NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The initial decision was made on a Thursday evening in April of 2010.
After trading back twice in the first round of the NFL draft, the New England Patriots found themselves on the clock with pick 27 overall. And Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty found himself waiting for a call.
McCourty carried what the organization was looking for – 52 games of collegiate experience, six career interceptions, 33 career pass deflections, seven blocked punts and kicks, a 4.48-second 40-yard dash and a 6.70-second three-cone drill. Yet the lean, 5’11”, 193-pounder carried other traits as well.
Traits not as easily quantified.
His smarts, competitiveness and range showed up in the months following his selection. They were seen as a way to get McCourty on the field for the Patriots early that fall, either at nickelback or on special teams.
Instead, they were a way for McCourty to get on the field as a starting cornerback.
McCourty got the nod for all 16 games at left cornerback that year, netting 82 combined tackles, a sack, seven interceptions, 17 pass deflections and two forced fumbles on his way to Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors.
By 2011, McCourty was a team captain dealing with heightened expectations. He, in turn, posted a career-high 87 tackles to go with two interceptions and 13 pass deflections over 14 starts, primarily at left cornerback.
But the box score didn’t tell the story of what was happening on the field. McCourty was getting beat deep. His opponents had figured him out to the tune of over 1,000 receiving yards.
Not only was McCourty struggling to defend the pass, he was struggling to defend the ball-carriers in transition.
When it wasn’t angles, it was technique.
He was trying to figure himself out, how to make adjustments in press-man coverage, how to cleanly wrap up tackles, how to be the player he was just a season prior.
He was moved out around the field during his search, spelling at right cornerback, then even safety in Week 17, where he accrued a pick.
His inconsistent performance at left corner, along with his spot duty elsewhere, sparked questions leading into the 2012 season. Those questions would glean answers. McCourty started the first six games at left corner, notching 31 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass deflections.
In doing so, he looked to be regaining the confidence that had evaporated during his second NFL season.
Injuries at the safety position would force a change, however. In Week 7, head coach Bill Belichick shipped Kyle Arrington and then-rookie Alfonzo Dennard to outside cornerback, while fellow rookie Tavon Wilson got the start at strong safety.
McCourty joined him there.
And the acquisition of man-to-man corner Aqib Talib four weeks later helped ensure that he would stay there. Steve Gregory returned to the fold, and in a sense, the back end had found its equilibrium.
For 10 of the final 12 regular-season contests, McCourty was a safety. The move was first thought to be driven by attrition. In retrospect, it was also a move driven by McCourty’s development.
He excelled in the deep half in cover-one and cover-two alignments. He excelled in delegating his assignments, keeping the ball in front of him, and staying in position to use his instincts, footwork and athleticism to close on it.
The tackles, interceptions and pass deflections didn’t entirely signify the difference. McCourty’s versatility expanded New England’s options. It expanded his potential as a hybrid safety, for he was accustomed to making the most out of off coverage.
His sideline-to-sideline pursuit shortened the field and allowed him to break up plays behind the line.
His recognition and lateral speed allowed him to glide through the secondary as a last line of defense. He read eyes, dissected routes, and responded by covering ground.
He was acclimating. He was becoming the sum of his parts.
Offseason shoulder surgery didn’t keep McCourty from entering 2013 as the undisputed starting free safety. Once the non-contact practice jersey came off, he picked up where his third year left off. By the conclusion of the regular season, McCourty had started 15 games, as Gregory and even fellow Rutgers defensive back Duron Harmon filtered in next to him.
The Patriots prominently dispersed two safeties deep with man coverage at the line of scrimmage.
Yet Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia also sought to put the best 11 on the field by using single-safety sets. While a rare occurrence, this personnel grouping was a direct illustration of their trust in No. 32.
Within New England’s multiple defense in 2013, McCourty collected 69 tackles, one interception and nine pass deflections. On paper, it marked the lowest output of his career. Yet, on the field, it marked his emergence as one of the top center fielders in the league.
Though he didn’t make a trip Pro Bowl in January, he did make his second All-Pro team. He did grade out as the No. 1 overall safety, according to Pro Football Focus.
It’s conceivable as to why. The production was there on the field more so than in the numbers.
It was over the middle, where McCourty served as a robber on crossing patterns.
It was in the red zone, where he traveled great lengths to contest wideouts and tight ends alike.
It was down the sideline, where he tracked the ball and kept plays alive for his teammates.
McCourty was all over the field last season. He never believed he was out of a play. He never believed his job in the Patriots defense was uncertain.
He was a safety – not because of depth or statistics, but because of ability. Because of his smarts, his competitiveness, and his range.
And while the decision convert the former first-round pick involved many factors when it was first tested on Jan. 1, 2011, those attributes made the decision easier in time. Those attributes brought out the best in him.
As the 26-year-old enters his fifth NFL season, there’s reason to believe he hasn’t reached his best.