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Patriots safety Patrick Chung’s ascension from afterthought signing to an impact player in the secondary

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After a failed first stint, Patriots safety Patrick Chung’s return to New England has been a big reason into why the Patriots feature arguably the most talented and versatile secondary in the NFL.

The Patriots initially drafted defensive back Patrick Chung out of the University of Oregon with the 34th pick of the 2009 draft. At the safety position, the Patriots had lost their leader when a 36-year-old Rodney Harrison decided to hang ‘em up after a successful 15-year career. The Patriots starting safeties at the start of 2009 were Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, although they did sign veteran Brandon McGowan as well. In 2009, Meriweather made the Pro Bowl while McGowan struggled and Sanders was his solid, but unspectacular self.

In 2010, the Patriots used Chung as a strong safety and moved to the slot in the team’s nickel package. Chung performed very well in the role, racking up 96 tackles and 3 interceptions. That season included one game where he single-handedly defeated the Miami Dolphins with a blocked punt, blocked field goal, and a Pick 6. In 2011, the Patriots released both Meriweather and Sanders, moving Chung to a more traditional free safety role. Chung missed 8 games that season and the Patriots defense was not very good. The Patriots kept Chung in that role in 2012, although Chung struggled in that role and got injured early in the season. Ironically it was that injury coupled with an injury to fellow safety Steve Gregory that forced the Patriots to move Devin McCourty to free safety, a move that became permanent when the Patriots traded for Aqib Talib in November.

Chung left Foxboro and signed with Philadelphia, where he played in Chip Kelly’s zone defense and struggled once again. Chung was cut after one bad season and the Patriots came calling. Bill Belichick convinced Chung that his first stint that he wasn’t used correctly. The Patriots secondary talent from 2014 was much better across the board, which allowed the Patriots to use Patrick Chung more in a box role. Chung picked up 85 tackles and an interception while playing in all 16 games. The improvement in play since Chung was playing closer to his strengths, which was playing the run and covering backs and tight ends, earned him a 3-year extension with the Patriots. In 2015, Chung played his best season yet as he shut down TEs in the passing game and was a valuable run defender as he earned the 5th highest grade from Pro Football Focus amongst safeties, higher than Devin McCourty (6th) who went to the Pro Bowl.

What makes Chung valuable to the defense is his ability to handle multiple roles in the defense. Chung can play up in the box as an extra defender as a traditional strong safety, can slide out into the slot and cover slot receivers, or even out wide against tight ends and backs. Players like Tyrann Mathieu and Eric Berry get more publicity in that type of role, but I would put Chung on the very same level. Chung’s versatility allows for the Patriots to be able to defend different styles of offense, whether it’s against a 3 WR look or a more traditional 2 TE offense out of their nickel defense. That’s allowed the Patriots to be able to use 4th year safety Duron Harmon, who is listed on the depth chart as a backup, as a starter. Bill Belichick values versatility over ability in certain situations, and Chung may be the most versatile player in the Patriots defense.