The Patriots are tied for a league-high with nine safeties on their roster as they incorporate more safety-heavy packages into their defense.
Bill Belichick is at the forefront of adding versatile defensive backs that can play in the box or over the slot along with traditional safety spots as hybrid defenders in the secondary.
As we outlined last month, the Patriots played over 50 percent of their snaps with three or more safeties on the field last season. Belichick is building his defense to keep up with evolving NFL offenses centered around mobile quarterbacks by adding more athleticism in the box.
Along with defending mobile QBs and option offenses, flooding the field with safeties and cornerbacks allows New England to take slower linebackers out of coverage.
Instead, the Pats put their safeties in man coverage on tight ends and running backs while their linebackers play on early downs against the run and rush the quarterback in passing situations.
Although New England has good depth at the position, one of the newcomers will need to step up to fill the void left by the departure of veteran safety Duron Harmon.
#Patriots film: look at how far Duron Harmon came on JC Jackson's second INT, from the far hash. Pats are in one cross with DMac cutting the crosser and Gilmore replacing him as the robber. Dalton goes to the 1v1 on the outside. Great coverage by JC, great range by Harmon. pic.twitter.com/zLRH5q4KzJ
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 19, 2019
Harmon, who was traded to Detroit in March to create cap space, played 65 percent of the defensive snaps last season for the Patriots as a trustworthy center fielder at free safety.
With Harmon in the deep middle, Devin McCourty was free to play in man coverage, as a “robber” at the intermediate level, and in more complex safety rotations in the backend.
McCourty is among the best deep defenders in the league, but playing him there exclusively takes away scheme flexibility, and the veteran needs a capable backup in case of injury.
This interception was nice playing single high again. Hip transition to stay with the post, recovery speed to get back into position to make a play, and track/high-point for the INT. pic.twitter.com/qDFMpHpKKY
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 8, 2020
Ideally, second-round pick Kyle Dugger, a free safety in college with excellent ball-hawking skills, would hit the ground running and take over some of Harmon’s responsibilities as a rookie.
But the Patriots also added veteran Cody Davis in free agency if Dugger isn’t ready for such a heavy workload in year one due to the steep jump in competition for the Pats’ top selection in April’s draft.
Below are scouting reports on the nine safeties under contract with the Patriots in what should be a competitive summer at the position:
McCourty isn’t the traditional hybrid defensive back that you think of when you hear the phrase, but he is as versatile as anyone in the Pats secondary. The Pats captain played almost as many snaps in the box or slot (441) as he did at free safety (467) in 2019, moving around the defensive backfield wherever the game plan and situation saw fit.
Look how far DMac comes to nearly intercept this pass. Switch release, corner route with JMac in coverage on 3 receiver side. Devin comes from the far hash to provide help over the top. Excellent read and range. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/wc9DpEkdwb
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) September 10, 2019
The Pats safety is at his best as a ball-hawker ranging over the top of the defense to help his teammates in man coverage and eliminate big plays.
McCourty’s experience as a cornerback also allows him to take on tight ends, running backs, and sometimes wide receivers in man coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, McCourty was sixth among qualified safeties in passer rating into his coverage last season (44.4). On the play above, McCourty is man coverage against a flexed out Le’Veon Bell and jumps the “hot” route by Bell when the Pats bring a blitz.
#Patriots perfectly executes "one cross" on JC Jackson's INT. DMac is going to "cut" any crossers by #2 or #3 on the trips side, and he overtakes Hill on the over route, taking away Mahomes's first look. JJones then replaces DMac as the new "rat" allowing JC to undercut Robinson. pic.twitter.com/Hi5H9BgeiY
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 9, 2019
Lastly, the Patriots will also use McCourty as a “rat” at the intermediate level in their cover-one structures. From there, McCourty can read the quarterback’s eyes to jump routes for interceptions and cut off crossing patterns in New England’s one-cross schemes.
According to Pro Football Focus’s wins above replacement metric, McCourty was the sixth-most valuable safety in the league last season. Even at age 32, his range in centerfield is still top-notch, and his knowledge of the system and football IQ make him a de facto coach on the field. Between his leadership and talent, McCourty is one of the best and most valuable players on New England’s roster.
