NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The New England Patriots drafted Devin McCourty to be the team’s No. 1 cornerback, and for the better part of his first 2 1/2 seasons in the NFL, he has been. He was a second-team AP All-Pro at that position as a rookie, and is one of the league’s best playmakers at the position.
Late last season, however, with a plethora of injuries at the safety position, the Patriots began experimenting with McCourty playing safety. This season, the experiment has gone a step further, as McCourty has played safety full-time each of the past three games with regular starter Patrick Chung out due to injury.
McCourty’s move to safety may just be a temporary shift until Chung returns.
It should be a long-term move.
Playing cornerback gives McCourty the best opportunity to make big plays, and his athleticism and ball skills have led him to 13 interception and 40 total pass defenses through the first 39 games of his career, both impressive totals.
Inconsistent play, however, has been a big issue for McCourty at cornerback. McCourty is a very good man-to-man cover corner, but he has struggled with the Patriots’ hybrid man-zone cover scheme this season.
Overall, his play in his six games at cornerback this season were a roller-coaster ride: he made some terrific pass breakups, but he also had too many blown coverages and big plays allowed, including multiple against both the Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks which played a direct result in the Patriots blowing leads late and losing those games.
This is all coming off of a very shaky sophomore season, in which opposing teams threw for a whopping 1,004 yards — the second-most of any NFL cornerback — against him according to Pro Football Focus premium statistics.
McCourty’s inconsistency, however, has been far from the biggest problem afflicting the Patriots’ pass defense, which has been among the league’s worst this season. An even bigger issue through the Patriots’ first six games was the team giving up big passing plays over the middle of the defense, including a game-winning 46-yard touchdown from Russell Wilson to Sidney Rice for a Seahawks’ win in the sixth game.
In the past three games, with McCourty at safety, the middle of the Patriots’ pass defense has been much more fortified. With the exception of an opening-drive 50-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford to Chris Givens in Week 8 versus the St. Louis Rams, a play that was a direct result of a blown zone coverage by rookie safety Tavon Wilson, the Patriots have not given up any other big plays over the top of the defense.
McCourty has been a stabilizing force in the back middle of the defense, and on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, he showed just how valuable he can be as a safety. With the Patriots on the verge of collapsing and blowing yet another fourth-quarter lead this season, McCourty first made a goal-line strip of Fred Jackson on a drive that seemed destined for a touchdown. Two drives later, McCourty ended a potential game-winning drive with an end-zone interception.
McCourty may not have as many direct opportunities to break up passes as a safety, but he still has plenty of opportunity to be a playmaker, as he proved on Sunday. He has the size to play the position, is effective in deep coverage and is a solid tackler. His game is tailored well to play the position, and the best move for him going forward, not only this season but for the long-term future, is to keep him at safety.
The problem for this season, of course, lies in the fact that by moving McCourty to safety, they weaken what was already a weak group of cornerbacks. Rookie Alfonzo Dennard has had promising moments but has also been horribly mistake-prone since moving into the starting lineup, while it has been a consistently shaky season for the other starter, Kyle Arrington.
The Patriots made a step to rectify that problem, however, during the bye week by acquiring Aqib Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now complete with a four-game suspension for unprescribed use of Adderall, Talib is set to play his first game for the Patriots this week against the Indianapolis Colts. Talib is a very talented cornerback who has had more than his fair share of off-field issues, but on the field, he can be the No. 1 cornerback they need.
Adding Talib to the mix allows the Patriots to keep McCourty at safety, and that is what they should do. The other cornerbacks have struggled this season, but so have the safeties. Wilson is a talented but unpolished rookie, while Chung’s pass coverage has been nothing short of awful this season. Steve Gregory, who has started the five games he has been healthy for, is solid but not a big playmaker. McCourty is the best safety the Patriots have, while Talib may now be their best cornerback.
In the interest of keeping the best defensive backs of the field, further injuries could dictate whether McCourty plays at cornerback or safety. It has been suggested, however, that the Patriots wanted to move McCourty to safety before this season even began — Greg A. Bedard of the Boston Globe did so in April — and the Talib move may have been made to allow them to make that move.
Assuming the Patriots do make McCourty a long-term safety, the other aspect that will be affected is their strategy for the 2013 NFL draft. There is little doubt that the Patriots need to address their defensive backfield in the early rounds (for the seventh straight year), and if McCourty is moved to safety, it means that they will likely focus on drafting a cornerback rather than a safety early in April.
Talb is the final year of his contract, so even though the Patriots traded a fourth-round pick for him, he may very well be nothing more than a half-season rental. Wilson and Dennard have shown enough potential to make it seem that they could develop into starters in 2013, but that would still leave the team in desperate need of a true No. 1 cornerback.
Three players who the Patriots could target with what should be a late first-round pick in the upcoming draft, all of whom have the potential to be top NFL cornerbacks, are North Carolina State’s David Amerson, Rutgers’ Logan Ryan and Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes.