Slowly but steadily the New England Patriots have entered the free agency frenzy. So far today, the club made three moves: the team brought special teams ace Brandon Bolden back after a one-year stint with the Miami Dolphins, while also re-signing their own free agents John Simon and Jason McCourty. While neither of the latter pair of transactions may jump off the page, they help bring some continuity to New England’s defense.
Retaining Simon helps the Patriots fill the void created by the departure of standout defensive edge Trey Flowers, while McCourty and the club agreeing to a two-year contract ensures that one of the NFL’s best secondaries — arguably the best — stays intact for another year. With the defensive line undergoing a transformation with Flowers joining the Detroit Lions, the importance of this cannot be underestimated.
The secondary was already the backbone of the Patriots’ defense last year, a unit that featured talent and depth, and an intriguing mix of experience and youth. While it had its ups and downs early on during the regular season, it ultimately grew together to become as tough a group to throw the football against as any in pro football. A look at the numbers (via the Athletic’s Jeff Howe) shows just how well the unit performed:
Patriots 2018 secondary statistics
The Patriots keeping the unit intact with the re-signing of McCourty cannot be underestimated when it comes to a) stability in light of recent defensive coaching changes, b) overall communication in the defensive backfield, and c) quality and depth. And even though the veteran was the statistically “worst” cornerback on New England’s roster last year in terms of passer rating, his impact on the group was a highly positive one.
New England traded a sixth-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns to acquire McCourty and a seventh-round selection, effectively securing a starting defender for a drop of just 14 draft spots. The trade paid big-time dividends for both the player, who went from 0-16 to Super Bowl champion in just one year, and the club: the Patriots got a starting-caliber player almost for free, one who was elevated to the number two cornerback spot after Eric Rowe was lost to injury in week two.
McCourty never looked back and proved himself a reliable presence in New England’s secondary. Never was that more apparent as in Super Bowl 53, when he made one of the game’s biggest plays on a pass breakup in the end zone:
Him knocking the football out of Brandin Cooks’ hands at the last second was of course just one play the veteran cornerback made during his first campaign in New England, and should not be seen as an indicator of what is to come in 2019 and 2020. That being said, McCourty appeared to grew into his role with every single game — and that should body well for the famed second-year jump he could very well make in the Patriots’ system.
The same, of course, holds true for other members of New England’s secondary. Undrafted pickup J.C. Jackson was outstanding at times in 2018 and looks not just poised to become the next Malcolm Butler, he actually had a better statistical rookie campaign than the Pro Bowler. Keion Crossen, meanwhile, saw most of his playing time on special teams but still was trusted as a rotational depth cornerback every now and then.
And then there is Duke Dawson, who basically redshirted last year after a stint on injured reserve. As a second-round pick, however, he undoubtably brings upside to the table as a rotational option at cornerback and possibly safety — something that also can be said about restricted free agent re-signing Jonathan Jones, who performed admirably during the AFC title game and Super Bowl despite seeing irregular defensive snaps up until that point.
Combined with the fact that all of the Patriots’ veterans will be back next season, the future for New England’s secondary still looks bright. The re-signing of Jason McCourty is a substantial reason for that.