brash confidence and proven leadership as a three-time Bills captain, which the Patriots would need if McCourty walks away. Injuries were an issue for Poyer this season, however, as he sat out four games with various ailments after missing just two over the previous five campaigns.
Juan Thornhill, Kansas City Chiefs
Thornhill doesn’t have Bates’ or Poyer’s name recognition, but he’s been an effective and durable DB for the Super Bowl champion Chiefs, missing just one game in his four-year career and playing more than 1,000 defensive snaps this season. The 27-year-old intercepted three passes and broke up six others in 2022, posting a PFF grade that ranked 26th among qualified safeties and a coverage grade ranked 15th. Like Bates and Poyer (and McCourty), Thornhill primarily plays as a deep safety (702 snaps this season) but can play the slot (156) and in the box, too (145).
Julian Love, New York Giants
A rotational player during Joe Judge’s two years in New York, Love became a full-time starter this season and thrived. The 2019 fourth-round pick led the team in defensive snaps played, nearly doubled his previous career high with 124 tackles and graded out as a top-20 coverage safety by PFF. He’s one of just two NFL safeties (along with Dallas’ Jayron Kearse) to play at least 600 snaps and post a missed tackle rate below 5% in each of the last two seasons. Love also was a captain and a core special teamer for the Giants, ranking fourth on the team in special teams snaps. Add in his ability to play multiple safety spots, and the 24-year-old checks a lot of Patriots boxes.
Duron Harmon, Las Vegas Raiders
Old friend alert! Harmon won three Super Bowls in New England before logging one-year stints in Detroit, Atlanta and Las Vegas, where he played under Josh McDaniels this season. Nicknamed “The Closer” for his penchant for late-game interceptions, he had a solid season in a horrid Raiders defense, registering a career-high 86 tackles, an 86-yard pick-six, a PFF grade that ranked 22nd among safeties and a coverage grade that ranked 10th. Harmon already knows the Patriots’ scheme and, at 32, likely wouldn’t cost much to sign if he’s open to a reunion.
More Patriots free agent targets: offensive tackles