NEPD Editor: Doug Kyed
I think we can all agree that if there was one area in the Patriots defense that most needed an upgrade this offseason, it was next to Patrick Chung at safety.
Despite a weak safety draft class and a shallow free agent market, the Patriots addressed that need drafting Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner and signing Steve Gregory and Will Allen.
So where will Gregory and Allen fit in this season and are they the answer the Patriots need?
IS THE NIGHTMARE OVER?
The full list for those interested was: Patrick Chung, Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, James Ihedigbo, Antwaun Molden, Ross Ventrone, Rob Gronkowski, Sterling Moore, Matt Slater, Nate Jones and Devin McCourty.
Perhaps most shocking is that nine of those eleven players still stand on the Patriots roster.
Belichick had to get creative last season and while it worked sometimes, most notably with Sterling Moore, most of those players looked lost more often than they looked comfortable and they were dragging quality players like Chung and McCourty down into their abyss of crappiness with them.
So how did the situation get that bad? Injuries to Barrett and Chung didn’t help matters. The Patriots also appeared to be playing overly cautious with Chung heading into the playoffs. Beyond Ihedigbo, Brown and Ventrone were given rosters slots thanks to special teams contributions and pieces had to be filled in along the way as more players proved inept or got injured.
A SAFETY NET?
The addition of Gregory and Allen should go a long way to help matters with the Patriots. Both players are proven veterans and have been contributing immediately in training camp.
Gregory has been slotted in with the first team next to Patrick Chung and has looked especially good coming off the edge in blitzing situations. He looked lost a couple times while I was in Foxboro this past weekend, especially when biting a little too hard on a play action fake and getting beat deep by newcomer Brandon Lloyd.
Gregory, 29, came into the league in 2006 as an undrafted free agent out of Syracuse. He’s played his entire career with San Diego and has been a starter for parts of the last four seasons. The last two seasons have been spent at SS opposite Eric Weddle, which might be slightly out of position for Gregory.
According to Pro Football Focus, Gregory’s best season was in 2009 when he was mostly playing FS and slot cornerback. His overall PFF rating was 1.3 that season. His rating was -1.9 in 2008 playing FS and SS all season, -5.4 in 2010 playing SS and -10.8 in 2011 starting at SS for thirteen games.
With Chung’s best position being SS, the Patriots are hoping that Gregory can get back to the success he found in coverage in 2008 and 2009. Gregory was signed to a three year $7.05 million contract with $2.5 million guaranteed.
Allen, has played cornerback his entire eleven year career at cornerback, but has been lining up mostly at safety early in training camp. Allen missed most of 2009 with a torn ACL, then missed all of 2010 with the same injury. Allen came back in 2011 as the Dolphins slot cornerback.
Allen signed a one year, league minimum contract, so the switch to safety holds very little risk for the Patriots. Allen’s speed and experience as a cover corner could be utitlized well playing deep at FS next to Chung.
Allen has looked comfortable in the transition so far, but it’s always easier to gauge a safety’s play in game situations rather than during practice. Allen will be one to watch when the Patriots take on the Saints in week one of the preseason.
THE JOB GOES TO…
Based on early training camp reports, it appears that Gregory has the inside track to the starting safety spot next to Chung, but that could obviously change at any point. I expect Tavon Wilson, Josh Barrett and James Ihedigbo to get opportunities to take that spot as well. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see either Sterling Moore or Devin McCourty get a few snaps at safety. The Patriots are suddenly deep at cornerback with McCourty, Moore, Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling and if those are the best players in the Patriots secondary, you have to find them snaps one way or another.
This will be a fun battle to watch all preseason and possibly even into the season. Also, feel free to follow my favorite safety on the Patriots roster, Ross Ventrone, on twitter. He’s the funniest athlete in the NFL and is always entertaining to watch in practice. Enjoy him while you can, he doesn’t have much practice squad eligibility left.