Wouldn't sleep on #Patriots free-agent addition Cody Davis carving out a role as a backup free safety. Has experience playing centerfield with both LA teams. Some good reaction and range from the deep middle in these two clips. 84.6 coverage grade on 176 snaps with LAR in 2017. pic.twitter.com/W9ZMn0ypwN
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) June 2, 2020
The Davis signing flew under the radar like many of the Patriots’ free-agent additions due to Tom Brady’s departure and the price point that Belichick was shopping for this offseason. The veteran safety spent last season in Jacksonville, where he carved out a role as a special teamer and backup free safety, although his snaps were minimal on defense (67). Davis has adequate range to play deep safety in a single-high structure. He will also bring a downhill aggressiveness to run defense and open-field tackling on shorter throws. However, Davis’s instincts from centerfield are average, and you don’t see the anticipatory movements to be a true ball-hawker. Harmon didn’t have the best anticipation skills either, though, and Davis should be able to provide post-safety help to corners playing in man coverage. Plus, he’ll have a good shot of making the team as a former captain and core special teamer.
Kyle Dugger flies around the field as his combine workout would suggest. Plays like this one show you that. Ranges over from CF on the double-pass to make a play on the ball. High-point skills on display to break up the pass at the catch point. #Patriots #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/XaIor1xScF
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 8, 2020
Dugger has the skills to develop at both safety positions with ball-hawking abilities and the size, physicality, and man coverage prowess to play closer to the line. Dugger started his career at Lenoir-Rhyne as a cornerback before moving to free safety during his sophomore campaign. The new coaching staff saw immediate returns as Dugger’s range, closing speed, and ball-hawking skills made him a natural in the deep middle. Then, Lenoir-Rhyne transitioned to a quarters coverage system where Dugger played deep and inserted into the box as a “robber” in a two-high rotation.
Wanted to add this video to the thread of Dugger shutting down tight ends in 1v1s at the Senior Bowl. Probably his fastest way on the field definitively as a rookie. #Patriots
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 26, 2020
At the Senior Bowl, NFL coaches and scouts wanted to see Dugger as a tight end stopper where his thickly built frame can hold up as a new-age linebacker. Dugger dominated against fellow draftees Josiah Deguara, Adam Trautman, Harrison Bryant, and Brycen Hopkins in Mobile, convincing Belichick that the DII safety had what it takes to play in the league.
Dugger also had six career punt return TDs and projects as a core special teamer in kick coverage as well. Most of his punt returns had a lot of D2 guys standing no chance against him in the open field. Still, he has the feel for it and vision as a ball carrier. pic.twitter.com/pa6FFlaPcm
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 8, 2020
Along with his coverage skills, Dugger is an impact player against the run using his athleticism to run down ball carriers. He was also a terrific punt returner at Lenoir-Rhyne and projects as a coverage specialist in the kicking game. Although he’s in for a transition from the DII level to the NFL, Dugger is a freak athlete that was a late bloomer, so he ended up at Lenoir-Rhyne. He has tremendous upside and was worthy of a second-round selection.
Patrick Chung is the ultimate hybrid safety for the #Patriots defense:
– Playing the hands to break up a back-shoulder seam to Gesicki
– Rotates down from the deep half to break up a juke route to Woods, baits Goff
– Mirrors Zeke on inside zone, stands him up in the hole pic.twitter.com/k4wCBl3JEP
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 20, 2020
Chung’s transformation from second-round bust to potential Patriot Hall of Famer serves as a lesson on how coaching can impact a players’ success. In his first stint with the Patriots, Belichick admittedly misused Chung as a traditional deep safety. Now entering year seven of his second stint in New England, Chung reinvented himself as a hybrid defender and tight end stopper. The Pats safety primarily plays in the box or over the slot covering tight ends, where he has terrific technique and relentlessness to play through the catch point. Chung also holds up against the run in the box as a de facto linebacker playing several different roles in the Pats defense, and he has the endurance to go for four quarters. Chung puts up a great fight against despite being out-massed consistently. Although he had his ups-and-downs in man coverage last season, he’s still a valuable chess piece for Bill Belichick.
Adding to New England’s tight end stoppers, Brooks surprised many that thought he was acquired to play exclusively on special teams last offseason. As it turns out, Brooks is a capable man coverage safety and backup to Chung with a little more size than Chung to throw his weight around in the box. Brooks likes to get his hands on tight ends early in the route to impede their progress up the field and is routinely in position to make plays on the ball, getting beat at the catch point when he does lose in coverage. His special teams abilities also translate on defense to open-field tackling and range to play as a quarterback spy against mobile passers.
