New England’s Safety Situation Presents More Difficult Decisions

Should Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory be New England’s starting safeties next season? (Photo: US Presswire)

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.

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43 Responses to “New England’s Safety Situation Presents More Difficult Decisions”

  1. MaineMan says:

    Instead of a classic big-hitter, strong safety type, I’d rather see the Pats get another free safety just like McCourty – very strong play diagnostics/anticipation, very good range, consistently takes good angles and consistently displays excellent technique to break down and execute a solid “form tackle” rather than go for the big hit. Might be better in zone than in man, but enough agility and man skills to turn, adjust and stay with TEs, RBs and slot receivers consistently.

    Such a guy could alternate coverage areas with McCourty from play-to-play, if desired, obscure a QBs reads, limit a QBs easy options over the middle and screw up timing enough to allow one of the three hefty LBs to come in and make the “big hit”.

    The Pats front seven was much better in limiting ground games in 2012 without as much help from the DBs as was necessary in recent previous years, and I’d much rather the 4-5 DBs be able to focus almost exclusively on improving coverage.

    • Russell Easterbrooks says:

      The McCourty clone in this draft is named, D.J. Swearinger. Same size , speed, played CB and S .

  2. Russell Easterbrooks says:


    Patriots send QB Mallett and 2nd pick #59 to K.C., for thier 2nd #34 and 3d pick#63. This trade could work for Arizona, or Jacksonville as well.

    Then Patriots draft;
    #29- WR-DeAndre Hopkins
    #34- CB Jordan Poyer
    #63-OG/T- Brian Winters
    #91- SS – Jonathan Cyprien
    7th- CB-Demetrius McCray
    7th-OT- Reid Fragal

    • Russell Easterbrooks says:

      I’m torn at #91 SS/LB DaVonte Holloman is more versitile, than Cyprien.
      #29 could be DE Datone Jones, OG/C Barrett Jones, if on the Board.

    • Russell Easterbrooks says:

      Here is my (gut feeling) Patriot draft, from the above trade;

      #29 WR -DeAndre Hopkins
      #34 OG/T Brain Winters
      #63 SS/LB DeVatone Holloman
      #91 DT Joe Vellano
      7th CB Demetrius McCray
      7th CB Keith McGill

      • acm says:

        with that WR at 29, I think your gut is playing a number on you 🙂

        the rest I can get behind except Holloman at 63 – I’d like him better at 91.
        Actually, liked your previous mock – Poyer, Winters, Cyprien … better with only issue again being Hopkins at 29 … just don’t see BB go for a WR there. I mean we do need not just one new WR but likely 2 and maybe even 3 if Wes leaves but he will probably try to fill that need from free agency or later in the draft, not in the 1st round.

        • Russell Easterbrooks says:

          I feel that way too ! But BB has to do somthing for the future at WR. If Lloyd gets hurt, we are dead in the water, at WR. If Welker goes, we keep Edelman, and Lloyd, we are thin! I like Conner Vernon late 4th, but he’s a slot guy. If we don’t sign Welker we won’t be looking at free agents.
          I have been studing some of BB past drafts, But this year is tough, But I now feel BB would take a WR BEFORE a CB looking at these two classes, this year.

        • acm says:

          I personally would like to see one Patton or Wheaton in the draft to replace Lloyd – yep, heard me well 🙂 … just don’t think Lloyd has character for big-time football; he is a good WR but his cost-effectiveness would drop this year considering how much more he would be due compared to last year and he never provided that stretch-the-field factor the Pats needed him to.
          I’d prefer Patton as I see him as a R.Wayne-type, well-balanced, do-it-all WR but wouldn’t mind Wheaton either.

          If we goes, I’d look at keeping Edelman and getting someone like Amnedola for the slot.

          On top of this, would like to see one of Simpson/Alexander come to act as a deep threat or if money is too tight, someone like M. Wilson/A. Mellette in the deeper rounds of the draft.

