New England Patriots safety Patrick Chung is among six players on the team that is planning on opting out of the 2020 season, according to multiple reports.
The 32-year-old Chung was considering retirement this offseason before the Pats incentivized a return to New England with a two-year contract extension in May.
But the uncertainty surrounding the NFL’s coronavirus protocols led to a change of heart for Chung, whose contract will now toll, meaning his two-year deal carries over to 2021 and 2022.
Although the coaching staff thinks highly of Chung due to his terrific conditioning and ability to play both in the box and as a slot defender, he started to show signs of slowing down last season.
Since his return to New England in 2014, Chung was Bill Belichick’s primary tight end stopper as he transitioned to more of a hybrid linebacker role in his second stint with the team.
However, Chung’s 70.5 completion rate allowed into his coverage was a career-worst mark last season, and he surrendered his most yards per target (7.4) since the 2016 season.
The team was counting on Chung for one more season, hence the contract extension, but his arrow was pointing downward, and his successors are already in place on the roster.
Over the last two offseason, the Patriots signed veteran safeties Terrence Brooks and Adrian Phillips in free agency, who are both primarily box defenders who also play on special teams. Then, the team drafted uber-athlete Kyle Dugger with their top pick in April’s draft, and 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams is learning the safety position as well.
The Patriots also have slot cornerback Jonathan Jones to guard slot receivers, and Jones played some safety in New England’s base four defensive back packages a year ago.
Plus, of course, team captain Devin McCourty is returning for his 11th NFL season as the leader of the Pats defensive backfield.
If there’s one area the Pats could afford a player opting-out, it was in the secondary.
Here are some thoughts on New England’s plethora of in-house options to replace Chung:
Brooks: The veteran safety carved out a role for himself on defense last preseason after Chung started the summer in a red non-contact jersey following offseason surgery. Brooks picked up the system quickly and made a great first-year impression in coverage until a rocky performance in the Patriots’ loss to the Titans in the postseason. Still, Brooks allowed only a 60.7 completion rate into his coverage, missed just one tackle with seven run stops, and was a special team ace. There was a chance that Brooks might be on the bubble due to New England’s insane depth in secondary, but now he’s likely safe.
Phillips: We wrote an in-depth breakdown of Phillips’s game after signing with the Patriots in March here, their most notable free-agent addition. The veteran was a chess piece in the Chargers defense over the last two seasons serving mostly as a strong safety, slot corner, and hybrid linebacker. He was also named a first-team All-Pro on special teams in 2018 and was a massive part of the Chargers’ win over Lamar Jackson in the 2018 postseason playing in the box to track the speedy Ravens quarterback. The 28-year-old is one of the most underrated defensive backs in football, similarly to Chung in his prime, and was a classic Belichick signing.
Dugger: We wrote extensively about the Patriots’ top pick in the 2020 draft, examining his film and talking to his former college position coach. Dugger might be a DII prospect, but he tested as one of the ten best athletes in Indianapolis at the scouting combine and played like a man amongst boys for Lenoir-Rhyne. Dugger’s primary role for the Bears was as a free safety playing centerfield or split-safety coverage. Still, NFL coaches had him work out as a box defender during his week at the Senior Bowl, where he sold Bill Belichick on his upside. Dugger can stick with tight ends due to his strappy man coverage style and is a sideline-to-sideline hit stick against the run. Speaking with Dugger, teams told him that they see him at strong safety or as a tight-end stopper in the draft process. But his coaches at Lenoir-Rhyne say that he was most effective ranging over the top as a ball-hawking playmaker. Once Dugger figures out the system and speed of the NFL game, he could be a terrific selection by Belichick.
Williams: Although Williams was primarily an outside corner in college and during his rookie season, ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported earlier this offseason that the second-round pick was trying to add safety to his repertoire. Williams, 6-foot-4, has the body type to track tight ends in man coverage and still make an impact against the run. At Vanderbilt, Williams played 88 percent of his snaps at outside corner, but questions about William’s long speed and transitions might make him better suited for safety. The Pats corner has excellent length to disrupt at the catch point down the field, which makes up for his lack of speed some, but usually, guys that run in the 4.60s as defensive backs convert to safety.