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Devin McCourty has been the most important Patriots defender this year

The Patriots Pro Bowl free safety might not be as visible as other teammates, but he’s been the best defender all year.

The New England Patriots only have a few national names on defense. LB Dont’a Hightower has just made his first Pro Bowl after knocking on the doorstep of greatness for the past three years. CB Malcolm Butler turned a Super Bowl goal line interception, the most valuable play in NFL history, into a strong career opportunity.

But no player has been more important to the Patriots #1 ranked defense than FS Devin McCourty. Just ask head coach Bill Belichick, who believes the New England defense wouldn’t be able to play with the same flexibility without McCourty.

“We wouldn’t be able to [play flexible defensive techniques] as well,” Belichick said about McCourty. “Yeah, either not do them or not do them as well. Yeah, so to take basically a corner and to drop him down into coverage situations, that’s definitely a weapon.

“And with that safety position, his speed, his range to cover the field in the deep part of the field but also in the running game to close down those alleys when the runners get through those off-tackle or sometimes bounce plays out, that type of thing, to be able to get to those and he’s a good tackler. He wraps up and had a big hit last week in the Denver game on fourth-down, so he’s a good contact player but he’s a sure tackler.

“Some guys come down and they get some and they miss some. He doesn’t miss very many. He’s a sure tackler and when he’s got a chance to make solid contact he’ll do that but he doesn’t do it at the expense of missing a guy and giving up another 20 or 30 yards after the play.”

McCourty wasn’t supposed to be a franchise free safety, with a claim to being the best free safety in the NFL while Seahawks FS Earl Thomas is out for the season. McCourty was a first round pick in 2010 at cornerback and was named second team All Pro. He looked like a franchise cornerback, with 73 tackles, 17 passes defended, 7 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles.

But then Belichick and company seemingly devalued the importance of the safety position and the defense imploded. The Patriots went from having Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, and Patrick Chung at safety to releasing both Meriweather and Sanders during final cuts in 2011 and needing at least 13 different players to pick up the pieces.

Needless to say, McCourty and the 2011 Patriots defense was the worst in franchise history and one of the worst in NFL history.

The Patriots signed S Steve Gregory for 2012, which allowed McCourty to remain at cornerback for the start of the 2012 season. McCourty actually was back to being regarded as one of the best corners in the NFL, but a mid-season acquisition of CB Aqib Talib allowed McCourty to shift back to free safety. In 2013, McCourty was named second team All Pro at safety.

“[McCourty’s transition is] pretty impressive because it’s a tough transition to make because you’re seeing the game from two different spots,” Belichick explained. “You’re seeing the game from outside-in on the perimeter and you’re seeing the game from inside-out with a lot of people that can get to you from the safety position and usually he’s in the middle of the field so he’s not a guy that’s in a shorter space, a down-type safety, although he does do that. So he sees the game from the inside-out from the free safety position or from the outside-in as a corner.

“Devin’s very smart. He has great awareness of the entire concept of the defense, what the defense is designed to do, what its strengths are, what its taking away, where we’re weak, how to compensate for that. Sometimes we have checks that will get us out of situations that we feel vulnerable in, certain calls. He’s responsible for a lot of that. His leadership, his on-the-field play, his toughness, he’s done whatever we’ve asked him to do, whether it’s return kickoffs, or cover kicks, or block the gunners on the punt return team, or rush field goals, or whatever it is.

“He’s been not only a dependable player but a good player for us in all of those different areas and, as I said, he gives us great communication and great leadership on and off the field.”

“His judgement, his decision making back there, which is a critical part of that position, is key,” Belichick added. “But his coverage ability, his ability to play the run and the pass, play down, play back, play corner in some situations where we have to match a safety up outside on an extended receiver or tight end or something like that, things that he’s done a lot and comfortable with so he gives us a lot of versatility.”

The Patriots have shuffled players all over the defense, with few exceptions. The defensive tackle rotation has been constant, as has CB Malcolm Butler’s and S Patrick Chung’s roles in the secondary. But McCourty has been integral in covering up the flaws in the defense.

When the Patriots decided that linebackers were no longer able to properly defend running backs in the open field, they shifted Chung into coverage, forcing McCourty to cover the tight ends. McCourty has also helped cover wide receivers when CB Logan Ryan was struggling early in the year.

The Patriots remain the only team in the NFL not to allow a touchdown of 30+ yards on the year, a testament to McCourty’s ability to hold up the back-end of the defense. The Titans, Vikings, Lions, and Broncos are tied for second with two 30+ yard touchdowns allowed. McCourty is the top rated free safety in Pro Football Focus’ rankings and should be a front runner to finally earn that elusive first team All Pro distinction.

As Patriots fans think about locking down the core defenders in free agency, like Hightower and Butler, don’t forget that McCourty is earning every penny in the second year of a contract that represented the most guaranteed money for a safety in NFL history. The Patriots will be handing out big contracts to those that can uphold their end of the bargain.

McCourty has been incredibly consistent all year and is a core reason why the Patriots defense has been able to thrive. Just ask Bill.