Three years after being the Patriots' first selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, it's still difficult to evaluate exactly where Patriots safety Patrick Chung is at in his development.
You're not going to find many reasons to doubt Chung's talent or desire. Chung is a natural leader both on and off the field, and over the past two seasons, has proven to be one of the most explosive and talented football players that the Patriots have had on the defensive side of the ball. In 2010, Chung's first year as a starter, he racked up 96 tackles, nine passes defensed, and three interceptions in fourteen total games. In 2011, playing in just eight games, Chung recorded 62 tackles and one interception.
In his first three years in the league, Chung has shown an ability to make big plays whether it be on defense or on special teams. While he might never be an elite slot defender, he's shown signs of improvement in man coverage. He's a reliable enough option in coverage on the back-end, and is excellent in pursuit against the run, playing in the box, and as a blitzing safety.
The biggest concern when it comes to Chung and his potential to take the "next step" surrounds his durability.
After Patrick Chung went down with a foot injury in week nine of the 2011 regular season against the Giants, the Patriots' secondary took a big step back. It's no surprise that when the Patriots' defense had their finest stretch of the season, from week seventeen against the Bills to the Super Bowl against the Giants, it was after Chung returned to the line-up. But even then, Chung was limited not only due to the nagging foot injury, but also due to a new knee injury.
When I look at Patrick Chung, I see a player on the precipice of being a Pro Bowl guy. But in order for him to make that next step, he's going to have to find a way to stay healthy.
In fact, heading into 2012, the Patriots will be heavily reliant on Chung's health. Heading into the offseason, the Patriots were in desperate need of quality depth at the safety position. The team added former Charger Steve Gregory into the mix. Gregory will likely start next to Chung, and is a dependable player, but isn't an elite talent. The team also added Illinois rookie Tavon Wilson in the second round of the draft, but he is more of an unknown at this point. James Ihedigbo, who started most of the season at strong safety, remains an unrestricted free agent. All of this being said, considering the constant turnover in the secondary in 2011, the Patriots could really use some consistency at the safety position. In my opinion, that will be dependent on Patrick Chung's ability to keep himself healthy.
For Chung, this can also be seen as a make or break year. He's heading into the last year of his contract. He hasn't proven to be consistently healthy. And while he has looked excellent at times, he has yet to really "wow" you for a full 16 game season.
In 2012, I think you could make the argument, based on the way the 2011 season played out on the defensive side of the ball, that Chung's development will be one of the most important factors in the success of the Patriots defense. If Chung can stay healthy and continue to make strides as a cover safety, the Patriots' defense will undoubtedly improve.