When Devin McCourty signed his five-year, $47.5 million contract in March of 2015 his value to the Patriots, and his standing among players at his position, was put into perspective.
At the time, the total dollars that McCourty received made him the highest paid safety in the NFL, and he still ranks fifth at the position in total contract value.
Since re-signing with the Pats, McCourty has two interceptions and 15 pass breakups in two-plus seasons. Not exactly the ball production you’d expect from a player making that kind of money.
However, although McCourty isn’t a ball-hawking safety like Ed Reed, his value to the Patriots, and his play overall, is well worth his contract.
If you don’t want to take my word for it how about the good folks at Pro Football Focus?
McCourty received a 90.5 grade (out of 100) from PFF in 2016, and although his grade has dropped this season so far to 81.4, we are only working with a two-game sample size.
McCourty is an extremely versatile safety, which stems from his early years as a cornerback both in college and the NFL, and is one of the best tacklers in the secondary in the NFL.
Due to his experience as a corner, the Patriots are able to use McCourty however they see fit. He can cover just about anyone one on one, play closer to the line of scrimmage, and as a deep safety typically in cover-1 and cover-2 looks.
Below, I will illustrate the many ways in which McCourty has made impact plays in the Patriots’ first two games of 2017.
Against the Run
As stated earlier, McCourty is one of the best tacklers from the safety position in the NFL, and that directly translates to defending the run.
It’s not just McCourty’s skill as a tackler, but also his willingness to attack ball carriers in all areas of the field.
Here’s a great example of McCourty’s willingness to provide run support from his deep safety position. You can’t even see McCourty on the screen at the snap, but he sees the hole opening up, and comes down hard to make the tackle. The willingness to put his nose in there, and make the tackle explains perfectly the type of player he is.
Look away Patriots fans. I know we don’t want to relive this back-breaking run by Kareem Hunt that clinched the win for the Chiefs in Week 1, but it’s hard not to love McCourty’s effort on this play. Hunt is gone. He’s behind the Pats’ defense, and off to the races. Not so fast. McCourty goes into an all-out sprint to catch Hunt before he even hits the red zone. That’s great effort to go along with the speed to catch him from behind.
You could make a strong argument for this being the best tackle of the young season for the Pats. That’s Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs’ Pro Bowl speedster, and one of the fastest players in the NFL. McCourty, is the last line of defense. He eludes the block attempt, and makes a tremendous tackle on the play to up-end Hill. If McCourty doesn’t make that tackle Hill might still be running.
I saved the best for last. McCourty is fast. Really fast. And he’s able to use that speed in many different ways. On this play, check out where McCourty starts at the snap (far hash mark) relative to where he ends up to make the tackle. He out runs the entire Patriots defense to the ball, despite being one of the furthest players away from the play originally. That kind of effort, both on the run, and the tackle itself, has a trickle down effect on the rest of the team.
The two-time Super Bowl champion also makes his presence felt in coverage.
McCourty is an extremely unique safety because of his versatility, and the Patriots use him on a game-plan basis however they best see fit.
Against the Chiefs, the Patriots had McCourty matchup in man coverage against the second-best tight end in the NFL, Travis Kelce. As you’d expect, Kelce got the better of McCourty a few times, but it was a pretty even fight as both players made plays. Here, McCourty has Kelce on an island, and the talented tight end runs an out and up down the sideline. Alex Smith goes after the matchup, and McCourty is up to the task, knocking the pass away for a huge stop on second down.
McCourty also displays great awareness in coverage to make tackles on players that aren’t his primary responsibility. That’s Kelce again, one of the most dynamic players in the NFL in the open field, and McCourty buries him with a huge hit. Just a tremendous tackler in open space.
Let’s get to some plays where McCourty is playing a more traditional safety position in coverage. This is a cover-1 robber concept that produces a pass breakup for McCourty. A few things here. First, his recognition to see the receiver running freely over the middle. Then, the closing speed to arrive at the same time as the ball to prevent the reception. That’s safety play at its finest right there.
Now it’s time to see McCourty playing as the deep safety, in this case in cover-1. This doesn’t look like much, as an accurate throw by Brees has a good chance of making this a completion, but McCourty also slows down once he realizes that the pass is over the receivers head. It’s impossible to evaluate safety play from the broadcast angle for this exact reason. You’d never see McCourty preventing the big play from happening watching on your couch at home. Kamara has a step on Chung, and if McCourty is a few seconds late to recognizing the play it could have gone for a touchdown. Not the best example we’ve seen of McCourty playing centerfield over the years, but you get the idea.
We’ll end it here. We see plays like this all the time around the NFL these days where teams try to sneak a tight end or a fullback out of the backside of a play action fake. There’s a ton of green for Saints tight end Josh Hill to run into, but both Patrick Chung and McCourty show off their closing speed, and tackling ability. Hill isn’t a super athletic tight end, but you see plays like this go for big gains or touchdowns a lot of the time because players don’t read them properly until its too late.
McCourty, Chung, and we can throw Duron Harmon into the mix as well, are fun to watch as a safety group.
Speed, instincts, tackling ability. They have it all.
As you can see, Devin McCourty has given us a little bit of everything in the first two games of the season.
The Tyreek Hill touchdown in Week 1, where McCourty didn’t cover his half of the field, wasn’t one of his finer moments, but other than that he has been terrific.
Last season, Patrick Chung was by far the team’s best tackler, but McCourty is quickly making that into a competition this season.
He doesn’t just have the athleticism to cover a lot of ground, but his technique as a tackler is also tremendous.
Often times we think of team captains as vocal leaders in the locker room that give big speeches to fire up the team, but that’s not McCourty’s style.
He’s been a team captain since the 2014 season because his effort on the field perfectly embodies the Patriot way. He’s always playing at full speed and is willing to do everything the team asks of him.
Those kind of contributions cannot be seen simply by looking at the box score after the game, but rather by understanding the importance of the different roles that the Patriots ask McCourty to fill in the secondary.