Most teams keep four safeties in the fold for the regular season.
The New England Patriots are not most teams.
At one point during the 2015 campaign, Bill Belichick had 10 safeties to account for between the Patriots’ 53-man roster and practice squad. That capacity was short-lived, of course, but at the time, it exceeded the entire offensive line.
There were starters in Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, then a centerfield fifth defensive back in Duron Harmon, as well as special-teamers in Nate Ebner, Tavon Wilson, Dewey McDonald and de-facto linebacker Brandon King. There were also practice-squadders in Ross Ventrone and Floyd Raven, who briefly stopped by Foxborough that October.
Many of the names in the carousel have changed since then. But the strength of the depth chart remains in numbers, in performance, and in contracts entering 2017. And for all those reasons, it would appear that safety is low on the list of needs for New England with the NFL draft hitting this week.
Although that has been said before. Then the Patriots have had their say.
The war room has drafted eight safeties since 2007, if including McCourty – an eventual cornerback convert – and former Georgia Tech corner-nickel-safety Jemea Thomas.
2007 – No. 24 overall: Brandon Meriweather
2009 – No. 34 overall: Patrick Chung
2010 – No. 27 overall: Devin McCourty*
2012 – No. 48 overall: Tavon Wilson
2012 – No. 197 overall: Nate Ebner
2013 – No. 91 overall: Duron Harmon
2014 – No. 206 overall: Jemea Thomas*
2015 – No. 64 overall: Jordan Richards
Sometimes the names taken have been little-known ones – see Illinois’ Wilson, Rutgers’ Harmon, and Stanford’s Richards – who were expected to be drafted late or perhaps not at all. Few could have foreseen all three being off the board by the end of Round 3 in their respective drafts.
Few could have foreseen Ohio State’s Ebner having his name called, either, even if there were 506 selections in the 2012 draft instead of 253.
But the Patriots’ board has proven to be its own over the years. The organization has often placed a priority on a position that demands the wearing of many hats, one that has translatable skills to the kicking game, and one that is fast-moving yet hard to judge based on timed speed.
“That's a position again similar to linebacker that I think really some of the physical testing and all just doesn't do it justice,” Belichick told reporters on a conference call back in 2015. “I mean, you talk about vertical jump and bench press and 40-speed and all that, when you're playing safety or linebacker and you've got 15 bodies in front of you doing a lot of different things – play action, run, pull, misdirection – there are a lot of different things that can happen, a lot of schemes.”
It is a tough study. That goes for both the player and the evaluator. In some cases, you’ll only see a Cover-1 free safety on the TV broadcast if they’ve intercepted a pass or allowed one to sail over their head for a touchdown.
There’s a lot more to see.
“It's a very hard position to sometimes evaluate because there is an instinctiveness and awareness and just a kind of feel for all that's going on that it's a lot different than playing corner, where sometimes you just lock on one man or you've got a two-to-one read or something like that,” Belichick continued. “At safety you've got a lot of bodies and a lot of things to sort out – same thing at linebacker. The ability to recognize that and make the right decision quickly because if you make the wrong one and it's a play-action pass and the guy is behind you, you can give up a lot of yards in a hurry.”
The Patriots have invested two first-round picks, three second-round picks and a third-rounder on safeties over the last decade – again, if counting McCourty as one in 2010. The trend spiked in recent drafts as well, with five safeties getting selected between 2012 and 2015.
It wouldn’t come as a surprise to see another join the “Safety Squadron” this Friday or Saturday. In a year where New England checks in with few glaring needs, and in a draft where the organization isn’t scheduled to be on the clock until No. 72 overall, there are no absolutes indicating otherwise.
But there are plenty of safeties to choose from.
And that’s only fitting. The Patriots have been known to acquire more than required.