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Why Duron Harmon is a top 3 free agent for the Patriots

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As free agency is right around the corner, much has been made about Dont’a Hightower & Malcolm Butler’s contract situation, whether the Patriots re-sign Martellus Bennett and if/where Jimmy Garoppolo will get traded to. But one name who doesn’t seem to get as much attention for the reigning Super Bowl champions as he probably should is safety Duron Harmon. We’ll take a look as to why he may be overlooked and why he is more important to the team than some if not most realize.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Due to the terrific play over the years from Devin McCourty and the polarizing ceiling Patrick Chung has shown off in the past, the Patriots safety situation behind them hasn’t seemed to be as much of a thought. But with their number three safety (and “big” nickel defensive back) Duron Harmon scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this off-season, now is the time to give it the attention it deserves. Harmon, like fellow free agent and teammate Logan Ryan along with McCourty, is from Bill Belichick’s favorite college, Rutgers University. Drafted by New England in the third round back in 2013, Harmon has had a small(er), but important role for team at the safety position.

In both the 2015 and 2016 seasons, he has averaged around 50% of defensive snaps (55% in 2015, 49.7% in 2016) while playing 28% of special team snaps this past season. His role was largely in the nickel formation (five defensive backs), usually providing help in a “center field”/coverage role as Chung would usually move closer to the line of scrimmage. Harmon has shown his adept skills in pass coverage and tracking down the football downfield and has made big plays for the team, including a game-ending interception against the Ravens in the 2014 playoffs, a key interception against the Texans in the 2016 divisional round and almost coming up with another one in this past Super Bowl.

Harmon was a key reason for why the Patriots passing defense was strong yet again this past season (21 passing touchdowns allowed, tied for eighth best in NFL/238 passing yards per game allowed, 12th best in NFL) due to his ability to help out in coverage and play deep to prevent big plays from happening. But a big question for him will be his ability against the run. As a nickel back on mostly pass plays, Harmon doesn’t have as much experience playing against the run as opposed to a safety that plays all three downs. According to Pro Football Focus, Harmon only played 170 snaps against the run in 2016, which is the 16th fewest of all safeties with at least 100.

Due to his role over the past few seasons, there are bound to be questions as to whether Harmon can play one-on-one coverage. He has helped in coverage, but not necessarily in one-on-one situations all that often. But from seeing Harmon’s ability to play deep and his ball skills, it’s certainly fair to not count out him being able to go into a role like that and succeed. Harmon has improved his play and increased his role over the past few seasons and is in a position where he can continue to get better at the other aspects of being a starting safety.

Another issue could be if Harmon is comfortable re-signing with the Patriots for the same type of role he had been playing as opposed to having a chance to be a starter somewhere else. The Patriots have McCourty signed through 2019 while Chung is under contract for the next two seasons. The team seems to be happy with Chung’s play since returning to the team, when he received a three-year contract worth $7.2 million dollars. According to patscap.com, the Patriots would create three million dollars in cap space if Chung was cut or traded with a post-June 1st designation next season ($3.8 million cap hit, $800,000 in dead money). So it is possible that the team could move on from Chung after next season considering his age and contract situation if his play were to drop off next season.

That could be possibly enticing enough for Harmon to stay as he could potentially fill Chung’s shoes after next season as a full-time starter at safety. Plus, Harmon has now won two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots since being drafted and New England’s winning ways could also be used to persuade Harmon to re-sign as well.

As my colleague Brian Phillips speculated back in late December, Harmon could receive contract offers anywhere from what Dwight Lowery received from the Chargers (three years, $7.2 million, $1.5 million guaranteed) to what Antoine Bethea signed with the 49ers (four years, $21 million, $9.25 million guaranteed). So it’s fair to say that Harmon could see anywhere from $2.4 million to $5.25 million for an average annual value (AAV). Considering the Patriots are projected to have over $60 million in cap space this off-season ($61.5 million, according to patscap.com), it’s possible that Harmon could see a three-to-four year contract with around three-to-four million dollars in AAV.

Working in Harmon’s favor is the fact that the Patriots remaining depth at safety behind him, McCourty and Chung is not very deep. Jordan Richards was a healthy scratch late in the regular season and all of the playoffs, so he may not be viewed highly on the depth chart. And the other two safeties, Brandon King and Nate Ebner, are strictly special teams players. So if McCourty and/or Chung ever went down with injury, their current depth chart does not look like it could handle the loss of either of them. Harmon has been a steady contributor for the team over the past couple of seasons and has helped out not only for depth reasons, but for his performance on the field and his development.

Harmon is still young as he just recently turned 26, whereas McCourty and Chung will both be 30 years old before the beginning of next season. His youth is on his side as he could receive a three-to-four year contract offer and still only being in late 20s/early 30s when he becomes a free agent again, a reasonable age for a safety. And with other safeties like Tony Jefferson, T.J. McDonald and Eric Berry all going into free agency as well, Harmon could be a player not looked at until all of the more ‘established’ safeties are signed.

Belichick has spoken very highly of Harmon, including saying “He’s smart, he works hard, he studies, he trains hard” and even going as far as to say “Duron is, I’d say every team, or most every team I’ve ever coached, there are always a couple guys on the team that I would say, for lack of a better word, that are silent leaders” back in October. For those who have covered/followed the Patriots during Belichick’s tenure as head coach know that you don’t see him give that much in-depth praise about a player. Even as a player who isn’t technically a “starter”, Harmon’s contributions to the team have not gone un-noticed by the team’s head coach (and general manager).

The Patriots have been notorious for finding players from other teams and getting them to fully maximize their talents in some role. But for Harmon, who isn’t on the depth chart as part of the starting defense, the team has been able to do that very thing with him. He has become a dependable player, someone who can step up and do what is asked of him. Harmon has shown that he is an important piece of not only the Patriots secondary, but of their defense and their team as a whole. He is the guy to look to for a big pass break-up, or great coverage downfield, or the big-time interception when needed. Years ago, the Patriots had to rely heavily on their top-notch offense to make up for their deficiencies on defense. But with the proper players and coaching, the Patriots have been able to turn their defense into a strength, especially their secondary.

Harmon may not be a star like Dont’a Hightower or Malcolm Butler, but it’s clear to see that he provides another layer for defense. Whether it is playing deep and not letting anything by him or providing help for a cornerback in coverage, Harmon has proven his worth. He won’t command a contract like McCourty (five years, $47.5 million) but is still very young for the position and has never missed a game in his four year career for the Patriots, which only adds to his dependability and durability.

As the old saying goes, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” But for the Patriots with Harmon, it is best to not know what that feels like.