          This being said, I think releasing Fells and getting another WR-type TE is a must to provide an alternative to Hernandez. Don’t know how much money he would cost, but someone like D. Keller would be nice. in this case, maybe we won’t need another slot-guy to replace Welker (should he leave that is) with Vereen’s coming out as a WR option and Edelman and Woodhead likely to stay too.

        • Russell Easterbrooks says:

          Like the Idea of WR Patton, at wide out, Wheaton I like more as a slot guy. I think if BB goes WR early, then two CB,s late. If we keep Talib, I think Arrington is gone. If Talib is gone we keep Arrington IF money is right. We need WR youth, LB depth, Oline youth, CB depth;

          If we draft as is:
          #29- WR Quinton Patton
          #59 – OG/T Brian Winters
          #91 – SS/LB DeVotane Holloman
          #7th- CB Keith McGill
          #7th- CB Demetrius McCray

        • Russell Easterbrooks says:

          I also feel BB can get his Targeted plays with out a 1st, so trade’s it for sure.
          Cleveland has come out saying they have no interest in Mallett . Which of course means THEY have an interest !
          Arizona seems to want QB Glennon? Why would you indecate an interest, HMMM, Means they don’t want him most likely.
          BB may look at next years draft more by trading;
          Mallett and our 1st to Dallas, for thier 2nd #47, 4th #111, and a 2nd next year. I,m thinking, Dallas is looking for a young QB this year.
          So I feel BB can get his targeted plays;
          #47- WR Patton or WR Hopkins
          #59- OG/T Winters or OG Warford
          #91- DT Joe Vellano or DE Carradine
          #111- SS/LB Holloman or CB Darius Slay
          #7th- TE Mychal Rivera
          #7th- CB McGill

        • acm says:

          was about to say that you probably don’t need a 1st rounder to get Patton – but still, I don’t expect him to get out of the top 50-55 picks, so we’d need an earlish-to-mid 2nd round pick to get him.

          I like that last mock but that’s assuming the secondary – at last a CB and a couple of safeties – has been taken care of via free agency as the mock itself is rather light in terms of these positions, which are in great need of improvement.

        • acm says:

          Regarding any possible Mallet trade, I can actually see the Browns not being interested in him right now – think they can give their two QBs another year under the new coach before they scrap them both for good.

          I can also see Arizona being after glennon – he is just the type of QB that I see fit Ariens’ new project, which was one of the main reasons I thought Arizona may be the one team go after Mallet. However, Arizona would have to pick him in the 1st otherwise they face a real risk of not getting another shot at him in the 2nd round and a team in their situation can hardly afford that.
          Spending an early pick on a poor man’s version of Mallet with the added “bonus” of a big contract would be a rather stupid thing to do, imo, when you can say exchange 1st round pick with the Pats in a Mallet trade and get a better QB on the cheap and still retain a 1st round pick to use for your new project. Then again, teams like Arizona tend to pick early in the draft for a reason.

  3. Bill says:

    What’s the deal with Ray ray Armstrong fromMiami. Would he be worth a 7th round flyer. I have never seen him play, but he has been about almost since high school. Maybe he just got caught up in the play for pay thing with the boosters and Israel.ya decent kid

    • Joe Blake says:

      Agreed on taking a flyer on Ray Ray Armstrong in the 7th Rd.or FA as an SS candidate. He Took some perks from a booster but otherwise seems ok. I am also intrigued with Arthur Brown, K State, as an OLB/SS option in 3rd Rd. with Mallett added pick scenario.

      • Russell Easterbrooks says:

        Arthur Brown is very good LB, fast, good cover guy, small at 220, mite be a SS at the NFL. Not sure BB would go for him at LB however.
        The 7th round potentional is HUGE ,lots of guys who could play with some coaching.
        I like this CB Keith McGill 6’3″ 202 , CB Demetrius McCray ( who will open some eyes at the Combine) SS Cooper Taylor 6’4″ 220 4.5 40, OT Emmett Cleary 6’7″ 312 34 1/8 ” arms, Quentin Williams 6’4″ 255 LB ,…..etc.

