The New England Patriots’ 2019 season came to a premature end when the team was eliminated in the wild card round of the playoffs. In order to return to the top of the NFL mountain, the organization will therefore have to turn the page and build a competitive roster to get back into a position again to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. A big part of building that roster is successfully maneuvering through free agency.
If judged by the list of free agents to be, New England’s front office will be busy over the next few days before the new league year and free agency are officially kicked off on March 18. Also over the next few days, we will take a look at each individual position on the Patriots’ current roster to find out which players are headed for the open market, whether or not they should be expected back, and who might be brought in from the outside.
Today, the series continues with the safety position.
Current position group
Under contract: Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Terrence Brooks, Obi Melifonwu, Malik Gant, Adarius Pickett
Free agents: Devin McCourty (UFA), Nate Ebner (UFA)
Free agency profile: Devin McCourty
Opening day age: 33
2019 salary cap hit: $13.44 million
2019 statistics: 17 games; 27 passing targets, 10 receptions, 45 yards, 1 touchdown, 5 interceptions; 3 quarterback pressures (2 hits, 1 hurry); 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery; 61 tackles (7 missed tackles)
Experience: McCourty entered the NFL as a first-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2010 and quickly made his presence felt by earning a starting spot in the team’s secondary as a rookie. Despite some early success, however, the Rutgers product was moved to free safety just two years later. McCourty flourished in his new role due to his football IQ and athletic skillset, and became a centerpiece of three Patriots Super Bowl teams as well as one of the best free safeties in all of football.
Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 18.
McCourty’s value to New England’s 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 in 2019 despite playing arguably the best football of his career, the 32-year-old certainly belongs on the list of the NFL’s elite safeties.
While he is an unrestricted free agent for the second time since 2015, anything but McCourty returning to the Patriots would therefore be a major surprise: he is too valuable to the team’s defensive operation and the organization as a whole not to eventually be brought back. Money will obviously be a factor when it comes to New England re-signing him, but both sides should be able to find a solution to satisfy both parties.
Free agency profile: Nate Ebner
Opening day age: 31
2019 salary cap hit: $2.79 million
2019 statistics: 15 games; 8 special teams tackles; 1 blocked punt
Experience: The former Ohio State walk-on joined the league in 2012 as a sixth-round draft pick. While Ebner’s impact on defense remained limited throughout his career since, he made a living as a special teamer in New England: Ebner plays on all four kick coverage units and also serves as the team’s personal punt protector. As such, he helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls and consistently field some of the best special teams units in the league.
Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 18.
While Ebner did again not see any playing time on defense in 2019, he projects to be a popular player on the open market due to his experience and proven productivity in the NFL in combination with a championship pedigree. 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 prominent role over the last few years. That being said, New England would have in-house options in case the asking price is starting to get out of hand and the team would be forced to replace the veteran.
Outside free agents
Tre Boston, Carolina Panthers (UFA): Returning to the team with which he started his career six years ago, Boston had another strong season in 2019: he finished with three interceptions and looked good as the team’s starting free safety. A rangy player that has good experience and vision, the 27-year-old is one of the better defensive backs available in free agency this year.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Chicago Bears (UFA): The former first-round draft pick failed to find a consistent home since leaving Green Bay in 2018, but he is still an intriguing free safety option. Clinton-Dix is a good athlete, after all, and capable of serving as the last line of defense in the deep portions of the field.
Karl Joseph, Las Vegas Raiders (UFA): While Joseph has just four interceptions in 50 career games, and is not known for making the big play, he is still a fundamentally sound safety and solid run defender. Despite that and his potential as a former first-round selection, the 26-year-old will likely not command top dollar on the open market. In turn, the Patriots might give him a look.
Adrian Phillips, Los Angeles Chargers (UFA): Los Angeles used Phillips primarily as a nickel/dime linebacker, but he was essentially a starter in the team’s defense. While he missed most of 2019 due to a broken forearm, his presence was felt whenever he was on the field due to his physical play as a strong safety/linebacker hybrid.
Damarious Randall, Cleveland Browns (UFA): Another former first-rounder that failed to live up to his draft status in both Green Bay and Cleveland, Randall is a good tackler and run defender but not necessarily an impact player in the passing game. That being said, his athletic profile could make him a potential reclamation project for New England.
Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers (UFA): Ward is one of the most versatile defensive backs in the NFL, and capable of lining up at both safety positions as well as at slot and perimeter cornerback. As a result, and given that he is coming off the best season of his career as a starter on one of the best defenses in football, he will likely be a popular player in free agency.
Tavon Wilson, Detroit Lions (UFA): Wilson is a familiar face in New England, given that the team selected him in the second round back in 2012. While his Patriots tenure was a disappointment and he never emerged past depth defender status with the team, the 29-year-old looked good in Detroit last season as the team’s starting strong safety and a leader in the secondary.
New England’s approach at the safety position has to start with Devin McCourty: the team captain is too valuable to the team’s defensive operation to be let go in free agency without a proper replacement available. Considering that suitable free agency options appear to be scarce — at least at a reasonable price — and that even early-round draft investments are no safe bet, the team therefore would be smart to keep its long-time team captain in the fold.
McCourty, of course, will be 33 when the new season gets kicked off, so the Patriots might still try to add some youth behind him and fellow soon-to-be 33-year-old Patrick Chung. While the draft appears to be the best option to do that this year, New England also might look towards the open market while trying not to invest too many resources at the position in case McCourty gets re-signed. Damarious Randall or Karl Joseph therefore appear to be potential targets once free agency kicks off next week.
Realistically, however, the Patriots will try to keep their team captain first and then look to the draft to add young depth behind him and the other key safeties Chung and Duron Harmon.