NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
When a team’s former top pick logs three playoff snaps in a contract year, it sends a message.
It sends a message that the results did not equal the investment, that the player is not part of the solution, and that the organization is moving on.
In March of 2013, that appeared to be the case with Patrick Chung.
The New England Patriots allowed the 34th overall selection in the 2009 draft to walk. And the safety did, signing with the Philadelphia Eagles on a three-year, $10 million deal.
It was short-lived.
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly decided to cut ties with the Oregon Duck just 364 days after signing him. Philadelphia didn’t find the 26-year-old to be part of the solution, either, and saved $3.25 million by releasing him.
As that reunion ended, though, another one began.
The Patriots re-signed Chung on April 3.
It was an unforeseeable move that came with a bevy questions. Most of which were built on the same inquiry: What did head coach Bill Belichick and Co. see in Chung now that they didn’t see before?
There isn’t a simple answer. It’s unlikely that New England’s brass sees anything different in the 5’11”, 210-pound defensive back.
There is no guarantee that Chung will be a starter like he was for 30 of his 50 contests with the team. There is no guarantee he will make the 53-man roster.
However, on the books for a modest one-year, $740,000 base deal worth up to $1.1 million, there is limited risk in finding out.
For two seasons, Chung was a focal point in New England’s defensive backfield. His 2010 campaign netted 96 tackles, three interceptions and nine pass deflections. And his 2011 campaign, albeit limited and paired with the likes of Josh Barrett, Nate Jones and Sergio Brown, amassed 62 tackles, one sack, and interception and four pass deflections.
But even when Chung was a bright spot in an uncertain Patriots secondary, there were bouts of inconsistency. He missed 14 contests over his last three years with the team. There were issues with his instincts in space and the angles he took to the ball. And in 2012, those aspects boiled over in Steve Gregory assuming a starting role in his place, relegating him to more sub-package snaps.
Whether it was due to injuries, a bad fit, or regression, it all came to a head last year in Philadelphia.
Over the course of 12 games, Chung was supplanted by Kurt Coleman on multiple occasions. He allowed five touchdowns and a 124.7 quarterback rating on 32 targets, according to Pro Football Focus. And he also ranked last at the position with a 3.6 tackling efficiency in the passing game.
In contrast, Patriots free safety Devin McCourty ranked first and third, respectively, with 10.1 and 43.0 marks.
Those numbers reflect the tempered expectations for Chung. New England isn’t re-acquiring a savior at strong safety, nor is that Chung’s outlook.
“I don’t have any expectations,” Chung said in last Thursday’s conference call. “Whatever Bill [Belichick] needs me to do, this team, I’m going to do it. Regardless if it’s special teams or it’s defense, whatever my role is here, I’m OK with that. This is where I want to be, so that’s good for me.”
Regardless of his long-term future, Chung provides speed, system familiarity, special-teams experience, in-the-box ability and an edge to the Patriots defense. He doesn’t coincide with a Cover-2 defense so much as he does with a Cover-1, but there’s reason to believe that his previous tenure will help mold a serviceable use for him.
And with the departure of Gregory and Adrian Wilson – who was let go the day after Chung was brought in – he also figures to supplement the collection of youth.
2013 third-rounder Duron Harmon, 2012 second-rounder Tavon Wilson, 2012 sixth-rounder Nate Ebner and the undrafted Kanorris Davis have seven career starts between them. The latter three were utilized primarily on special teams last season, while the 6’1”, 205-pound Harmon started three games and looked the part.
With those forces in play, it would be short-sighted to say Chung fills New England’s needs at safety. It is difficult to rely on a player who hasn’t played a full season since his rookie year in 2009, let alone a player who hasn’t played at their highest level for two seasons. Yet at the same time, Chung is a player who brings more than capable competition to the group.
Much will hinge on how the team’s brass views Harmon, who looks in line to be the starter in 2014. But based on New England’s reported consideration to move second-year cornerback Logan Ryan to the back end, it wouldn’t be a surprise if safety was addressed in May’s draft.
The waters will be clearer by then, even the depth chart isn’t.
After all, as Chung’s return illustrated, it’s too soon to rule anyone out.