Beyond the Numbers: The Rise of Patriots Safety Devin McCourty

Once a first-round cornerback, Devin McCourty has emerged as a first-tier NFL safety. (USA Today Sports Images)

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.

(NFL Game Rewind)

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.

(NFL Game Rewind)

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.

(NFL Game Rewind)

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.

(NFL Game Rewind)

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.

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5 Responses to “Beyond the Numbers: The Rise of Patriots Safety Devin McCourty”

  1. steve earle says:

    I’m very excited and optimistic about this coming season. Last year even with all the injuries to key players we still made it to the AFC championship game and now we are a much deeper and more talented team on both sides of the ball but especially on def. Hope we find one or two surprise players in the late picks and udfa signings. I was high on Stork early on as OC though he slipped down much deeper then I expected but I still think he’s going to compete for the starting job. I agree with the idea that Flemming will allow Cannon to move inside full time which I can’t help believing will make the O-line much stronger in the run game without any loss in pass protection. Two weeks until camp starts and can’t wait.

  2. MaineMan says:

    In his rookie season, McCourty played at an elite level – as a ZONE corner in what was primarily a zone-read scheme that the Pats had run for years. If the team had stuck with the zone scheme, McCourty might well have been “The” dominant CB in the league in his second season. But, the Pats switched to press-man – a whole different set of reads and techniques for a CB with which McCourty had had virtually zero previous experience. The regression in his effectiveness wasn’t that “defenses had him figured out” based on his rookie game tape, but because he struggling to adapt (especially on play-action) to what was almost a new position to him. It was a very rare instance, during BB’s tenure, of trying to put a square peg into a round hole (though it was kinda forced on him by circumstances).

    The ultimate switch to deep centerfield safety, though, was kind of a no-brainer, and I don’t think he’s struggled with it much at all. It’s inherently a “zone” position, so he’s essentially back in his element. The position also requires knowing everyone else’s assignments, but it was that very ability, demonstrated in a pre-draft white-board session, that sold BB on drafting McCourty in the first place (according to BB himself in an interview) and is a big part of what made him an exceptional zone corner (In a zone scheme, everyone in coverage is supposed to know what everyone else is doing or the zone doesn’t work). That McCourty has become one of the league’s elite deep safeties so quickly is no surprise to me. I don’t think anyone could design a better player for the job.

    I can’t help but think that, if the Pats had had two press-man corners on the roster in 2011, McCourty might have made the switch to safety much sooner. They drafted one experienced press-man guy – Dowling – but he ended up on IR after starting the first two games of the season. The other side was supposed to manned by Bodden, who was returning from a year on IR himself. But Bodden, a very good zone corner, also had limited previous experience/success with press-man and his struggles to adapt, perhaps exacerbated by a previously undiagnosed back injury (which he never came back from), were even worse than McCourty’s. Bodden was let go after only five games and Arrington went back to RCB.

    These were the circumstances I alluded to above, and McCourty ended up trying to be a press-man LCB pretty much by default. As it was, the Pats had to try to fill out the secondary with the likes of Phillip Adams, Nate Jones, Antwuan Molden, Josh Barrett and Sterling Moore. Even Slater and Edelman got some snaps in coverage that year. That was also the season they let Meriweather and Sanders walk, so McCourty’s potential safety help over the top consisted of Chung, Sergio Brown and James Ihedigbo, whose play (or lack thereof) turned several of McCourty’s learning-curve misreads into disasters.

  3. Dylan.C says:

    Not sure if you posted this because of my suggestion in the Brandon Browner article, but thanks either way!

  4. DMC413 says:

    Hopefully McCourty continues to excel as a FS and becomes one of NFL’s elite!!

    Playing the middle of the field definitely allows a defense to do so much more so I anticipate NE to continue this look on D.

    Though his rise to this level was not as fast as some would like being a first round pick at CB, but I think the growing pains at that position will serve to only make him a better FS and all around athlete. Knowing and playing other positions at this level aids in a players skill-set and allows one to be a dominate force when knowing everyone else’s job and the small intricacies that come along with that position!

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