        • acm says:

          yeah, I have my doubts too BB would consider Brown as a viable alternative at LB. and he would probably go in the 2nd – higher than guys like Greene, Moore – anyway.

          This year’s draft does look interesting in terms of 7th and potentially UDFA talent but still would rather not rely on strengthening the team with 7th round picks. One is just as likely to find good talent in UDFA as in the 7th, so I’d rather not stockpile on picks there as they would take away residual value from other picks in any possible trades (like the one with the Bears you proposed yesterday).

          As for Ray-ray A., he’s got my seal of approval for the 7th or UFA too 🙂

  4. Russell Easterbrooks says:

    Another SS that looks interesting is Cooper Taylor, he has come back from a heart Electrical issue that surgery fixed. He is projected a 6-7th rounder, but is big at 6’4″ 220, runs 4.56 40. Played well in the Shrine Game.

  5. Joe Blake says:

    5’10” and 190 lbs safeties had better fly and have Packman type speed if the Pats are to be SB bound. Otherwise go the Seahawk drafting route with size, attitude and strength.

    • Stephen S says:

      Just reported on twitter that S Shamarko Thomas of Syracuse ran a 4.27 40 at training this week

      • mjp says:

        He’s a heat seeking missile, not too many people hyping him so a mid-late round pick could get it done.

      • Joe Blake says:

        Shamarko Thomas will fly up the draft board following the combine. A Steeler type player the Pats could use. Not an interception type guy, rather, a hitter like Chung, but with sub 4.40 speed. Wish we had more draft picks….

  6. Dylan Curran says:

    I think DMac has made a full time transition to FS. After spending the majority of the season at FS he has made massive strides in improving his game at the position, and after a full offseason of studying the nuances of the FS position I think he has the potential to be a top 5 FS in the league. Allot of similarities to Charles Woodson here, he transitioned from CB also…
    He is also the vocal leader and captain of the secondary, so FS is the perfect fit in that sense.

    No point in cutting S. Gregory for salary cap reasons, plus he makes a good veteran backup/ rotational player.

    Tavon Wilson is not a full time starter yet but I think he has potential and can serve a backup/ rotational role well next year.

    For the full time SS I think the end of the first round or second round of the draft is the answer. I used to think Matt Elam was a great fit, but after watching some tape of Philip Thomas he is my favorite at this point. He may also offer a better value because he comes from a smaller school and could be taken later on then Elam as of now.

    I think P. Chung has run his course here in N.E, which i hate to admit. I was very high on him until this season but at this point I think we have seen what he has to offer.

    I would like to see the patriots bring A. Talib back as the #1 corner. I think Talib & Vollmer are the # 1 priorities for N.E to re-sign and I am O.K with Welker walking. The CB free agency market is DISMAL after Talib & Grimes this year so there are not a whole lot of options out there.

    A. Dennard is a very good fit as the #2 corner, very young so he should only get better.

    And I really still hope that Ras-I- Dowling can somehow magically stay healthy and contribute this year. It would be great to put him in as the #2 corner in passing situations and bump Dennard to Nickel. Im not going to get my hopes up though.

    They could potentially let Talib walk & draft a CB early. Then sign a saftey in free agency. Unfortunately I don’t see J. Byrd or D. Goldson making it to free agency, and the pickings are pretty slim after that.

  7. dslave says:

    I think this group has the identitidy of McCourity, which isn’t psypical, yet effective. I think thew need to add some pop at the SS spot by the draft. Chung never could cover and really took poor angles in the open field and in deep coverage. His identity was very direct, head on. I do belevie they will address that issue in the draft. I’m courios to see Wilson develope into that role. Nobody fears that secondary by being hit over the middle.

