This is the final part of a position by position roster preview ahead of Patriots training camp.
Roster locks: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon
Strong chance to make the roster: Terrence Brooks
On the bubble: Obi Melifonwu, Nate Ebner, AJ Howard
Undrafted rookies: Malik Gant
McCourty – McCourty does everything that is asked of him well on the football field. He’s a top-notch centerfielder, can matchup in man-to-man coverage, offer support against the run and even makes plays on special teams. Plus, he’s one of the smartest players on the field that has a future in coaching after he retires if he wants to go that route. If you were to create Bill Belichick’s ideal defensive back in a lab, your science experiment would probably play ball like Devin.
Chung – in his specialized role, Chung and the Patriots were at the forefront of the new-age money-backer and slot defending safety. Chung spent 66 percent of snaps either in the box as a hybrid linebacker or defending the slot last season, which led to 17 run stops (fifth-most among safeties). He often takes on the run-defending responsibilities of a linebacker while also defending tight ends in man coverage on passing plays. Chung is one of the best tacklers on the team whiffing on only four tackle attempts all of last season, and his conditioning level to both have the strength to hold up in the box and speed to chase receivers is outstanding.
Harmon – believe it or not, Harmon ranked 13th among all safeties in Sports Info Solutions’ defensive points saved metric in 2018. Primarily a deep safety, he doesn’t offer the same versatility as McCourty and Chung, but he gives the defense flexibility. With Harmon as a steady option to play over the top, the Pats can move McCourty and Chung around in their three-safety nickel and dime packages. He also gives them insurance if one of those two ever goes down with an injury as we saw in last year’s Super Bowl when Chung left the game. Harmon’s pass breakup along with Stephon Gilmore on Brandin Cooks was an underrated play in the victory.
Melifonwu – entering his third season in the league, Obi is in an interesting spot this summer. With Chung still rehabbing from his injury in the Super Bowl, Melifonwu was heavily involved with the starters in minicamp. He looked comfortable within the scheme and played a Chung-like role as a box defender and matchup player against tight ends with some work as a deep safety. The former second-rounder has some intriguing skills to go along with unique length and athleticism, but he’s going to have to earn a spot on the initial roster.
Biggest question: how many “special teams aces” will the Patriots keep on the roster?
As I work my way around this roster, this question stands above the rest when we start to break down the math of an initial 53. As the safety position shows with veterans Terrence Brooks and Nate Ebner, the Patriots have a lot of special teams only players on this team right now. By my count, there’s the possibility that they carry six players, not including punter, kicker and long snapper whose primary role will be in the kicking game: Matthew Slater (lock), Brandon Bolden, Brandon King, Keion Crossen, Brooks and Ebner. We know that Bill Belichick loves special teams more than anyone, but it makes the numbers game at other positions very difficult.
Bonus biggest question: how many runs do the aging veterans at safety have left?
For the record, I hate asking this question and have so much respect for what McCourty (age 32 season) and Chung (age 32 season) have accomplished in their Patriots Hall of Fame worthy careers. But over the next couple of years, the Patriots will have to start thinking about life after their two defensive captains at safety. There’s no doubt in my mind that these two will play at a high level this season, but beyond that things could end quickly, especially when you factor in how many snaps these two logged over the years. If they can make it work, it would be nice to keep Melifonwu around (25 years old) for this exact reason.