How Patriots Could Replace Devin McCourty After Safety’s Retirement

There's no obvious answer


March 13

The last time the New England Patriots played a game without Devin McCourty, Barack Obama was president, Mac Jones was a 17-year-old high schooler and Tom Brady had three fewer Super Bowl rings.

Yeah, it’s been a while.

Now, with McCourty officially announcing his retirement last Friday, the Patriots face the unenviable task of permanently replacing their longtime defensive leader.

How will they do it? Good question.

The remarkably durable McCourty ended his career with a streak of 128 consecutive starts at free safety, rarely leaving the field as he averaged around 1,000 defensive snaps per season. Although the Patriots employ several versatile defensive backs, they don’t have an obvious McCourty successor on their roster.

The plan could be as simple as shifting Adrian Phillips or Kyle Dugger into McCourty’s deep safety role, as both have ample experience there. That was Phillips’ primary position early in his career and Dugger’s main spot in college at Lenoir-Rhyne.

Phillips played more than 300 snaps at free safety over the last two seasons, per Pro Football Focus, so he could be a viable option. But he and Dugger both are better suited for the hybrid strong safety/linebacker roles they’ve primarily played for New England. The same goes for the Patriots’ other multitalented safety, Jabrill Peppers, who’s an impending free agent.

Third-year pro Joshuah Bledsoe rounds out the Patriots’ safety group. He often filled in for McCourty last summer when the latter reduced his training camp workload, making him a potential dark-horse candidate to replace the departing veteran.

It was notable that the Patriots chose to carry Bledsoe on their 53-man roster all season when they already had four established safeties above him on the depth chart. Did they envision a role for the 2021 sixth-round draft pick in a post-McCourty world? Perhaps. But Bledsoe is highly unproven. He’s dressed for just three games and played 22 career defensive snaps.

Another possibility is a position change. The Patriots have three cornerbacks with varying levels of NFL free safety experience in Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills and Myles Bryant.

Jones notably played there in Super Bowl LIII and averaged a handful of safety snaps per game during the 2019 and 2020 seasons. The vast majority of Mills’ career snaps have come as a perimeter corner, but he did log 236 at free safety in 2020, per PFF, when the Philadelphia Eagles decided to use him as a do-it-all DB. Bryant was the Patriots’ primary slot corner this season but has played everywhere in the secondary over his three years in Foxboro.

Moving Jones or Mills would require the Patriots to find a new starting outside cornerback, but that could be on their offseason to-do list regardless. There’s also no guarantee Jones will be back next season, as he’s set to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time this week. Ditto for Bryant, who’s a restricted free agent. (UPDATE: Jones reportedly re-signed Monday.)

Ultra-versatile corner Marcus Jones also played some safety in college.

If the Patriots aren’t high on their internal options, they could look to add a McCourty replacement through free agency, which unofficially opens Monday with the start of the legal tampering period.

This year’s free agent class is flush with proven safeties, with Cincinnati’s Jessie Bates III and Philadelphia’s C.J. Gardner-Johnson headlining a group that also features Buffalo’s Jordan Poyer, Kansas City’s Juan Thornhill and the New York Giants’ Julian Love.

The 26-year-old Bates would be an ideal pick to step into McCourty’s role, but as the best safety on the market, he’ll likely command a hefty contract. Love, 24, isn’t a household name, but he profiles as a Patriots fit thanks to his tackling ability, positional versatility and status as a team captain and core special teamer in New York. Ex-Patriot Duron Harmon, who’s coming off a productive season for Josh McDaniels’ Raiders and has deep knowledge of the Patriots’ defense, also is available if they’re eying a more affordable choice.

And then there’s the draft, where the Patriots found McCourty back in 2010 and Dugger in 2020. Alabama product Brian Branch is a potential first-round target who checks a lot of New England boxes. Other prospects of note include Alabama’s Jordan Battle, Penn State’s Ji’Ayir Brown and Illinois’ Jartavius Martin. We had Martin, who played corner and safety in college, going to the Patriots in the fourth round in our first mock draft, which was published before McCourty’s retirement.

Whichever path the Patriots choose, no one player will be able to replicate everything McCourty offered as a player and team leader. Finding the right combination of on- and off-field replacements will be vital.

Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers
Previous Article

Aaron Rodgers Rumors: This Team Could Be ‘Lurking’ In Pursuit

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady
Next Article

Rob Gronkowski Was ‘Very Shocked’ By This Tom Brady Rumor

Picked For You