FOXBORO, Mass. — Who will replace Devin McCourty in the Patriots’ defense? Ask them again in a few months.
Steve Belichick, New England’s linebackers coach and defensive play-caller, on Tuesday said the team is staging an “open competition” to find its next free safety.
“I think it’s really an open competition,” Belichick said. “So if he’s the best guy in that role, then I’ll expect to be out there doing that. But there are a lot of other guys who are in the competition for that, as well as all the other spots on defense.”
That quote was in response to a question about veteran defensive back Jalen Mills, who reportedly is transitioning from cornerback to safety ahead of his third Patriots season and is a candidate to take on some of McCourty’s back-end responsibilities.
McCourty, who announced his retirement last month, was a constant in New England’s secondary for more than a decade. He missed just five games in his 13-year NFL career — including zero in his final seven seasons — and annually played around 95% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps while serving as their primary defensive communicator.
“We have great safeties,” linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said. “And really, look, this is the time where you have to see who can really do it without Devin on the field. This happens every year — you lose people. I think we have some safeties that can do it.”
Though the Patriots are set to return every other member of a defense that ranked third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, third in interceptions and tied for second in takeaways last season, the loss of McCourty is a significant one. New England does not have an obvious internal replacement for him on its roster and did not add one in free agency.
The Patriots do, however, have a squadron of versatile DBs at their disposal, many of whom have taken snaps at McCourty’s primary position in the past.
Returning position mates Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers all have been starting free safeties at the NFL or college level, though all three are better suited to play closer to the line as strong safety/linebacker hybrids. When McCourty took on a lighter workload during training camp last summer, many of his practice reps went to Joshuah Bledsoe, a 2021 sixth-round draft pick who’s played sparingly in his pro career.
The Patriots also have a quartet of corners with free safety experience in Mills, Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant and Marcus Jones. None of the four has played the position on a full-time basis in the NFL, but any of them could factor into the plan to replace McCourty, especially if the Patriots plan to divide his duties between multiple players.
Position coach Brian Belichick called the Patriots’ current collection of safeties “an exciting group.”
“To talk about a guy like Devin, he’s been such a great force, leadership-wise, communication-wise, and obviously with his play out there for our defense, he’s as good as it gets,” Belichick said. “Obviously, we’re just on to the next year trying to put out as good a defense as we can with all the guys we have, and we’re fortunate to have a great group of guys on defense to try to do that. I’m proud of the group that I get to coach, and between Phillips, Bledsoe, Dugger, Peppers — all those guys — it’s an exciting group to coach.
“I’m not really worried about trying to replace anyone or even how Devin played last year or whatever his roles were last year. I’m just trying to look at the guys that we have, and we’re trying to put the best team out there this year that we can.”
New England could add another contender to this competition through the 2023 NFL Draft, which begins next Thursday night. Safety prospects who fit the Patriots’ typical profile include Alabama’s Brian Branch and Jordan Battle, Illinois’ Jartavius Martin, Penn State’s Ji’Ayir Brown and Florida State’s Jammie Robinson.