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Offseason preview: Patriots’ aging safety group still got the job done in 2019, but will 2020 be more of the same?

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Related: Offseason preview: Patriots’ cornerback group projects to be among NFL’s best yet again in 2020

New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with two teams left standing, the New England Patriots will have to set their sights on the season to come: after being eliminated from the postseason on wild card weekend, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the AFC East champions have a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins on March 18.

With that being said, let’s break down where the team stands at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue with the safety position where the Patriots have eight players currently (still) under contract.

Terrence Brooks

Position: Strong safety

Age: 27

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Brooks has a salary cap hit of $1.8 million in 2020.

2019 review: When the Patriots signed Brooks in free agency, the expectation was that he would be used primarily on special teams. However, the ex-Jet also was able to carve out a role on defense and appeared in 16 of the New England’s 17 games during the 2019 season as the fourth safety on the depth chart. Brooks generally looked good for a rotational depth player.

2020 preview: Given his age, value and comparatively moderate salary cap hit, Brooks returning to the Patriots in 2020 seems like a safe bet — especially with Devin McCourty a free agent, and Patrick Chung having missed playing time due to injury in back-to-back seasons.

Patrick Chung

Position: Strong safety

Age: 32

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Chung has a salary cap hit of $5.93 million in 2020.

2019 review: After breaking his forearm in Super Bowl 53 and also undergoing shoulder surgery, Chung was back on the field in 2019 and went on to fill his usual role in the Patriots’ defense: he served as the team’s number one strong safety and as such saw considerable action against opposing tight ends. While he did add rib and heel injuries along the way, he still appeared in 14 of New England’s games and was a core member of the league’s best secondary.

2020 preview: Considering that he will turn 33 in August and has dealt with numerous injuries the last two seasons, the end might be in sight for Chung. While he has not made any references to potentially retiring, the Patriots still have to think about adding a potential heir — one that might be brought aboard this offseason either through free agency or more likely the draft to serve behind the veteran defender in 2020.

Nate Ebner

Position: Strong safety

Age: 31

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 18.

2019 review: Only two of his teammates saw more snaps in the kicking game than Ebner’s 342 last season, and the veteran played an important role in helping the Patriots field one of the NFL’s best special teams units. All in all, Ebner appeared in 15 games and registered eight tackles — second most on the team behind only Matthew Slater — as well as a blocked punt. It was another good year for him.

2020 preview: While Ebner did again not see any playing time on defense, he projects to be a popular player on the open market due to his experience and proven productivity in the NFL. A return to the Patriots is certainly possible, however, given the team’s willingness to invest in the kicking game and the 31-year-old’s role over the last few years. That being said, New England has plenty of options in case the asking price is getting out of hand.

Malik Gant

Position: Strong safety

Age: 22

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Gant has a salary cap hit of $513,333 in 2020.

2019 review: Gant had his moments in spring, but the undrafted rookie saw his season come to an end in the preseason finale: he had to be carted off the field and was later placed on injured reserve.

2020 preview: Despite the top of the safety depth chart getting up there in age, Gant is not guaranteed a spot on the roster in 2020. After all, the second-year man will have to get more consistent compared to his performances during his first few NFL exhibition games. If he does that, however, he could carve out a role as New England’s fifth player at the position.

Duron Harmon

Position: Free safety

Age: 28

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Harmon has a salary cap hit of $5.5 million in 2020.

2019 review: Serving as the third safety behind Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, Harmon saw considerable playing time and finished the year with 17 in-game appearances and a playing-time share of 65.6% (702 of 1,070) — the seventh highest on the team. New England used the former third-round draft pick in his usual role: he played as a deep centerfielder either alongside McCourty or the lone deep man. As such, Harmon registered three interceptions and did not surrender a touchdown.

2020 preview: Entering a contract year, Harmon’s outlook for 2020 depends on McCourty: if the team captain leaves in free agency, he could see increased action. While not the same athlete as his teammate, Harmon has shown time and again that he is capable of serving as a deep safety in New England’s aggressive man-coverage schemes. If McCourty is re-signed, meanwhile, Harmon’s role is expected to look a lot like it did in 2019.

Devin McCourty

Position: Free safety

Age: 32

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 18.

2019 review: McCourty has played 10 seasons in the NFL, but 2019 might just have been his best one to date: the team captain led all Patriots defenders in playing time — he was on the field for 1,008 of 1,070 defensive snaps (94.2%) — and registered five interceptions while giving up only 10 completions on 27 targets for just 45 yards and a touchdown.

McCourty’s value to New England’s top-ranked scoring defense cannot be underestimated as he serves not just as a chess piece capable of moving all over the formation, but also a leader on and off the field and a key communicator within the secondary. Even though he was neither voted to the Pro Bowl nor the All-Pro team, the 32-year-old certainly belongs on the list of the NFL’s premier safeties.

2020 preview: While he is an unrestricted free agent for the second time since 2015, anything but McCourty returning to the Patriots would be a major surprise: he is too valuable to the team’s defensive operation and the organization as a whole not to be brought back. Money will obviously be a factor in New England re-signing him, but a solution should be expected.

Obi Melifonwu

Position: Strong safety

Age: 25

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Melifonwu has a salary cap hit of $660,000 in 2020.

2019 review: Despite Patrick Chung missing spring workouts, Melifonwu failed to carve out a role as New England’s fourth safety. Instead, he was released just one week into the season and later signed to the practice squad. The former second-round draft pick, who originally joined the Patriots in 2018, spent nine weeks on the developmental team before being placed on injured reserve.

2020 preview: Even though his 2019 season ended in disappointing fashion, Melifonwu was signed to a reserve/futures contract by the Patriots after their playoff exit. The 25-year-old will therefore get another chance to carve out a role as a strong safety/linebacker hybrid this offseason.

Adarius Pickett

Position: Strong safety

Age: 23

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Pickett has a salary cap hit of $510,000 in 2020.

2019 review: After going undrafted, Pickett began his NFL career with the Chicago Bears and later the Los Angeles Chargers. In mid-December, he eventually found his way to New England’s practice squad where he spent the remainder of the season.

2020 preview: The Patriots signed Pickett to a reserve/futures contract after their season came to an end, giving him a chance to spend a full offseason with the team and maybe carve out a role on the 53-man roster in 2020.