I've pounded the table to declare New England Patriots safety Patrick Chung the most valuable player on the defense.
I'm not saying that he's the best player on the defense. Edge defender Jabaal Sheard and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins are better at being edge defenders and linebackers than Chung is at being a safety. Fellow safety Devin McCourty and cornerback Malcolm Butler are just as good at their jobs as Chung is at his.
But no player does more for the Patriots defense from a scheming perspective.
Chung wore three hats for the New England defense last season. He was a linebacker, a slot corner, and a strong safety at various times and even during the same drive. No other player presents that versatility at such a high level of play.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Chung spent 95 snaps against the run as a linebacker, within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage. Only three safeties were featured more heavily inside the box against the run in the entire league.
Chung also featured as one of the top nickel corners in the league, playing 205 snaps in the slot per PFF. He ranked 8th out of PFF's 55 qualifying slot defenders and opposing quarterbacks posted a 72.9 passer rating in his direction. Chung actually led all safeties with 8 passes defended in 2015.
On top of his roles as a linebacker against the run, and as a slot corner against wide receivers, Chung still had to perform in his standard strong safety role against opposing tight ends. NESN's Doug Kyed tracked Chung over 2015 and discovered that opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 29.4 when throwing to tight ends covered by Chung. Teams would have been better off throwing footballs directly into the dirt than throwing it at Chung.
The Patriots spent 83.5% of their defensive snaps in 2015 with five or more defensive backs on the field, which meant that the Patriots had to account for opposing teams wanting to run against a lighter defensive front.
Chung's ability to play in the box as a linebacker, while also thrive in coverage allowed the Patriots to keep their personnel on the field, much in the same way that Rob Gronkowski can feature in the offense's passing and rushing attack. Opposing teams lose their ability to create a mismatch when the Patriots counter with Chung.
PFF notes that Chung spent 37% of his time as a linebacker, 33% of his time as a slot corner, and 30% of his time as a strong safety (or as an outside cornerback, but that was usually when tight ends were flexed out wide, so that's still the strong safety role).
There is only one other player in the league with a comparable snap breakdown to Chung and it's Packers safety Micah Hyde, who spent 35% of his time as a linebacker, 32% of his time in the slot, and 33% of his time as some other defensive back role.
(Note: For disclosure, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins spent 21% of his time as a linebacker, 47% of his time in the slot, and 32% of his time at another defensive back position. He's also really, really good. His snaps just weren't as balanced as Chung's.)
The big difference between Chung and Hyde? Hyde is primarily a special teams player who only played 37% of the Packers defensive snaps over the final half of the season. He can't hold a candle to Chung's impact.
The Patriots deployed Chung to cover Colts 5'9, 178 lbs Pro Bowl slot receiver T.Y. Hilton in the regular season and limited him to just one reception for 10 yards while in coverage.
In the playoffs, the Patriots asked Chung to cover Chiefs 6'5, 260 lbs Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce and limited him to a mere 12 yards on four catches. Chung also made this excellent rodeo tackle.
If Chung can capably cover two Pro Bowl caliber players on the complete opposite ends of the size spectrum- Hilton and Kelce differ by 8 inches and 80 lbs- then what sort of opposing player can become a mismatch?
Chung is always at his best when he is able to keep opposing players in front of him and he struggles when he has to play in deep coverage. The Patriots counter this weakness by having free safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon sit over the top of the defense to function as a deep buffer, deterring opposing quarterbacks from risking a turnover.
Against the run, Chung is able to wade through traffic and uses his quickness to avoid blocks by opposing linemen. While he's strong enough to stonewall opposing tight ends, he knows that he won't have the physical ability of Dont'a Hightower or Jamie Collins in the trenches. His ability is rooted in his football IQ, as he is rarely out of position, which allows other players to clean up the mess.
Chung actually played in the box more in 2014, which allowed his run defense to really shine. Injuries to the secondary forced the Patriots to use Chung in a coverage capacity and he didn't disappoint.
There are a lot of little things that Chung does well in coverage that allows him to succeed without having one major trait. He does a good job of getting his hands on opposing receivers, allowing him to redirect their route and disrupt their timing. This also allows him to remain in front of his target, playing into his strengths. He also has the necessary foot and hip speed to cover the entire spectrum of offensive players.
Chung has also found a way to improve his ability to locate the ball in recent years, which allows him to knock it away. It's probable that his initial contact with the receiver gives Chung a better feel for when to turn and look for the ball.
He might not be as great as Malcolm Butler in coverage, or as Devin McCourty in space, or as Dont'a Hightower against the run, or as Jabaal Sheard in traffic, but no player is as versatile and exceptional as Chung. The Patriots will need Chung to put together a third straight elite season at the heart of the defense.
New England signed Chung to a one-year extension through the 2018 season this offseason and will retain his services for the remaining prime of his career.