The Patriots' 2009 NFL Draft will be a reference point when examining coach Bill Belichick's drafting technique. Belichick decided to trade out of position, passing over Ravens' tackle Michael Oher, Packers' outside linebacker Clay Matthews, and let solid performers at positions of need (such as Dolphins' cornerback Vontae Davis, Bills' interior lineman Eric Wood, Giants' WR Hakeem Nicks, and Titans' WR Kenny Britt) pass them by. Belichick didn't draft a player until 34th overall, when he used the pick acquired from trading franchise quarterback Matt Cassel and outside linebacker Mike Vrabel to select strong safety Patrick Chung out of Oregon.
Chung was the second safety drafted, selected one pick after the Lions' chose Louis Delmas at 33rd overall. While Delmas was the more explosive player, Chung was the stronger player and would do well to follow in the footsteps of the retired Rodney Harrison. As a rookie, Chung was mostly on special teams, but was often played in the late minutes of blowout performances by the Patriots. He learned the playbook while Brandon McGowan played at a commendable level, and Chung prepared himself to make the sophomore leap.
And what a sophomore leap he had. Chung started from Week 1 and took the league by storm. He was the playmaker in the secondary that the Patriots' desperately needed. He was forcing turnovers, he was stopping the run, and he was knocking out players all over the field; he played at a level that the Patriots' needed in order to win games.
However, he could not do everything. After nickelback Jonathan Wilhite was injured in week 10, Bill Belichick and the Patriots decided to expand Chung's role in the defense. They asked Chung to take over the role of nickelback when required and Chung tried to fill his new role. I don't think anyone would argue that he didn't struggle. Chung was often a step behind the receiver and allowed too many plays. Chung was removed from his prime position of strong safety and was asked to take up a role that misutilized his value.
Chung excels when he can square up his man. He can shoot across the field to stop a pass and muscle his way through garbage piles against the run, but he was unable to stay in his receiver's hip pocket. One statistic that shows that Chung needed to work on his agility and change-of-direction skills is his combine's 3 cone time. Chung completed the three cone drill in a solid, but unspectacular 7.11 seconds. For reference, fellow draftee Delmas ran a 6.67s, and fellow Patriot Darius Butler posted a 6.92s. Superstar cornerback Devin McCourty ran a 6.70s and showed the ability to hug the hips of opposing receivers. Chung entered the role of nickelback, which often forces him to play against shifty receivers, at a disadvantage. He was unprepared for the role and his performance on the field followed suit.
Chung's role at nickelback was short lived and Belichick tried playing Darius Butler at the spot in order to move Chung back into his more natural role. Butler showed some ability in the slot and could have earned a shot at the role for next season, but Chung was moved back towards strong safety where he returned back to his regular, high performance self.
Looking to 2011, Chung looks to become a superstar. Should Chung remain at strong safety for the whole season, a Pro Bowl should not be out of the question. The Patriots have drafted to ensure that they will have enough cornerback depth so Chung will never have to play in the slot again and can thrive at the safety role. The return of Leigh Bodden, with the increased experience of Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler, and Jonathan Wilhite, as well as the new talent of Ras-I Dowling, should provide more than enough depth at cornerback. With multiple exterior defenders (Arrington, Dowling), multiple interior defenders (Butler, Wilhite), and multiple everything defenders (Bodden, McCourty), the Patriots have all the bases covered in case of injury.
Chung will enter the 2011 season with a year of starting experience under his helmet and should use his additional knowledge and experience to break out and become the star we know he can be.