McCourty has solidified the backend of the Patriots secondary and has provided a stabilizing presence that hasn't existed in nearly half a decade. As the Patriots moved from Pat Chung to Sterling Moore to Matthew Slater to Ross Ventrone (and this was in 2011 alone), the cornerbacks were unable to come into a rhythm and opposing offenses had career day after career day.
The introduction of McCourty at safety wasn't really the ideal plan. He was a star at corner as a rookie while he played in front of such luminary figures as James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather and, well, Pat Chung. Who would have thought that the team would have regretted such a high rate of turnover at a crucial position?
The Patriots gave the axe to both Sanders and Meriweather and injuries to Chung derailed a promising start to a career, and completely exposed McCourty at cornerback. He would play off too deep and allow reception after reception in front of him, purely to ensure that the receiver wouldn't get behind him for a big play. He was left on an island when he couldn't even trust himself.
So after injury and injury and injury in 2011, McCourty made the shift back to safety in the regular season finale; partially out of intrigue, mostly out of necessity. It was temporary, but it was a sign that the Patriots were in dire need of help and they had nowhere left to turn.
In 2012, the Patriots grabbed (reached? stretched?) for Tavon Wilson in the second round and added Steve Gregory in free agency. Gregory and Chung should have held down the back-end of the field with Wilson playing in the dime as the extra defensive back. Gregory was an intelligent safety, albeit physically limited, and was expected to lead the safety corps back into relevance.
Chung imploded in 2012 with a shoulder injury. Gregory had a bum hip. Wilson was a rookie who played well (hold out hope!), but was stretched far to thin as the only safety. It was 2011 all over again and this time, Bill Belichick made the executive to move McCourty and keep him at safety full time.
Keep in mind that McCourty wasn't struggling at corner. He finished as Pro Football Focus's 11th best cornerback in 2012 while only playing the position for half the season. He was one of the top in the league when he made the switch. But the team needed him to move, and they acquired Aqib Talib, and McCourty made the selfless decision to acquiesce and play at the same dominant level. He finished the year as Pro Football Focus's 12th best safety.
Digest that. Let it swirl for a second. He played two positions, each for the half of the season, and was one of the best in the league at both. Hell, he was the 11th best kick returner in the league and was the only one to do so while holding down a full time starting position.
So now we have McCourty approaching free agency. He's the player I label as the defensive MVP. He's that valuable. The team has invested some money in cornerbacks and safeties and coverage linebackers so now McCourty won't be the only player worth watching on defense- and that will make him even more dangerous.
2013 was his first full season at safety and he graded out as Pro Football Focus's top ranked safety in the regular season. He may not have had as many impact plays as Earl Thomas or the lofty expectations of Jairus Byrd, but the little things that McCourty did well provided much needed consistency.
It's 2014 and McCourty should be getting more comfortable in his role; he should be able to take his game to the next level. It also means that he'll be able to cash in for a large contract.
It's likely that McCourty will be looking at a top five contract for his position (the equivalent of the franchise tag). The top five safeties in 2014 averaged $8.72 million per year in their contracts; for the sake of comparison, the top five cornerbacks average out to roughly $11.85 million per season, or a difference of $3.13 million per season.
With the cap increasing, expect those average salary numbers to increase accordingly. McCourty should feel comfortable getting paid in roughly the $8 to $9 million range- definitely more than his twin brother, a corner for the Tennessee Titans, will be paid at $7.17 million per season.
McCourty is going to come with a price tag. He's not going to fight over what position he's labeled as, even if he spends some time in coverage. It's simple: pay the man. He means a tremendous amount to this team.