  8. Stephen S says:

    It maybe a slim chance and I maybe daydreaming but is there any chance of us landing Datone Jones Jonathan Cyprien and Jordan Poyer with our 1st 3 picks

    • Russell Easterbrooks says:

      Maybe, Poyer is the hard one may not last until #59. I like Phillip Thomas as SS I think he’s the best cover guy of all the Safties I have seen. He is a great tackler warping-up very well, not throwing his body as many SS, do in the run game. (could play CB ) and great size at 6’1′ 212.

      • Stephen S says:

        Funny I was reading here on this site scouting report on Phillip Thomas and it says his one major flaw is his open field tackling. It would seem to me he would be a late 1st early 2nd round

    • acm says:

      I can see D. Jones falling to 29th, not a given but still not impossible imo and probably getting Cyprien with the 2nd round pick but that’s the best we can do – 2/3.
      Don’t see Cyprien falling to end of 3rd round or Poyer to end of 2nd.

  9. Yesares says:

    McCourty should remain at free safety position, regardless wat happens whith Talib, because as FS he will be elite in that position while at CB ONU he only will be above average or good.

    So, would prefer get a new starter Strong Safety in free agency (William Moore is my option here) or in draft (don’t like very much Elam, has coverage strugles, i would prefer Cyprien, Jefferson -tough Belichick don’t like draftees from Oklahoma-, Swearinger, Devonta Holloman).

    If Talib is gone, get Keenan Lewis in free agency or Xavier Rhodes, Banks if availables in draft (assuming Milliner will not) or else one of Desmond Trufant, Jordan Poyer, Leon McFadden, Jamar Taylor, Robert Alford, Logan Ryan or BW Webb.

    • Russell Easterbrooks says:

      I like DeVonte Holloman SS/LB alot his weakness is in WR coverage, he is smart and takes good angles, reads plays very well, and tackles well. He played with FS D.J.Swearinger who is a clone of McCourty!! TE’s he plays well in coverage, and he is tops in the run game. At 6’2″ 235, and still run a 4.64 40, makes him also a LB in some coverage sub-packages. Some Mocks have Holloman 5th-7th ???
      A STEEL at those picks!!
      So you could draft him, 3d-4th and list him as a LB on the roster, with free agent Jim Leonard signed as the 4th S. ANd Nate Ebner.

      • Stephen S says:

        Holloman sounds intriguing but is on the light side for a Bellicheck LB though and that would leave him to be a safety which you say his weakness is WR coverage so not sure

  10. acm says:

    Option 3 or 4, depending on cap space and value we can find in free agency. I’d prefer adding two experienced safeties from free agency and draft a top CB prospect along with moving DMC back to corner. Could also draft a safety prospect in the later rounds to groom for the future. In this year’s draft I am not a fan of Vaccaro, Elam, Reid to be honest … much prefer the relatively higher value someone like Cyprien would bring to the table, for example. Duke Williams, Swearinger, Rambo could be good value in 3rd or even 4th round, I think.

    • Russell Easterbrooks says:

      I think Phillip Thomas is the best Cover S with great size at 6’1″ 212 and runs 4.53 . Holloman is more versitile, at 6’2″ 235, as a LB in sub-packages, But not good covering WR’s , TE’s does a great job. Ilkis Vaccaro but he will be gone early. D.J. Swearinger is a McCourty clone!! can play CB.
      I’m the lest fond of Elam, and Reid .
      Drafting a CB for sure, I think the guy BB will like is Jordan Poyer. and a 7th round CB I like Keith McGill, 6’3″ 201 run well.

      • acm says:

        I was looking at this from the perspective of getting two safeties from free agency. In that case, drafting another safety high would be overkill, so I was looking for the best possible value in deeper rounds.

        but I agree with your evaluations – problem is I see Thomas go before the Pat’s own 2nd round pick and only way of getting him I think would be with a mid-2nd round pick (from some trade) or that 29th pick.
        Agree on Holloman too which is why I think he projects as a LB – more dynamic, coverage-type LB – in the NFL and not a safety (would get exposed in a passing league like this). Against run-centered, TE-heavy offenses, however, I think he can be used at the SS role too.

