NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Two days ago we discussed the major possibilities regarding New England’s cornerbacks; today, the secondary discussion continues with a look at some of the Patriots’ options at safety this offseason. Take a look at New England’s options and be sure to let us know what you think the Patriots should do at the position this offseason!
Option 1: Retain the current personnel group
The case for this option: For the most part, New England’s safety group played well in 2012. Devin McCourty led the group, playing 564 snaps at the position and allowing a lower passer rating against than any other safety in the league. Steve Gregory appeared in twelve regular season games, transitioning to strong safety after the acquisition of Aqib Talib and turning in solid if unspectacular play; he finished the season with three interceptions, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. 2012 second-round pick Tavon Wilson added four interceptions and two fumble recoveries of his own.
Although Chung’s playing time slipped in 2012, he still has something to contribute to the team. At 25 years old, Chung’s youth and talent warrant a new contract from the Patriots; he allowed just a 56.3 rating against on passes to his zones. The Patriots should play better in the defensive backfield if they limit roster turnover and allow chemistry to build.
Option 2: Allow Chung to leave, but otherwise retain the same group
The case for this option: Patrick Chung is no longer reliable enough to warrant the type of multi-year, mid-level commitment he may be able to find on the open market. He has missed a combined twelve games over the past two seasons and saw his role dramatically reduced after Devin McCourty made the transition to free safety. Chung started until week six, when he suffered an injury, but returned as the starter in only two additional games as an injury replacement. In the playoffs, Chung was on the field for just three combined snaps.
McCourty has emerged as a reliable deep safety, while Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson played better than expected, giving New England three possible starting options at the position. With players such as Wes Welker, Sebastian Vollmer, Aqib Talib, and Kyle Arrington set to hit the market, the Patriots can’t afford to bring back Chung.
Option 3: Add one new starter at safety this offseason
The case for this option: Despite Devin McCourty’s play at safety, there remains room for improvement at the position this offseason. Steve Gregory’s play was adequate overall, but missed four games due to injury and was exposed by the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, allowing completions on four of five targets for a total of 54 yards and one touchdown; he also missed two tackles in that game. Regardless of whether Patrick Chung re-signs with the Patriots, he cannot be counted on to provide consistent starting-quality play, and at this point Tavon Wilson’s struggles in deep coverage should limit him to a rotational or reserve role.
This offseason, the Patriots could use their salary cap flexibility to address the position by signing one of the top free agent options – Jairus Byrd, Dashon Goldson, LaRon Landry, William Moore, Kenny Phillips, Ed Reed – or by drafting from a deep safety crop which includes potential starting options such as Matt Elam (Florida), Tony Jefferson (Oklahoma), Eric Reid (Louisiana St.), Phillip Thomas (Fresno St.), and Kenny Vaccaro (Texas).
Option 4: Add two new starters at safety this offseason
The case for this option: Left cornerback Aqib Talib is a risky long-term investment; in an effort to minimize the effect of his departure, Devin McCourty must move back to left cornerback, where he played well in 2012, allowing just 27/53 passing (50.9%) for 388 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions (a 78.2 rating against.) McCourty’s transition to safety was not an indictment on his ability to play cornerback, but rather an admission that none of New England’s other safety options could be counted on for reliable play in the deep secondary.
Players such as Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson are adequate, but the Patriots are a contender and need more from the position to win another championship. New England’s pass defense ranked 29th this season in opposing yardage allowed, signaling a need for dramatic changes. This year’s safety options in both free agency and the draft are appealing, meaning the Patriots are well-positioned to address the position by adding two new starting options.