Interestingly, the Patriots only have two players on the roster listed as pure safeties - Patrick Chung and Cedric Thompson. However, we all know that Devin McCourty, Jordan Richards, and Duron Harmon will also see time in the backfield. New England played a lot of Cover 1 last season with McCourty alone patrolling the middle/deep zones while Chung stayed closer to the line as a safety/linebacker hybrid. Do you see the Patriots utilizing their safeties similarly this year, or will they be giving opponents different defensive looks?
The Patriots used three safeties on roughly 40% of defensive snaps last season (and three corners roughly 62% of the time), which generally included McCourty, Chung, and Harmon. Part of this package was based out of necessity since the cornerback position was damaged all season. Bradley Fletcher and Tarell Brown were quickly off the roster for one reason or another, while Justin Coleman almost immediately injured his wrist. The Patriots were lucky that Chung was such a capable slot corner, but I think the team will want to rely on three cornerbacks more often in 2016 and reserve the three safety packages for teams that feature multiple tight end sets.
Ultimately, I think that means McCourty can go back to roaming as the single high safety and hopefully convert more turnovers, while Chung can and should dominate tight ends in coverage. I think we'll see a higher level of defensive back play in 2016, even though Harmon is good in his own right.
But a forgotten man has been 2015 2nd round pick Jordan Richards. Chung's development as a star defensive back has made it so Richards hasn't seen the field. I don't want to put the bust label on Richards because his lack of playing time is linked to Chung's incredible ability, more than any possible lack of ability by Richards- but what do you envision Richards' role will be moving forward?
Given the roster as it stands right now, I really don't see Richards as much more than a dime safety on obvious passing downs. Chung is a better run stuffer, and Harmon is above Richards on the depth chart. So unless Richards is able to capitalize on an injury and wrest control of a starting spot, I don't really see him getting the opportunity to showcase his talent, through no fault of his own. When you're one of those players that a lot of people have never heard of that the Patriots draft high, you already have a unique level of pressure on you to prove to the doubters that Belichick knew what he was doing when he passed over more "guarantees" to get you; on the plus side, it isn't that Richards hasn't been able to deliver on the field - he just can't get any playing time due to the other guys on the roster.
To that end, all of this leads me to believe that the Patriots seem fairly set at safety, and it is perhaps the one position that won't see too much drama/shakeup in training camp. Do you agree, and if not, who do you see as the dark horse that might make the camp battles interesting?
I’m with you on this. I don’t see any surprises at safety. Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon are the free safeties, Pat Chung and Jordan Richards are the strong safeties, and Nate Ebner and Brandon King are the special teamers. I’m pretty confident that no one will bump them off the roster.
I will add one caveat: if Ebner starts the season on the reserve list because he’s not in football shape after competing in the Olympics, there could be a changeup. I really like the new signing in Vinnie Sunseri and think he would make a lot of sense as a temporary special teamer until Ebner is back and ready to play.