        Basically, for a deeper round safety project, I think high utility players (can play more than 1 role) like Swearinger, Holloman, etc would bring the best value.

        • Russell Easterbrooks says:

          Patriot scouts watched five South Carolina games last year, so I think they were watching , Swearinger,or Holloman. Like I said Swearinger is a clone of McCourty, and played some CB. He is projected 3d, 4th round. Thomas has better size than Swearinger, but as you said 2nd round most likely, maybe at #59

  11. Joe Blake says:

    Trade him back to SD for a 7th rounder then….

  12. Joe Blake says:

    I’m a fan: cut losses, it’s Krafty Bob’s money…$ ‘s only of interest to me if your post commentary would somehow put us in cap jail.

  13. Joe Blake says:

    The 29th pass defense ranking all I need to read to agree that change is needed. Goodbye & good luck to Gregory and Chung: hello Byrd & a draft pick with some size: Thomas, Jefferson type. Keep McCourty at SS, & no more kick off returns please! If any of us were 29th out of 32 in our jobs, we would be shown the door!

    • MatthewJones says:

      Joe, it doesn’t make much sense to release Gregory this offseason. According to Jason at NYJetsCap, Gregory has a cap value of about $2.18 million, and the Patriots would incur about $1.67 million in dead money by releasing him, meaning they’d save only a little more than $500k by making that move. It’d be more realistic to part with Gregory in 2014, where the savings are more substantial ($2.35 million of his $3.18 million or so.)

      • acm says:

        that is true but how much would say drafting an extra safety this year in say Thomas/Cyprien in late 2nd or Duke Williams in the 3rd incur in cap hit for next year? If it’s anywhere near those 500K you save from releasing Gregory, than I guess we have ourselves a deal 🙂

      • mjp says:

        There’s nothing worse than trying to validate a move that was clearly a mistake. Gregory was awful, as he was in San Diego, it’s not that he’s playing out of position like we heard when he signed, it’s a lack of talent. Tavon Wilson or Patrick Chung would be a better option (which tells you just how bad Gregory was) and cutting Gregory does enable you to open up a roster spot and draft a viable option or sign one in Free-Agency.

    • Russell Easterbrooks says:

      I see Gregory, and Wilson playing part time. McCourty full time, and draft, SS Phillip Thomas, I think is the BEST cover S in the draft. (could play CB) great size speed, 6’1″ 212. I would also look at signing S Jim Leonard (free agent) for th Min. Vet Money, $800K . Leonard can return punts well, add depth to S and spiecal teams.

      • mjp says:

        Phillip Thomas looked mediocre at best in run support during the 3 games I went back and watched. He wasn’t challenged much in coverage during those games but on the dozen or so plays I recall he wasn’t overly impressive. I know he had a bunch of INT’s so I’m sure he was good in deep coverage but since we have McCourty playing at a very high level at FS, I don’t think Thomas is a good fit for us at SS.
        Cyprien is equally capable in coverage and Elam is no slouch either, so too is Jefferson, all three are much better options at SS (Jefferson not as much as the other two).

        • acm says:

          yeah, I also think Thomas needs to improve on his run support ability more than any other area of his game. In the scouting report they have for him here they mention his open-field tackling as his weakest point and I agree with that. He is really good in pass-coverage.

          Personally, I see thomas as good value in late 2nd but if he is gone by then, Cyprien would be just as good an option possibly falling into the 3rd even, imo. Point is, would not go for the Reids and Elams of this draft – would not provide good value, imo with them expected to go relatively early. Jefferson could be an interesting alternative depending on whether he goes by mid-2nd or drops deeper.

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