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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Devin McCourty and Ed Reed, 30+ yard touchdowns, and letting DT Akiem Hicks walk

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Also, why have the Patriots opened up their wallets to everyone but Malcolm Butler?

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1. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have always been open about their love and respect for former Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed.

“He’s the best weak safety I’ve seen since I’ve been in the National Football League in my career,” Belichick said about Reed back in 2012. “He’s outstanding at pretty much everything. The list goes on and on with him. It’s just a question of pretty much anything he’s out there for, he’s good at.” 

“He’s pretty much ingrained permanently in my mind,” Brady has said about Reed. “He’s such a playmaker for them, and he shows up in a lot of different spots.”

Reed is one of the greatest defenders that the Patriots have had to face and he gets universal praise for his ability.

One defender that doesn’t receive that type of praise is Patriots safety Devin McCourty who, according to Pro Football Focus, might be just as good as Reed.

In 2009 and 2010, Reed collected a total of 11 interceptions in 22 games and added 21 passes defended and 4 forced fumbles. McCourty registered just one interception in 2016 and a further 7 passes defended across 16 games. Just based on the stat sheet, Reed was much more productive than McCourty.

But according to PFF, McCourty “was consistently in the right spot, making the right read influencing plays for the betterment of his defense.” So much of being a safety is not just taking advantages of the mistakes that come your way, but also denying the opposing team a semblance of opportunity on a consistent basis.

McCourty has great ball skills and he’s great in coverage, but there’s a reason why the Patriots were the only team in the NFL not to allow a 30+ yard touchdown pass in the regular season. McCourty forgoes some of the interception opportunities in favor of ensuring the opposing team never hits a home run of their own.

2. The 2016 Patriots were the first team to not allow a touchdown pass of 30+ yards in the regular season since the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles. That Eagles team lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX.

The 2003 Patriots, the 1998 Kansas City Chiefs, and the 1997 Green Bay Packers are the only other teams to achieve this feat over the past 20 seasons. It’s telling that there haven’t been many teams to do so in recent years- and definitely not since Bill Polian asked for greater focus on defensive pass interference to help out Peyton Manning.

3. There are very few players that leave the Patriots and go on to be successful for an extended period of time. There are K Adam Vinatieri and CB Darius Butler, both with the Colts. RB Danny Woodhead has created a nice career for himself. EDGE Chandler Jones and LB Jamie Collins are doing fine with their new teams and extensions.

But one player that left the Patriots that I think New England would think twice about letting walk is Chicago Bears DT Akiem Hicks. Hicks has no regrets about leaving, though, per the Chicago Sun-Times.

‘‘Not in the slightest,’’ Hicks said about having regrets leaving New England for Chicago. ‘‘Because one of the reasons I came here was . . . a chance to rebuild. I had a chance to be a part of something growing. Being a prominent player [on the Patriots], I enjoyed that aspect of it. I think it’s going to benefit me going forward.’’

Hicks also shared his feelings on watching his former teammates celebrating their season.

‘‘I was happy for them,’’ Hicks said of the Patriots. ‘‘You want to be in that position, but you can never be mad at someone else’s success. They were on Instagram at their [championship] ring party. It makes you envious; it makes you want it more. Seeing any team succeed at the highest level should motivate you if you’re a competitor.”

Hicks has a lot of work to do if the Bears are going to become a contender and it looks like some additional turmoil might be on the way if they don’t win games. A coaching change and a rookie quarterback is the perfect recipe for a struggling team to stay in the dumps. We’ll see if Hicks sticks around to see a Chicago rebuild.

4. Hicks left the Patriots after the 2015 season for a 2-year, $10 million contract and he’s likely to cash in for a big new contract after the 2017 season.

The 27-year-old Hicks is one of those rare talents that can both stop the run and rush the quarterback with great consistency. The Patriots opted to pay 32-year-old DT Alan Branch $2.4 million in 2016 for a similar level of play as Hicks, but there’s a definite age versus contract give-and-take here.

The Patriots ended up giving Branch a 2-year, $8.5 million deal this offseason, including $4.8 million in cash for 2017 with a team option for that second season. Would New England have been better off just keeping the younger Hicks on a multi-year deal?

The Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl LI shrugs its shoulders at the question and I wonder if retaining Hicks could have ever been a possibility. Pulpiteers thoughts Hicks should only get a contract in the $3-4 million per year range at the time and Hicks always leaned towards Chicago because that’s where his family is from.

But if the two sides could have come to an agreement, I think Hicks could have become a cornerstone player of this Patriots defense.

5. I’m super intrigued by the Patriots willingness to hand out money to both TE Rob Gronkowski and SS Patrick Chung without getting anything in return. It’s a great show of faith to those two players that have been integral to the team’s success and should make them feel like valued members of the team.

But what about CB Malcolm Butler? The Patriots have given Gronkowski and Chung a chance to make an extra $6.3 million in 2017. There’s a very real scenario where that $6.3 million could be added to whatever the Patriots previously offered Butler and that Butler would agree to that deal, right?

I’m not saying that the Patriots should have given that money to Butler, but if the team is willing to spend that money, why not try and lock down an All Pro cornerback and create the best secondary in the NFL for the next four seasons?

The fact that the Patriots didn’t give that money to Butler leads me to believe that they are in no rush to open up the checkbook for their cornerback and are possibly already of the mindset that Butler won’t return in 2018.