Asked Terrence Brooks about his funky punt coverage alignment. Here's what he said:
"We actually put it in last week, and it was like 'tell me why I gotta line up here. This is a first.' We got me, Slater and JJones back side so it's basically like three gunners out there…" pic.twitter.com/UqZlQiwxeH
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) October 8, 2019
With Brooks, the Pats also have another special teams ace that gave them several capable gunners, leading to some unique formations that got Matthew Slater, Jon Jones, Justin Bethel, and Brooks involved in punt coverage a year ago. The Patriots found out last season that there’s plenty of snaps to give to hybrid defenders like Chung and Brooks, so they’re now expanding that role with Adrian Phillips and Dugger in the mix as well.
Our favorite signing of free agency for New England, Phillips, is a highly-intelligent veteran in the Chung mold. Last season with the Chargers, nearly 70 percent of his defensive snaps came in the box or slot where he is capable in man coverage against tight ends and even slot receivers in the nickel role.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) March 19, 2020
Phillps has a history playing in traditional linebacker spots out of the Chargers’ dime and quarters packages over the last two seasons, which has been successful against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. By putting safeties in the box where linebackers traditionally align, the Chargers overwhelmed Baltimore’s read-option running game with speed. The Pats might have a similar idea in mind with a mobile QB heavy schedule this season, and Phillips, along with Chung, Dugger, and Brooks, will be at the center of it all. Plus, Phillips is also a former All-Pro special teamer that was a regular on multiple units with Los Angeles. A versatile, four-down safety on the cheap? Sounds like a Belichick signing.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) March 20, 2019
The Patriots signed Gant as an undrafted rookie following the 2019 draft, and there was some initial buzz about the Marshall product making the roster. However, with Brooks’s emergence, Gant became an extra body and spent his rookie season stashed on injured reserve. Although he has some athletic limitations, Gant only ran a 4.63-second 40-yard dash (27th percentile), he’s an aggressive, high-motor safety that is excellent at taking proper angles to make tackles in the open field. Gant flies around the defense, attacks downhill at the line of scrimmage in run support, is a capable blitzer, and has excellent potential on special teams. The question is, does he have the foot speed and hip agility to stick with receivers at the top of routes? There’s some evidence of stiff hips on tape in coverage that, along with his limited athletic profile, led to Gant going undrafted a year ago. With insane depth at safety, Gant might be looking for an opportunity elsewhere or on the practice squad this season, but his college tape was solid.
#Patriots safety Adarius Pickett is interesting. Split time in 2019 on Pats & Chargers practice squads. Led nation among DBs in tackles senior year at UCLA as box/nickel hybrid.
Inserts into the box in C3. Recognizes route, gets depth as reading QB, and slides under for INT. pic.twitter.com/IAx0lwt7CR
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) June 2, 2020
Pickett finished out his rookie season on the Patriots’ practice squad after bouncing around between Chicago and the Los Angeles Chargers last season. The UCLA product played a hybrid nickel role in college, often lining up in the box at linebacker or covering slot receivers, leading all defensive backs at the FBS level in tackles his senior season (123). He shows good instincts as an intermediate zone defender to read route combinations and make linebacker-like plays against the run. But athletic limitations and a lack of anticipatory plays in man coverage are question marks. Pickett has the physicality and versatility to be successful in New England’s defense. Still, without great recovery speed, he needs to get better at reading routes in man coverage to be effective. At this stage, Pickett is a long shot to make the roster.
Textbook playing from out of phase in press coverage by #Patriots UDFA Myles Bryant. Gets beat initially at the line but doesn’t panic and plays through the hands to break up the pass. pic.twitter.com/UIN6mjq8if
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) June 3, 2020
If the Patriots weren’t so deep at safety, Bryant would be a strong candidate to make the roster as an undrafted rookie. The Washington product has potential as a nickel defender thanks to his physicality at the line of scrimmage and man coverage skills. Bryant is capable of mirroring receivers in press coverage with smooth hip transitions and excellent hand-fighting at the catch point to knock away passes. He was also an impact run defender with great range, hustle, and physicality. Bryant went undrafted due to his size (5-foot-8, 183 pounds) and an underwhelming athletic profile. Although, he performed well in agility drills as one of the three-cone leaders at the combine. His aggressiveness and feel for the game give him a shot to make the team, albeit a long one, due to the Patriots’ depth at safety.