The Case For Chung
Chung has lived up to expectations on the field for New England. After spending his rookie season as a rotational player, Chung emerged as the Patriots’ starting strong safety in 2009, making 13 starts and recording 96 tackles to complement his three interceptions and nine passes defensed.
Prior to the 2011 season New England released FS Brandon Meriweather, FS James Sanders, SS Brandon McGowan, and SS Jarrad Page, increasing Chung’s projected role with the club. Due to struggles in the secondary, Chung saw extensive playing time at free safety as well as strong safety and finished the season with 62 tackles and one interception despite missing eight games due to injury.
Over the course of his tenure in New England Chung has been asked to play in the box, in man coverage on slot receivers, as a centerfielder, and on special teams units and has handled all of his responsibilities well. He stepped into a starting role early in his career and immediately became the team’s top safety. Chung’s versatility allows the Patriots to employ him in a variety of different roles and get creative with their defensive schemes.
Chung is also considered one of the Patriots’ defensive leaders on the field and has a reputation for being an intimidating presence because of his physical play; New England’s defensive struggles were magnified last season while Chung was injured. In addition to his work on defense, he is considered one of New England’s core special teams players.
The Case Against Chung
Despite being New England’s top safety Chung does not deserve to be considered one of the best safeties in the league; he struggles in man coverage on slot receivers because he is somewhat tight-hipped and lacks elite top-end speed. At times, Chung will also take overly aggressive angles and end up out of position against both the pass and the run.
Experimenting with Chung as a free safety was borne out of necessity and he appeared to be playing out of position, as his build and style of play are better suited to the strong safety spot, a position which is in greater supply around the league as teams search for more coverage-oriented safeties to defend against receiving threats.
Chung has also had problems staying healthy as a pro. He made 51 straight starts during his time at Oregon but missed two games with a knee injury in 2010 and eight games in 2011 with a foot injury which negatively impacted his play on the field. The injuries are unrelated, but because of the importance of developing chemistry in the secondary, New England could be concerned about Chung’s long-term health, his ability to play regularly, and the potential negative impact that continued injuries will have on his production.
Chung’s physicality is one of his greatest assets as a player but the Patriots will be forced to consider the possibility that his aggressiveness is causing the injuries.
Other Roster Options
New England signed free agent Steve Gregory to a three-year deal this offseason and also spent a second-round pick on Illinois safety Tavon Wilson and a sixth-round pick on Ohio State safety Nate Ebner.
Gregory is expected to start opposite Chung this year, and Wilson’s draft slot indicates that he may eventually be expected to step into a starting role. Neither of these players is a threat to Chung’s job but could provide the Patriots with some flexibility should they decide that Chung’s price is too high to pay, that they are able to make an upgrade, or that they can get a better value elsewhere.
New England could be interested in adding another safety through the 2013 NFL Draft-Kenny Vaccaro perhaps?-or shift their attention towards one of the aforementioned safeties currently set to be available in free agency. New England brought in Dashon Goldson for a free agent visit before he ultimately re-signed with the 49ers and Bill Belichick has never attempted to disguise his admiration for Ed Reed. The Patriots also have a good idea of what Jairus Byrd can bring to the table after playing him six times over the past three seasons.
Ultimately, the best move for New England will be to opt for the known quantity over the unknown and approach Chung about signing an extension. Chung may not be one of the top safeties in the league, but he is young, versatile, and has already shown that he can contribute wherever he is needed on the defense. Quality young safeties are hard to come by, and despite missing ten games over the past two seasons due to injury Chung managed to stay healthy throughout the five seasons prior (including his entire collegiate career.)
New England could wait for Chung to play out the season and apply the franchise tag ($6.2 million for safeties this season), but that move would likely damage the team’s relationship with Chung as well as any contract negotiations. Contracts in the NFL naturally inflate over time, and waiting too long could cause Chung’s price to increase, as other safeties negotiate long-term extensions with their teams and drive up his market value.
Chung is coming off of an injury-plagued season in which he played out of position for much of the year and struggled at times; New England would be wise to buy low and secure long-term control over one of their top young players while protecting themselves from being saddled with a bad contract. Paying Chung like Troy Polamalu, Eric Weddle, or Adrian Wilson would be a mistake, but he is young and has played well enough to warrant a contract similar to the one Jacksonville gave Dawan Landry (five years and $27.5 million with $10.5 million guaranteed.)
Such a deal would offer Chung long-term financial security and allow him to hit free agency as a 29 year-old with the possibility of landing another lucrative contract.